Standing with Syrian Women and Girls

Last year on the anniversary of the Syrian Civil War, I wrote about the disappearing girls in Syria.

A year later, the whereabouts of many women and girls are still unknown. There are an estimated 3,000 missing Yazidi and likely as many missing Christian women and girls. We don’t know exactly how many women and girls are missing because their disappearance isn’t always reported. This can be due to fear, stigma around trafficking, and forced marriages.

Girls and women have been abducted by various forces throughout Syria, but sexual slavery and forced marriage are a key part of ISIS ideology.

In December 2014, ISIS publicly released guidelines – even putting them in a pamphlet for mass distribution – on keeping slaves. In 2015, they followed up with more detailed guidelines on when and how they could sexually assault and rape enslaved women.

That same year, they systematically attacked Assyrian villages, capturing Christian women and girls as young as nine. Women from Bangladesh and other countries have also been trafficked into Syria. In 2016, the group trafficked thousands of Yazidi women and girls from Iraq to Syria.

Women and girls in Syria, like women and girls in all conflicts, suffer disproportionately. Meanwhile, the world largely ignores them.

This week, Nadia Murad wrote an article: Prioritizing ISIS over Survivors. She asked why the global community spends so little “on the survivors, on healing their wounds and communities, on freeing them to live again?”

But women have mobilized themselves. Many fought to escape ISIS, some losing their lives in their battle. Survivors tell stories of enslaved women supporting each other to find subversive forms of resistance.

Women created spaces and even villages, like Jinwar, for women and children only to ensure their freedom and protection. One third of Kurdish combatants are women who engaged in direct battle with ISIS and are responsible for liberating ISIS-held areas of Syria like Raqqa. If one positive thing emerges from this this relentless and brutal war, it is women liberating women.

As the last ISIS stronghold breaks down, ISIS fighters are being forced to release hundreds of enslaved women and girls. Yet many will never be free.

As I know from working in conflicts, when a power is defeated the people who practice its ideology don’t go away. They simply go underground.

As ISIS loses political control, men with enslaved women and girls can keep them by false claims of marriage, including “short contract marriages.” These “marriages” are a type of trafficking, where girls and women endure systematic rape by one temporary “husband” after another.

Still, sometimes what is happening in Syria bleeds into our own communities. A Google search of “Syrian girls for sale” shows that the distance between injustice in Syria and in our communities may not be that far after all.

It hurts to feel that we can do very little to stop the widespread sexual violence in Syria and support released survivors. Yet disconnection and powerlessness are illusions. We can have an impact on human trafficking in our corner of the world, and the shared struggle, shared purpose and shared values link us with women and girls a world away.

Here are a few ways that we can all fight against human trafficking:   

– Learn the signs of human trafficking, and know local reporting protocols.

– Volunteer and support anti-trafficking organizations in your community.

– Buy products from organizations that employ and support survivors, like my personal favorite survivor-focused enterprise, White Field Farm.

– Let your local and national government know that you care about the freedom, safety and dignity of girls and women. Choosing which pressing social justice issue to fight for can be overwhelming, but speaking out about other issues does not preclude speaking out against trafficking.

– Remember that sex trafficking is one type of trafficking. Others being forced labor, domestic servitude, debt bondage, and use of child soldiers. Learn your slavery footprint, and work to reduce it.

As some Syrian women and girls are being released and as others remain enslaved, we have to be careful not to link this type of mass exploitation with the Syrian war.

Trafficking and sexual abuse and exploitation of women and girls exists everywhere.

To end it globally, we must expose and fight its local forms. In doing so, we are participating in the global struggle for freedom and dignity of women and girls. By standing with survivors right where we are, we stand with them everywhere – including in Syria.

World Refugee Day 2018

The number of people forcibly displaced from their homes worldwide hit a new record in 2017: 68.5 million. It’s the equivalent of 44,400 people each day, and means that the world’s forcibly displaced population is now greater than the total population of the United Kingdom.

Two-thirds of all refugees come from 5 countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar & Somalia. In March, the conflict in Syria entered its eighth year, with no end in sight. Since August last year, hundreds of thousands of people have fled to Bangladesh to escape violence in Myanmar. Millions from South Sudan have sought refuge in neighbouring countries.

Much of our news coverage remains focused on refugee resettlement in developed countries, or rather, on developed countries’ efforts to restrict access, block borders and, most recently, to tear families apart. However, figures show that developing regions host 85% of the world’s refugee population.

At least 1 in 5 refugees or displaced women in complex humanitarian settings have experienced sexual violence. Children make up 52% of refugees worldwide. 9 months on from the Myanmar military crackdown, thousands of Rohingya rape victims are giving birth in Bangladesh’s refugee camps.

