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Poverty Pushing War Widows Toward Foreign Fighters

Driven from their homes by fighting, often with children to care for and with no husband to provide protection, women bereaved by the civil war have severely limited choices in seeking security – especially when local tradition means that many Syrian men are opposed to marrying widows.

Written by Saleem al-Omar Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

LATAKIA, Syria – Financial difficulties are driving Syrian women into the arms of foreign fighters in northern Syria, according to local residents and officials of the Islamic courts.

Residents in camps set up for internally displaced residents in rural Idlib and Latakia told Syria Deeply that women whose husbands have died fighting in the civil war are marrying foreign fighters because they have few other options of finding financial security. “Widowed women, including my own wife, agree to marry us foreign fighters, because their prospects are not great – Syrian men do not like to marry widowed women,” said Abu Abdulrahman al-Belgique, a foreign fighter with the Turkistan Islamic Party.

The 45-year-old Belgian of Moroccan decent said he married a 24-year-old Syrian mother of three, and that many of his fellow foreign fighters have also married local widowed women.

According to a report published last month by the Soufan Group, there are at least 27,000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, a number that has more than doubled since last year.

And as waves of foreign fighters continue to join the civil war in Syria, the number of displaced Syrian women – particularly those who have lost husbands in the fighting – is on the rise as well.

Hundreds of thousands of people in northern Syria have been forced to flee their homes over the past few years due to increased fighting and aerial bombardments. In October of this month alone, more than 120,000 people were displaced in Syria’s Aleppo, Idlib and Hama provinces – the center of a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive to retake lost ground.

According to figures provided by the U.N.’s refugee agency, there are more than 7.5 million internally displaced refugees across Syria, most of whom are living in informal camps with few or no services.

When her husband was killed in battle in 2013, Abeer, a 38-year-old mother of four, left her village of Dourin in rural Latakia and settled in an informal camp next to the Syrian-Turkish border. Their financial situation was dire, and according to her she was left with no other option but to marry her 16-year-old daughter to a relative stranger.

“If her father was still alive, he would have not agreed to marry her at that age,” she said, “but our life is too hard, and I had no other choice. I know she was too young to be married, but I am still grateful that at least I could marry her to a Syrian man,” she said.

Abeer herself, however, does not mind marrying a foreign fighter. Her harsh circumstances have pushed her, she said, to accept anyone who will provide for her and her children.

Malak, a 23-year-old from Idlib, fled her village two years ago, moving to the outskirts of the Atma camp in the countryside where she married a Saudi man who fights for Jabhat al-Nusra. Their marriage, however, did not last long.

“I got pregnant almost as soon as I married him. We lived together for four months before he disappeared. Three months later, I was shocked when he finally called and told me that he had divorced me,” said Malak in recent phone call. She said she wanted all Syrian women to hear her story and to learn from her experience.

“That was the only thing he said to me. Now I am devastated. My little boy, Khaled, does not know who his father is,” she said. “But what devastates me the most is that I’ve become stigmatized – men here in the camp think of me as a bad woman. They want to sleep with me, but now they would never consider me as a wife.”

The Islamic Court in Idlib confirmed that Malak had submitted a complaint against her ex-husband, but the court refused to provide any other details, including his name, claiming that they could not release any details of an ongoing case.

Abu Muhammad Shafiq, a 40-year-old judge at a rural Latakia Islamic court said there were only 15 registered cases of Syrian women who have married foreign fighters, but that most marriages to foreign fighters are never registered.

“Most of the foreign fighters in Syria refuse to register their marriages with the Islamic courts. The 15 cases that we have registered in our records, most of which involved women under 20 years old, were registered after the girls’ families pushed really hard and refused to provide consent unless the marriages were registered in the Islamic Court,” he said.

“Poverty and poor living conditions force families to marry their girls to these fighters, especially because they usually provide high dowries for the girls,” he added.

Amal, 22, lives in Ubin Camp in rural Latakia. She was married to an Algerian fighter who died in February of this year, only a few months after they married.

Her husband, she said, was a man of integrity, a generous man. The last thing she expected, she said, was to fall for him.

Now on her own in the camp, she said she prefers to stay in the section set aside for widows, where foreign fighters often come to look for women to marry.

“Syrian men are everywhere in the camp, but they don’t like the fact that I was married before. Also, most of them are unemployed. Foreign fighters do not pay attention to that. They are good men with good income and I need a man who loves me, protects me and provides for me,” she said.

Top image: A Syrian refugee woman cooks tomato marmalade on a fire outside her tent at an informal tented settlement near the Syrian border on the outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

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