Meet Zeena: So much more than a refugee

Iraq, Syria

December 17, 2014

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  • Zeena's life has changed drastically since leaving her home in Syria. We're helping her and other refugees find a sense of leadership in the camps they now call home. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

On the outskirts of the town of Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq, you’ll find Arbat Transit Camp. The tented settlement is home for some of the 215,000 Syrian refugees who fled across the border to escape the ongoing civil war in their country.

Twenty-five-year-old Zeena is one of them. She was a high-achieving university student back in Syria — she studied philosophy and law and had plans to become a human rights lawyer. Then fighting erupted in her home of Qamishli.

She and her family sought safety in Iraq. When they arrived at Arbat in September 2013, they were told the shelter would be temporary until another, more accommodating camp was built.

But soon thereafter, there were few other safe places to go in Iraq. In just one year, the northern region of Kurdistan has become host to more than one million Iraqis fleeing the fighting that’s sweeping through their own country.

The Syrian refugees who thought this would be a respite from their terrifying experiences are only facing new challenges. Like Zeena, they escaped brutal conflict once before. Now they are watching it engulf the very place they came to for sanctuary.

The fact is, the war in Syria and the conflict in Iraq are fueling a massive regional displacement crisis in the region that is no longer defined by borders. And there simply aren’t enough resources like water, food and shelter for the millions of people in need.

Zeena sits with her family in the small tent that they all share at the refugee camp. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

Zeena is anything but content with her life in Arbat camp. For her, what should be a temporary interruption in her life has become a permanent reality. "Nothing is normal here," Zeena told me. “Our tent falls down, there’s no school, no way to manage handicaps.”

This last point is a major concern for Zeena and her family, who faced unique challenges even before becoming refugees. Zeena’s eldest brother, Yusef, was born with a congenital disorder that left him completely paralyzed since birth. Her brother, Mohammed, has Down’s Syndrome, and her brother, Yassir, broke his pelvis and back while trying to escape the Syrian government security forces last year.

Zeena’s mother, Haleema, has worked tirelessly to care for her family over the years. “I have been taking care of my disabled sons for 43 years now, and it has always been hard,” she said. “But living in a refugee camp with them is the hardest thing I have ever had to face. We don’t have a shower. To bathe my paralyzed son we have to carry him to the communal bathing area because wheelchairs cannot move on the dirt and sandy ground in the camp, and then it is very hard, without any privacy or facilities designed for quadriplegics, to properly bathe him.”

Zeena has now traded school for days spent doing most of the daily chores: cleaning the tent, fetching water from the communal well, and helping take care of her brothers. “I have to say that if you asked me two years ago what my life would be like, I could never have imagined this,” she said.

But despite the hardship and daily struggle, Zeena is determined to remain positive and focused on a better future. “Life is terrible here so I am doing my best to keep busy with any activities that help others and that will shift my thinking away from all the difficulties we face and do something positive.”

She’s been able to find a place for that energy in Mercy Corps’ conflict negotiation program. She was one of the first Syrian refugees to participate in a training workshop, designed to strengthen the leadership skills of influential young Syrian refugees to address and solve issues with their communities.

Even in the more dire circumstances, giving people a sense of ownership and ability to create their own change is critical to supporting their emotional wellbeing and maintaining hope for a life beyond this crisis. And their own work can make life better in their immediate, day-to-day circumstances.

“In the training, I learned leadership, communication and negotiation skills to reduce tensions and frustrations in the camp community,” explained Zeena.

“After the course, I started to identify ways that I could improve the mindset of people here. After everything we have been through — displacement, distance from our friends and family members, destruction of our homeland, and witnessing the tragedies of war has affected us all psychologically, especially the children and younger people — most people are tired, frustrated and becoming hopeless.”

Zeena joined the camp council and became an official negotiator for the camp, helping other refugees settle problems that were causing tensions between residents and tensions with the local authorities. She also started a youth committee for the camp that works to improve the situation and advocate for more access to special services for young refugees.

“I keep myself busy and motivated,” she said. “I also started a campaign to eradicate illiteracy in the camp, and teach women and children to read. At the end of every day I am exhausted, but somehow it energizes me and gives me hope that one day this war will be over and we can get on with our lives.”

Zeena dreams of the day she goes back to Syria. Her eyes lit up when she spoke about what she missed about Syria: her friends, her professors and studies, the food. "Even the water tastes better in Syria," she assured me.

“I want to go back, but not to this Syria — to a Syria without war. And when we do return, I am prepared to help rebuild my country.”