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Mothers coping with war: ‘I embrace them and tell them not to fear’

Jordan, Syria, May 10, 2013

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  • Mariam, 42, holds two of her grandchildren. She and her husband fled Syria last year with their nine children, including the families of their two oldest. Photo: Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps
  • Mariam spends extra time with Abeer, 4, who has become depressed and withdrawn since experiencing the violence in Syria. The family, including Mariam's oldest daughter Hanan and her one-year-old son Ibrahim, gather in the living room of the small two-room home that Mercy Corps helped them furnish with mattresses, blankets and kitchen supplies. Photo: Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps
  • Six-year-old Fatimah plays in the yard. During a bombing that damaged the family's home in Syria, she was burned on the left side of her face and body. Mariam is focused on helping her daughter overcome her fear after the injury. Photo: Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps
  • Mariam makes sure her young children, ages 4-9, and grandchildren stay happy and active by engaging them in interactive games outside. Photo: Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps
  • It is a struggle to provide for her large family, but Mariam' strength is giving them all hope. "I will do my best to cover all of their needs, to raise a very good family, and instill in them all good things.” Photo: Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps

Last September a bomb landed on a mosque in the once-gorgeous city of Aleppo in Syria. Its dome crashed into an adjacent home, where 42-year-old Mariam was preparing dinner for her nine children. The collision caused the sizzling oil on the stovetop to splatter all over then five-year-old Fatimah, who was standing in the kitchen with her mother.

The burn was so severe that if she does not undergo surgery soon, she will lose her left hand.

Devastated by Fatimah’s injury and determined to protect her children from any more harm — including her three teenage sons getting conscripted into the Syrian military — Mariam, along with her husband Asha, decided it was time to escape the violence in their home country.

Keeping her family together

They made it across the border into Jordan, where they now live peacefully in Mafraq — and where Mariam is just as determined to keep the family together and create a safe and stable home for them to leave the trauma of war behind.

She is one of so many women who are taking care of their families after being forced from their homes by Syria's civil war. More than 75% of the Syrian refugees in neighboring countries are women and children.

Mariam and her family are grateful for their simple two-room house, but it is crowded — the seven youngest children range in ages from 4 to 17, and with the two oldest children’s own families, there are seven toddlers running around. Still, every time I have visited the full home, Mariam seems to create a sense of serenity and warmth.

“We eat together, sleep together with no problems,” she explains. “Sometimes small things happen, but we overcome the issues. What my family needs is communication, in order to know what each other needs. We have strength in communication — I see what they want just by eye-contact and vice-versa for them.”

Mariam has her hands full, but her perseverance, strength, and love keep her motivated and focused on her children’s happiness.

Each child has a different need

I cannot imagine the challenge of raising all of these children, each individually impacted by the conflict they’ve lived through together. Ra’ida, 13, now has anxiety brought on by the violence she experienced and being uprooted as a refugee. Mariam’s three sons — Mahmoud, 17, Ahmed, 16, and Yousef 15 — struggle to find work.

And nine-year-old Yasmeen, feisty and full of gumption, has become rebellious and no longer excels in school as she did in Syria. Mariam, with guilt in her voice, says, “I am not sure about the reasons, maybe I was preoccupied.” I do not believe anyone could blame this mother who barters rice and sugar for a tutor for Yasmeen — who is, so far, responding well to the lessons.

Meanwhile, four-year-old Abeer has been suffering from depression, so Mariam spends extra time with her and encourages her to play with the other children in the house. “She feels neglected when I spend time with her nephews, so I take her out and chat with her. The most she needs is tenderness.”

During my visits with Mariam and her family, sweet Abeer is quite often solitary, nestled in a nook on her own or curled up next to her mother with a heavy somberness in her face. The last couple of visits she has been more active, and yesterday I was happy to see a few bright smiles beaming from her face as she played games in the courtyard with her mother and the other kids.

Of course, “Fatimah is the most affected one,” Mariam tells me. “In the beginning she feared anything hot near her, but slowly I helped her overcome the fear. As her mother I am responsible for providing her with confidence, warmth, and helping her to overcome the adversity."

Still, Fatimah struggles with the very visible results of her injury: “When she meets somebody, she goes to the corner, she feels inferior because of the burns, it takes her time until she plays with the other children.” But, Mariam continues, “Fatimah is very smart. She is burned, but Allah compensated her with intelligence.”

A mother's perseverance

This work — helping her family heal from their trauma and build on their best qualities — is Mariam’s focus. It is not easy. She is not sure how they will be able to afford the surgery that Fatimah needs. And she worries that the experiences of war will haunt her children forever.

But she does what she can. When even simple things like fireworks still frighten the young ones, “I embrace them and tell them not to fear, that it is only fireworks, the war is finished, and now we have a new life to live.”

She knows they have a long road of healing ahead of them. But “Inshallah [God willing], I will do my best to cover all of their needs, to raise a very good family, and instill in them all good things.”

It’s obvious to me that Mariam is the real “home” for her children, no matter where they are. Since I met the family four months ago I have continually been impressed by Fatimah’s resilience, Yasmeen’s fire, Ra’ida’s kindness, and Abeer’s sweetness. In the face of the adversity of war, poverty, and displacement, the effects of Mariam’s love and determination are easily seen in her children.

How you can help

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