Through their work at CARE, our partner organizations, and communities around the world, womanitarians are empowering women everywhere and amplifying their voices in the fight for a world of hope, inclusion, and social justice.
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Sara* is CARE Syria’s Deputy Rapid Response Manager. She coordinates the support to thousands of people deeply affected by the 12-year conflict in Syria, from providing essential food items to assisting gender-based violence survivors. Sara* highlighted some of the compounding challenges faced by women working in the complex scenario of an active conflict zone with restrictive cultural norms. As a Syrian national herself, she also shared what she wishes for the future of all women and girls in the country.
How and why did you get into humanitarian work?
In 2015, I visited for the first time an area affected by the conflict in Syria - Tal Hamis in the Northeast of the country. What I saw was beyond anything I could have expected. I was shocked. Airstrikes had completely devastated the region and people were rebuilding their homes out of mud, with no windows, no doors, no infrastructure. Suffering was unsurmountable.
I realized there and then that individual efforts are not sufficient. As an old Arab proverb puts it “One hand cannot clap on its own”- we need collective efforts to strive for change. This is when I decided to dedicate my life to humanitarian work.
What are the challenges and strengths of being a woman working in the humanitarian sector?
All humanitarians work under circumstances that are very different from most professions. Emergencies do not ‘respect’ a 9 to 5 routine. We must be ready to respond at any time of any day. The context of each response is also constantly changing. We are trained to face the diverse physical and mental health risks that are inevitable to all people exposed to conflict settings, but we are often unaware of what we will find in a given place and time.
Despite these shared difficulties, there are additional challenges for women in this field. Cultural norms in some communities can generate mistrust and even disrespect. We often have to adapt our clothing, behavior, and even our language to be accepted in specific contexts.
Even though this can be frustrating at times, it is incredibly rewarding when we are able to build a rapport over time, bringing along a wave of positive changes. Women humanitarian workers solidify their strength and their leadership by overcoming this challenge. Women in communities we work with feel empowered by the example of women humanitarian workers to increase their independence and fight for their rights. Entire communities benefit from women allowed to study, work and lead.
Do you have any role models in the sector?
Mother Teresa was my first source of inspiration when I became a humanitarian worker. I hugely admired her capacity to have such an extensive impact with so few resources. She will always be a role model but nowadays I draw most of my inspiration from the amazing strength and resilience of women survivors I work with. Their courage in sharing their stories and their determination in continuing despite so many challenges is my daily motivation.
Are there any specific moments in your career that you’re proud of?
Every support we can give, every relationship built, even if it is small, is a source of pride. I love the possibility of helping people in need and receiving help in the form of learning, affection and trust.
There are instances where we don’t even realize the cross-cutting impact this work can have on all people involved. Hussein* lived in an Internally Displaced People camp and was both a program participant and a colleague, supporting us in food distributions. When he moved to another city, we lost contact. A few years later, while working in a different town, I unexpectedly ran into him. He was very happy to see me and shared the news that he had recently welcomed a baby girl into the world, whom he named after me! I was so touched and surprised by such an honor.
However, I should not have been surprised as other people also do not know the deep impact they have had on my life. Amina is one of them. She was displaced by the conflict with her four children. A bomb gave her a disability and took her husband’s life, making her the sole provider for the family. Despite these incredible challenges deepened by the cultural norms that hinder Syrian women to work, she always managed to find daily jobs and used cash assistance to improve her farm. She is restless in building a future for her children. Amina’s strength, resilience, and intelligence in finding solutions still resonate with me today.
What does being a humanitarian worker mean to you?
It means the opportunity to materialize your humanity every moment of every day. Technology has desensitized many people from suffering – seeing it constantly on their TVs, computers and phones has somewhat normalized violence, conflict, and destruction.
As a humanitarian worker, you witness this suffering firsthand. This makes us reconnect with lost empathy and compassion.
Being a humanitarian worker also means growing stronger by what we learn. I see how people find solutions to extremely difficult problems in incredibly hard circumstances with so much intelligence and resilience. This makes me more powerful and independent as well. I am honored to spend my days with the people we support, especially survivors.
Finally, what would you like to see for women and girls in Syria?
Before the war started, 75% of women were educated and experienced a great level of independence. The situation we see now after a decade of conflict is new and devastating. There is a new generation that has lost out on the opportunity to go to school, which boosted rates of illiteracy and lack of economic opportunities.
I want women to regain what they had, what is their right. I want scars to be healed and their rights re-established.
As the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani says, "All things in war can be compensated, the airplanes, the tanks and the jeeps transporting soldiers. It is only the broken soul that can’t be pieced back together, it is only the heart that can’t be patched back up." Us Syrian women and girls have kept our hearts and souls. We can and will reclaim our rights.
*Name changed to protect identity
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