The state of our world today will go down in history. Children will study it in classrooms of the future. And yet, as new reports roll in, numbers rise, conflicts persist, disasters strike and crises unfold, it can be difficult just to keep up, never mind to feel hopeful or inspired or useful.

This year, the statistics and stories shared to mark World Refugee Day feel overwhelming to me and the scale of our global crisis feels paralysing. But if nothing else, today is a much-needed reminder to stay informed, and to encourage the people around us to do so too.

This year, World Refugee Day is a reminder that no act is too small and that words have power. It’s a reminder to take breaks from scrolling and shopping and feeling disconnected to give ourselves time to read and listen and do what we can to remain aware. The world needs us to be informed so that we can speak, act and vote in ways that help us move into a future where all people can live in peace and security.

5 Easy Ways to Stay Informed this World Refugee Day:
  1. Read the new UNHCR report on global displacement.
  2. Read articles and look at photographs which highlight the humans behind the numbers.
  3. Read blog posts by women and girls around the world.
  4. Take time to research local organizations supporting refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants in your own neighborhood/country, and find out how you can best support them. It could be by donating money, volunteering your time or simply by helping to spread the word about their work.
  5. Celebrate examples of passionate collective action and remember: we are not powerless.

Where are the Syrian Girls?

I recently watched footage of displaced Syrians returning to their homes. Men fought back tears as women let tears flow. Young boys and girls clustered around their mothers, absorbing the emotions of the moment. Adolescent boys stood beside their fathers, looking for social cues to mimic the adults.

But there were no adolescent girls.

I studied the video intently, enlarging the screen and hitting pause. No matter how long I stared, how many other videos I viewed or how far I stretched my imagination (well, maybe that young woman is really a girl…or maybe that little girl is really a very young adolescent), I was not able to identify one single adolescent girl.

In conflicts, adolescent girls disappear from public spaces. When Syria spiralled into violence – seven years ago today – families began restricting the mobility of their daughters. As rape and abduction emerged as weapons of war, girls stopped walking to the market. Some stopped going to school and others had to stop going because their schools were destroyed.

As parents lost livelihoods and struggled to feed their families, some began to see marriage as a way to reduce costs in their household so that that they would not watch all of their children slowly starve, and so girls as young as 10 were married off to adult men. Short contract marriages, informal temporary marriages in which girls are passed from temporary husband to temporary husband, emerged as a way to rationalize trafficking. In most cases fathers are the ones who sell their daughters to man after man.

Whether in the home of their parents or husbands, girls across Syria are besieged. Girls who escape as refugees tend to be slightly better off because they are more likely to have access to humanitarian services, but new vulnerabilities emerge. A taxi driver in Jordan told my colleague that he wanted to marry a Syrian girl because “they are desperate and easy to train”. He didn’t say if he would seek to arrange the marriage or abduct. I’m not sure which would be more traumatic for me: being given away to a foreign man by my own father or being kidnapped by a stranger.

In 2016 I spent months working on child marriage prevention and response in the Syria crisis. Since that same year, I’ve been working on other projects that touch the myriad of issues facing Syrian girls as well as girls throughout the region.

I am so tired of this. I don’t like living in Jordan. I want to go home.

Instead of becoming desensitized by the conflict, I absorb it. I feel the plight of these girls in my bones. The girls who can’t leave their homes without being harassed and groped by men in plain daylight. Girls who are married to adult men. Girls who are trafficked by a phoney marriage.

I persist because these girls persist, perhaps like no other.

Anne Frank, a besieged girl from yet another war, wrote that “a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.” The world may not know it, but adolescent girls are defining this crisis through their invisibility. We don’t notice their absence because it screams at a frequency beyond our ability to hear. It is more powerful than our ability to comprehend. One day we will understand just how epic this failure of humanity truly is.

And yet there is the defiance – a little spark inside of every girl that exists despite it all. I know what this defiance looks like, I know what it feels like and I know what it sounds like. It is inside of every Syrian girl I have ever seen, and I know it is inside of every girl I haven’t seen too.

It is a light, flickering and flashing inside besieged girls living homes made of rubble or tents, that defies the darkness of seven years of conflict. This flicker and flash is how I know that this war will end. It is how I know that girls will prevail. And it is how I know that, one day, these invisible girls will reemerge from their homes and their marriages and shine brighter than the sun.

To help break the invisibility of Syrian girls, share this posts and other information on adolescent girls so that the world can see them again.

“There Are Millions of Girls Like Me, and We’re Not In School”

An African proverb says if you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a nation. In fact, studies have shown that when an investment is made in the education of girls, not only does it benefit the economy of the country but that education results in women having healthier families and with a much higher likelihood of them prioritizing the education of their children. Women who are given educations have been shown to also improve their communities and to educate the women around them increasing the benefits of that initial investment substantially.

