Surrounded by fields of green, Ola, 33, and her family, three daughters and a young son, live in a small top floor apartment in Northern Jordan. After seven years as refugees, fleeing their home in Daraa, Syria, it is only now that Jordan is starting to feel like home. Life has not always been easy, but Ola has been determined to fight for her survival, to show her daughters that they can be everything and anything they want to be. This is her story:
© Lilly Carlisle
When I left Syria, I was pregnant with Yousef. I come from a very conservative family. Back home I was only allowed to go out of the house by myself if there was the ambulance, if I was sick or delivering a baby. My husband works in the Gulf, so I was mainly just by myself, in the house with the children.
But then the conflict came. Everything changed and we had to change with it.
I was the first from my community to leave. My main motivation for coming to Jordan was because my eldest daughter needed medical treatment. A monthly injection that we could no longer get in Syria as imports from Germany stopped due to the conflict.
At first I went to Zaatari camp. It was unheard of that a women would go outside of the village by herself, let alone to another country but I forced myself because I was scared for my daughter.
The camp at that time was very different to how it is now, there were so many people arriving every day, it was chaos. I didn’t want my children to live in that environment so we found this apartment. I liked it because it had the same feel as my village back in Syria. It felt like home.
Straight away we registered with UNHCR. They helped us to get hold of the injection that my daughter needed. It costs 168 dinar for the injection every month. I don’t know what we would have done if we couldn’t have got hold of it.
After a year and a half though, we were no longer eligible to get the injection for free. My husband transfers 300 dinar a month but with the injection and the rent costing another 150 dinar a month, there was no money left. My children needed food, things for their school, I had no choice by to start looking for a job.
I went to a local organisation and told them I could volunteer. I volunteered for them for three years without a salary. But it was good for me, I looked after the distribution of basic household items so my family benefited from this a little and I got the experience I needed to then get another job. I had never worked before. In the area where I come from, women didn’t work.
When I got a job volunteering as a community worker, I was so worried that my family would find out that I was working. When I received my first salary, I went to the phone shop immediately to buy the exact same type of tablet that I was using for work. I loaded the new tablet up with games and gave it to my son so that if someone saw me with the work tablet, they would just think it was the tablet of my son and they wouldn’t find out that I was working.
I wanted, needed to fight for my job for one reason: The 260 JD salary. This is what kept my family alive during this difficult time.
But after a year and a month, my mother in law found out. One day my entire team was at my apartment for a meeting. My supervisor, colleagues, everyone and my mother-in-law walks in. And when she asked who they were, my son shouts that I work with them.
It was difficult to explain to my family after that what was going on. But slowly they understood. They realized the importance about that extra 260 dinar for my daughter’s health.
Now, after seven years in Jordan, I have worked for many community organisations here. I facilitate activities for the refugee community, especially for women, to help them feel more confident, to break down barriers.
I broke all the rules that women were supposed to adhere to in my community. I led the change and now women, my family and friends, are even asking me to help them find work to support their family.
But I want to do more.
Our traditions have been forced to change since we became refugees. We’ve had to adapt. Not only with women working but also in terms of early marriage. I was engaged at 15. I got married at 17 and that was considered late. But now my daughters aged 14, 12 and 10 tell me they don’t want to be like me. They see me working and they tell me if I had a better education then I would be able to get a better position. They see the value of education, of not dropping out to get married. They love going to school and have big dreams. In just one generation things have changed dramatically. I’m so pleased about this. It’s too late for me but it’s not too late for them.
Jordan is now our home. I hope maybe one day my husband will come and join us here. With everything that has happened in Syria, it would be hard to go back. I feel like I have progressed so much with my life here, returning would feel too much like a step backwards.
Before we had to choose between education and a family. Now I hope my daughters can have both.
UNHCR and its partner, the Jordanian Hashemite Fund for Human Development (JOHUD) run some 25 Community Support Centers throughout Jordan. These centers, where members of the local refugee community like Ola have a chance to meet and perform different activities with Jordanian volunteers, help fostering an environment of peaceful coexistence and social cohesion.
*Names changed at individual request