A drawing of one woman's escape story from Syria.
A drawing of one woman's escape story from Syria.

HALBA, Lebanon (WOMENSENEWS)–The morning came that a loudspeaker blared the message that Amina both feared and anticipated, the words running with the urgency of war drums through the slender streets of her Syrian village: They are coming. The soldiers of the regime are coming. Take your families and flee.

The husband of Amina–who asked that her full name not be used for security reasons–had already escaped to Lebanon to save his life, leaving her alone with six children, including a baby only days old and a disabled daughter, Taghrid. For all intents and purposes, Amina didn’t know what a wheelchair was; family members carried Taghrid everywhere.

She didn’t know how she alone could lead her four young children and carry both Taghrid and her newborn all the way into the mountains, especially so soon after the C-section.

"I watched other mothers walking with their children, and I started to hit myself, urging myself to think harder," she said. "How am I going to escape with all these children? How am I going to save their lives?"

Then she made a form of Sophie’s choice. She pulled the infant to her chest, and instructed her other four children to follow her closely. Leaving Taghrid inside lying on the floor, she locked the door of her home. Better to save those who could be saved.

She turned. She told herself it made sense; it was for the best. She began to walk away.

"But my heart couldn’t bear to leave her there," she said, her eyes heavy with shame even now. So she returned, scooped up Taghrid, and carried her outside to the lawn where, in better times, she drank coffee with her husband as their children played. She sank to her knees.

"Don’t worry, Mama," said the older of her kids as they crowded around. "The soldiers won’t hurt us. We will gather rocks to throw at them."

Numbers Tell Part of Story

How best to explain what Syrians have faced over the last four years?

Numbers tell part of it: More than 191,000 people have been killed since the outbreak of the civil war in March 2011, a third of them civilians, according to the United Nations’ human rights office. An estimated 9 million have fled their homes.

Photographs offer frozen moments that hint at a larger story, such as those showing the wrapped bodies of Syrians killed in the Damascus suburbs in August 2013 by the nerve gas sarin.

But researchers say recall and storytelling work on the brain in unique ways.

As one person recounts a memory to another, functional magnetic resonance imaging scans show the same parts of the brain light up in both the storyteller and the listener. Parts that are not simply related to language processing. Parts, the scientists say, that would be activated if both were experiencing the events in present time.

Over recent days in northern Lebanon, I worked with Concern Worldwide’s Taline Khansa and a Lebanese illustrator, Hanane Kai, to capture the lives of Syrian female refugees being supported through Concern’s work.

We hoped to move beyond "el azmeh,"–"the crisis," as they refer to the fighting that sent them from their homelands–to a more complete understanding of their memories, and of memory itself. For many of these women and their families, becoming dependent has been tortuous. They used to be self-reliant; they wanted visitors to know that, and we wanted to find a way to embrace the fullness of their lives.

Hanane Kai
Illustrator Hanane Kai helps capture Syrian refugees' stories.

‘Waiting to Tell My Story’

Many of Amina’s memories were difficult, but she shared them as if they were slices of warm bread, staring deeply into my eyes as she spoke, and then offered her thanks. "For so long I’ve wanted someone to come," she said. "I’ve been waiting to tell my story."

Amina and her children were spared that night in Syria. The next morning, her brother came and helped them escape the village. They arrived in Lebanon on Oct. 20, 2011.

Today, she and her family are among the 13,500 Syrian refugee families living in Concern-supported housing in northern Lebanon, provided in partnership with the U.N.’s refugee agency, UNHCR.

In all, some 1.1 million Syrian refugees are currently living in Lebanon, making up one-quarter of the resident population. Amina and her family are grateful for the help, but still $4,000 in debt, with no idea of how to raise that money. She nevertheless tries to steep her children in self-respect. "Sometimes Lebanese children hit my children and call them ‘you Syrians’ as if it’s a dirty word," she said. "I teach them to be proud."

Concern works in Lebanon with Syrian women and their families to provide shelter, safe water, education for children and protection services for all, but also to support their voices.

"Concern will continue to amplify the voices of these women," says Concern Country Director Elke Leidel, "to make their stories heard, and to prevent the Syrian crisis from being forgotten."

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