Last month UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, released a report showing that after 4 years of the conflict 3.7 of the 6 million school-aged children under their mandate have no school to go to. This means in addition to all the barriers that exist for young girls such as trauma, family obligations, language, and child marriage that exist in the refugee camp,s many will not even have the option to go to school. The report also found that refugee children are five times more likely to be out of school than the global average. Worse, for those still caught in the conflict in Aleppo, enrollment is as low as 6%.

Prior to the Syrian war, Syria had one of the most revered educational systems with “almost all Syrian children enrolled in primary school and literacy rates at 95% for 15-24 year olds.” Their baccalaureate was known as the hardest giving Syrian students a golden ticket to most of the Arab universities. In Lebanon today, almost one in four people are a refugee, whether Syrian or Palestinian, and they make up a large portion of nation’s population. While Lebanon’s Ministry of Education and Higher Education has implemented programs to try and integrate refugees into their schools, the system is struggling to keep up with the increasing numbers of students and now nearly half of the 500,000 Syrian school-aged children are out of school, some never having stepped foot into a classroom.

“And my grandmother said to me ‘but Aya you are getting water and food,what would you rather have water and food or school?’ and I wanted to scream at her ‘school! I want to be a pediatrician and not a mother at only 15!’ instead I said ‘but [grandma] why is the world making me choose when I need all of them to survive.'”

These chilling words representing the sentiments of so many young Syrian girls were spoken as part of a performance art piece at the Global Citizen World On Stage event in New York City on September 22nd, 2016 the event focusing on music, advocacy, and impact. View the entire powerful performance in the video below:

While this war may be the childhood for many of these young girls, it is essential for us to not allow this generation of young women to miss out on education, we must use our voices to advocate for them, to have schools available in refugee camps or bridge programs for the refugees living outside of camps supporting the countries hosting refugees Ministries of Education, giving these young women the education and power needed to educate their families, friends, communities, and generation so that when it comes time to rebuild their Syria they are ready.

Young school girls under a sign in Aleppo, saying “Still Standing.” Source: Twitter via The Guardian.

The full UNHCR report can be found at:

To learn more about what is happening in Lebanon:

Featured Image: Sarah North / Girls’ Globe.
Video: Recorded by Raya Cupler at Global Citizen: World On Stage.

Safe and Sound: Building Emotional Resilience in Refugee Girls

The photos of Syrian families fleeing war to the safety of refugee camps in Jordan are gut wrenching, but their distress is only worsened by family separation, physical danger, trauma, overcrowding, and lack of information about family, food, and relocation. And, being a refugee girl creates a “double endangerment” due to age and gender, according to Goleen Samari, a fellow with the international education non-profit Humanity in Action.

In Syria, this health vulnerability all too often often takes the form of rape, child marriage, and sex work by girls who then experience deep and lasting emotional distress. In fact, 2015 statistics show that girls under 18 make up 25% of all Syrian refugee marriages in Jordan. While parents say they arrange young marriages to prevent rape in camps, these marriages bring their own psychological consequences and risk for abuse of child wives. Additional risk factors include lack minimal access to education and menstrual products, adding to girls’ disempowerment, stress, and shame.

These circumstances all point to the interplay of mental health and sexual health, with extreme stressors that precipitate conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse, according to the WHO’s Assessment of Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Needs of Displaced Syrians in Jordan. Compounding the issue, a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reveals limited training of aid workers to address prevention of these additional risks for women.

The WHO states that physical safety and meeting basic needs for food and supplies are at the core of protecting girls from psychological distress. By receiving access to the basics from aid organizations, girls and women will not need to turn to sex work to survive and may experience reduced stress and stigma that lead to depression, isolation, and anxiety.

Attending to girls’ emotional and educational support is also key, in terms of basic schooling and taking care of their mental and reproductive health. For example, the Another Kind of Girl Collective, WomenOne, and Save the Children International brought an innovative initiative to girls in the Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan. The program provided training and equipment for girls to create documentary films about their lives, so that they could “articulate the unspeakable,” support each other, and connect to the outside world. The films are viewable on the Another Kind of Girl website, receiving accolades from around the world.

Photo: Another Kind of Girl Collective, Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan.

“We strive to rise above our limitations and work toward our dreams. I feel it’s my responsibility not just to tell the world that truth, but to let people see it for themselves.”

-Khaldiya, filmmaker living in the Za’atari camp, in an Op-Doc appearing in the New York Times

Photo: Another Kind of Girl Collective, Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan.

