When I ask Marwa to tell me what she loves most about Damascus, her face softens into a wistful smile.
“It is a very old city” she replies. “When you walk in the streets, you feel like you are in a different century. You are in a different place, not on the earth…”
The way she describes it, I wish we could go there now. To walk the streets together, drink coffee in ancient buildings, and hear the stories of her youth where she took her first steps in Syria.
It can’t happen though. Not now. Maybe not ever.
“There is a war, and you don’t know who killed who. They kill each other. All my family in Ghouta, they have no food, and there are so many bombs… so they are suffering now.”
I suggest that the war will end eventually, but she reveals her heart in her reply. “Look at Iraq,” she tells me.
Marwa lives in a refugee camp in Iraq now. She can’t help but notice how much work still needs to happen here to recover from decades-old wars, nevermind the recent war with ISIS.
To be frank, Marwa doesn’t have much hope left for Syria. She experienced too much before she fled the war. She’s heard too much from uncles and cousins who are hiding in basement shelters in Ghouta as bombs fall all around. She has lost too many loved ones.
Marwa doesn’t have much hope left for Syria. But she has hope for herself… and her son.
Marwa talks about how important it is for her to excel in her accounting class at the local university. “I’m a stranger here, and I couldn’t find a good job here if I wasn’t good in my studies. The other [Iraqi] students…they just want to pass. Because they know that when they finish, immediately they will work with a company because they know people in the company. But I don’t know [anyone]. I have to be the first or the second [in my class].”
Marwa packs her days, morning to night, with hard work. Most mornings she studies at the local university, working toward her degree. In the afternoons, she comes to our tech innovation hub, WorkWell, to practice new tech skills, study web design, and learn about freelancing.
She doesn’t have university classes on Thursdays, so she teaches computers at the high school in the refugee camp where she lives. She does extra part-time work for the high school from home, entering grades and statistics into their system. Her evenings are spent studying, either accounting or tech skills. She appreciates being able to work and study from home, as it allows her time to be with her little boy.
If moms of young children are masters of time management, Marwa is surely among the best!
One of the most valuable skills Marwa is learning is how to be a freelancer. In this part of the world, much like in your parent’s generation in the United States, the most prized jobs are those traditionally seen as the most “stable.” That might have meant working for a large factory, or nationwide business. In Syria, it might have meant a job in the textile industry. In the Middle East, in large part because of the turmoil of war, the jobs seen as the most stable are government jobs.
But even that is changing. Young people need the ability to carve out their own space in the economy.
Marwa tells me what she’s learning in web design and development is nothing like she has studied before. She is excited that she can use the skills she’s learning now, on holidays and breaks from school—she doesn’t have to wait until she’s graduated to start earning an income.
Through WorkWell, you’re introducing a whole new way of working and providing and thriving in Iraq.
”With my accounting experience…I can work as a freelancer also. I just did research about that, and I did a presentation in my university in English, and I talked about freelancing. No one knows what freelancing is. No one. It was a new [subject]. No one knows about that.”
Many of Marwa’s classmates don’t use computers for accounting work—the university still teaches the paper ledger system. In some modern offices, they use computers for accounting, but for most government offices and traditional businesses, everything is still paper-based.
“When I do my homework, I just use the computer. I don’t love to do it by hand. I’m the only one that prints my homework… yeah, I’m the only one.”
Marwa, in her own words a refugee and stranger in this country, is learning skills that are positioning her miles ahead of her classmates.
Marwa has a beautiful incentive to continue learning: her son Adam.
Whenever we speak with parents involved in our programs, we ask what hopes and dreams they have for their children. Most of the time, the answers are simple: safety and education. It’s not at all surprising that families displaced by war crave those basics for their children. But trauma can have a limiting effect on dreams. We hope for the basics, but no more. That is not the case with Marwa.
Like most displaced moms, Marwa hopes for the stability of living in one place for her son, not moving all the time. She wants Adam to go to a good school. She wants to give him a better life.
But she doesn’t stop there. She’s thought about what that looks like. She wants to make her own home for Adam and herself. She wants to teach him English and other creative pursuits. Marwa wants to understand which hobbies he likes, and to help him thrive in them.
Thrive. Not just survive.
“I’m so excited about him” Marwa says, with a big smile on her face.
Marwa has a clear goal in mind that she is working toward. Her studies at WorkWell are helping her move making them a reality.
Friends, this is what looks like to keep walking with survivors of war, long after the cameras move on.
We must be first in when the bombs fall and the bullets fly, as they are in eastern Ghouta right now. But we must also be last to leave, helping refugee overcomers like Marwa turn hope into reality.
For herself. For her son. For the future.