Americans are often introduced to women in conflict through two media tropes. They are shown as victimized and under siege, damsels beyond distress waiting to be rescued. Or women are fetishized in ubiquitous slide shows of rebel fighters in the Colombian jungle and Kurdish fighters in Syria and Iraq as gun-wielding warrior princesses. They rock camouflage. They're hot. And they will kick your ass.
But while reporting on the Middle East for the past five years, especially witnessing the Syrian refugee crisis, I've met countless women outside those manufactured optics. They are on the frontlines of a long, untelevised war, in which the warriors are unsung, the bad guy is often amorphous, and solutions are merely the best of several bad options. There usually aren't guns. And rarely are there cinematic rescues. Often there are only quiet moments of protracted struggle, of intermittent hope, that when strung together form a life.
Syrian refugee women are survivors of a war that has, by some estimates, killed up to 470,000 people, injured 1.88 million, and created the worst humanitarian crisis in modern history. More than half of Syria's population is now displaced. In other words, the combined populations of New York City, Boston, Washington, DC, and Chicago are scattered, unable to go home anytime soon — if ever.
Many have lost not just their homes, but also their husbands and sometimes even their children. Some have now become the heads of their households, their roles drastically changed, defying a cultural norm in which men are the sole breadwinners.
"If this war is ever won, it will be won by women," a widowed 31-year-old woman told me two years ago in Zaatari Refugee Camp, Jordan's mini-city of 80,000 Syrian refugees.
Here are some of their stories.
Wafaa, 36 Istanbul, Turkey
Wafaa can no longer eat oranges. The last time she peeled one was four years ago. Before she could bring it to her mouth, her apartment quaked with a boom. Then came the scream of her 16-year-old son.
Since then, orange is the taste of her whole world falling apart.
On a warm Syrian spring afternoon four years ago, Wafaa's son was killed by shrapnel while playing soccer on their tree-lined street. Gone, too, were many of his classmates — part of a lost generation, wiped out in seconds.
When you lose a child, Wafaa explains, you lose your vision. You crawl through a nightmare of a fun house, lined with disfiguring mirrors and trap doors. At the time, Wafaa was three months pregnant with her fourth child. She says that was the only reason she didn't lie on top of her son's body, begging for her own life to be taken.
They should have left sooner. It's the first thought she still wrestles with every single morning. Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, her city, Douma, was a hub for anti-government protest and resistance. Just a chant against Bashar al-Assad's brutal dictatorship could cost you everything. The week before her son was killed, her husband was arrested. One of Douma's most renowned butchers, he was picked up at a checkpoint on his way home from work. His fate remains unknown.
"In just one week, I lost so much," Wafaa says. Her daughter was to get married that week, but they canceled the ceremony. What was there to celebrate? It would be a long time before she could come up with an answer.
Her son Adam is now four years old. He often throws temper tantrums in their small Istanbul apartment. They fled to there last year after paying a smuggler $3,000 to get them through checkpoints and on to Turkey, which now hosts two million Syrian refugees. When you ask Adam where his father is or where he's from, he shrugs. He often pees his pants and punches the air uncontrollably; Wafaa suspects he has post-traumatic stress disorder, but she can't afford a proper diagnosis or treatment.