Storytelling in this form helps to reduce the more than 40% of refugees in the Za’atari camp who report no method for coping with their trauma and stress. Syria Bright Future, led by a psychiatrist who was himself a refugee, delivers therapy to refugee children and provides education in the Za’atari Camp, teaching adolescents about gendered violence and underage marriage in an effort to prevent these conditions. More aid workers must include trained professionals in trauma, depression, and mental health. These workers should be particularly using culturally sensitive screening tools while destigmatizing mental illness. This is critical to the success of attempts to help girls cope.

When it comes to the refugee crisis, we can all do something. There are some simple ways you can act to make a difference in the emotional health of girls in refugee settings:

  1. Sign a petition, or start your own, to protect girls from sexual violence, which you can do by signing this petition to the president of South Sudan or the International Medical Corps petition demanding access to basic medical and mental health needs for refugee families.

2. Donate to WomenOne’s filmmaking program for refugee girls in Jordan or its project to provide essential education and basic needs, such as food and school supplies.

3. Choose a organization involved in sustainable development that speaks to you, such as Circle of Health International or Mercy Corps. You can contribute supplies, volunteer any amount of time you have, or organize your own fundraiser to organize your community in making a larger contribution.

Featured Photo: Colombe Verges / Flickr. 

In Solidarity with Syria: The Power of Global Action

The conflict in Syria has continued for five years. Nearly 300,000 people have lost their lives, millions have had to leave their homes and flee as refugees to other parts of Syria or across borders, and parts of the country, like the capital Aleppo, are in ruins. Not long ago, a picture of a dust- and blood covered 5-year old boy Omran sitting in the back of an ambulance was seared into our brains as a symbol of a war that seems to have no end. We are viewers, through our TV and computer screens, many of us paralyzed and not knowing what, if anything, we should – or can – do.

But there is always something. Some action each and every one of us can take to somehow help the people trapped in this conflict. But what we cannot keep doing any longer is be silent. UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, described the situation in Syria in these words:

“Syria is the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time, a continuing cause of suffering for millions which should be garnering a groundswell of support around the world”


savesyria2So what can our support look like? It can take many shapes and forms – and one of those is creating a civil movement around this issue. This is what is happening in Helsinki, capital of Finland. In this small remote Nordic country, local activists, human rights defenders, organizers and other stakeholders came together as private citizens with one shared goal: to do something to help people in Syria. Soon, there were 200 of us, putting our heads, minds and talents together to come up with something concrete we could do – and out of this, came a plan for a peace march and support concert for 24 October – UN Day.

200 private citizens, ranging from communications people and journalists to musicians and radio hosts, NGO and civil society workers to people in the private sector, have volunteered their time around the clock for the past week to put everything together. To create the event, to write press releases, to come up with demands we can present to our own government, to get artists to perform in the benefit concert, to design materials. In a matter of a day, several private Facebook groups were formed for different parts of the planning: communications, marketing, mobilization, concert. People who had never met each other or worked together found a common goal, and came together around that.


The result? A peace march planned for Monday, with over 2,000 people signed up to participate as of Friday, and a benefit concert with several well known and successful Finnish and international musicians, artists, singers and performers lined up to perform for free – with all proceeds going to NGOs who have a formal partnership with the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and are working in Syria to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people. The group behind it all is also doing their best to make this into a global movement, and use #Helsinki4Syria as a catalyst for similar action not only across Europe but around the world. No action is too small or meaningless – one person can organize a fundraiser in a local bar, put together a panel discussion to raise awareness, create a social media campaign, write a letter to a political representative, initiate a petition. We can all find a way to help, to do something, to do anything – just not stand by silently.

#Helsinki4Syria is becoming a national movement – but with your help, we can make it a global one. There is no more time to waste – Aleppo, referred to as a “slaughter house” by a UN Chief, is being torn apart by air strikes and bombs, and those suffering the most are, as always, women and children. Stopping this is our global, shared responsibility.

So here is what you can do:

  • If you are in Helsinki, come to the peace march and concert and spread the word about them on social media
  • If you live somewhere else, organize an event of your own – a march, a rally, a concert. It can be anything!
  • Spread the word on social media with #SaveSyria, #Helsinki4Syria, and create your own #YOURCITY4Syria movement
  • Make the peace symbol, take a picture and share it on social media with #SaveSyria. You can draw it on your skin, on paper, in the sand, make it with pebbles – any way you want!


Many people will say: this is not our responsibility. Our countries have nothing to do with this. But that is wrong – it is our shared responsibility. Because what is happening in Syria is not only a tragedy and travesty, it constitutes a war crime and a grave violation of the basic human rights of the Syrian people. And raising our voices to stand up against those violations is, absolutely, our responsibility.

Featured image and in-text illustration by Elina Tuomi.