Eyes filled with tears, Nuha al-Suwaid left her three children and her deceased husband’s family and decided to marry again to start a new life.
Nuha, a 28-year-old from Kafranbel, a small town in northwestern Idlib province, is one of the thousands of women who have lost their husbands to Syria’s ongoing civil war. And like the others, she was left to deal with the hardships of raising her children alone in the face of poverty and strict cultural traditions.
“My husband was arrested at a military checkpoint on October 10, 2013. My life, in his absence, was unbearable. I had no income and his family, as well my own, exerted full control over my life,” said Nuha. “I needed their permission to go out, and they refused to let me look for a job. All I heard was ‘don’t do this and don’t do that.’”
Nuha held on to the hope that her husband would one day return, but he eventually died inside the Syrian government’s Adra prison in Damascus. Nuha was heartbroken. But soon, her heartbreak turned to desperation. She simply could no longer tolerate other people controlling her life. She tried to find a job in order to provide for her children (Alaa, 5, Ula, 3, and 18-month-old Sarah), but that was almost impossible, especially because she had no education and no experience.
After her husband’s death, she and her children lived with her in-laws. Nuha had no place of her own, and, without a job, no way of providing for her family. It was for this reason that she put up with her controlling in-laws.
“I would visit my family sometimes, but I could not move in with them. They are very poor and their place is very small,” said Nuha. “Even though they always tried to make me feel comfortable when visiting, I always knew what kind of burden I would put on them if I moved in.”
Eventually, when a financially comfortable man proposed, Nuha decided to end her grief and get married, even if it was at the expense of her children. “They will grow up and understand. They will have their own families. But for me, I had no other options,” she said, as tears rolled softly down her cheeks.
According to estimates from Kafranbel’s local council, of the 850,000 people living in the Zawiya Mountain district – a string of about 36 towns and villages on a plateau in the Idlib governorate – one-fourth are widowed women. Nuha is one of the eight known cases in which widowed women have decided to remarry.
Nour, a 25-year-old woman from the nearby village of Marrat Hurma, is one of the majority of women who have refused to remarry, choosing to remain alone and attempt to provide for her children despite the hardships.
Nour’s husband, who died when the Syrian air force bombed the village in September 2013, left her with three little girls – Amal, Ahlam and Sabine. Although more than a handful of men have proposed to her, Nour refuses to remarry because she is not willing to put her daughters through the trauma of another marriage – or the possibility that any potential new husband might not accept children fathered by another man.
“It was very hard in the beginning. I had issues with both my family and my in-laws. I had to compromise until a friend of mine found me a job at a women’s center downtown,” she said.
In traditional rural communities such as Nour’s, women are discouraged from working. The 25-year-old mother of three was only able to gain employment after months of struggling with her family and in-laws. She was lucky. Although she never attended high school, Nour found a job that her family agreed on at the registration office in a women’s center. Her family consented because Nour’s interaction would be limited to the women who came to the center to register for class.
“My life has become much better. We live in the house that my husband left for us, and I work and can provide for my daughters,” she said.
Nour’s brother-in-law, however, is still not happy with her decision to work. “We did not support the idea. What would people say about us?” asked 45-year-old Abu Omar. “They would say that we did not take good care of our brother’s family.” Nour’s mother, Sahar, was the only one to support her daughter in her search for employment. “I supported her because I wanted her to be independent. I did not want anyone to control her or her daughters,” she said.
Sumayya al-Ahmad, 33, from the neighboring village of Jbaala, was left to provide for her six children after a random shell fell in their neighborhood and killed her husband.
“I was devastated,” she said. “I had no idea know how I could provide for my kids. I had no education, no experience and my children were too young to work.”
For a while, Sumayya relied on charities, while she registered in a sewing class and learned how to sew. With some help from the center’s manager, Sumayya bought a sewing machine and she started her own small business. “I love my work. It provides for my family, gives me happiness and reinforces my self-esteem,” she said.
Many women in Sumayya’s community encouraged and supported her. “We are very happy for her and we fully support her,” said Umm Abdo, Sumayya’s 40-year-old neighbor. “My daughters, relatives, neighbors and myself – we all come to her to tailor our clothes.
“In times of war,” Umm Abdo argued, “women carry many heavy responsibilities and face many challenges,” adding that she wished all women were as strong as Sumayya.
As the number of widows and orphans continues to rise, Kafranbel’s local council is struggling to cope. “Due to the increase in prices and lack of income, the aid we’re able to provide does not cover people’s needs,” Abu Hussain, a member of the council, said wearily. “Widowed women comprise 25 percent of our population, and more than half of our population are either orphaned children or living in extreme poverty.”
As Syria’s bloody civil war rolls steadily into its fifth year, Hussain and Kafranbel’s local council worry they may not be able to carry on for much longer.
This article was originally published in Arabic by Suwar Magazine. It has been translated, edited and reprinted here with permission alongside the original photos.
Top image: A woman walks through a devastated part of Homs, Syria, on Thursday June 5, 2014. Syrian government forces retook control of Homs in May 2014, after a three-year battle with rebels. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)