A portrait of a refugee woman: a conversation with Meryem

By Çiğdem Usta

Translated by Aslı Tatlıadım

Şanlıurfa (Urfa) is an ancient city in Turkey’s south-east. Often referred to as ‘the city of prophets’, its historic ties and proximity to Syria mean that the city’s population has risen to two million in recent years, nearly a quarter of whom are refugees fleeing conflict from across the border. This is one of their stories.

Syrian women enter a refugee camp in Kilis. Source: Şener Yılmaz Aslan/MOKU

The alleyways of Urfa are narrow, laid with cobblestones and bathed in a yellow sunshine, flanked on either side by almost identical doors of rusting iron. I approach a door which is black, heavy and coarse. After a short wait, a woman, dressed entirely in black, opens the door. Her eyes are sharp, and she stands tall: distant yet gracious…

Her name is Meryem. She is a 38-year-old Syrian woman, with a striking beauty and fearless eyes that bore into my own. Meryem has two sons, one aged 18 and the other just 16. As part of my work for a humanitarian aid organisation, I am here to record the story of her younger son. But now I have no intention of leaving without reaching out to Meryem too.

She has to go to work so our time is limited. In the blink of an eye, she whips up Syrian coffee, served in traditional tea glasses. We place the tray on a stool standing in the middle of the small, faded yellow room. The tired walls hardly have any furniture between them. But during the day it serves as a living room, at night a bedroom.

Meryem places herself at the very edge of the couch. I sit on the floor directly across from her. She looks back at me with curiosity, trying to discern what I am doing as I open my notebook. Our Syrian translator is with us too. Hiva is from Kobanî, speaks four languages and is the link between us: a story circulating through a female triangle.

Meryem, her husband and children came to Turkey two and a half years ago, one of the last families to leave their neighbourhood in Aleppo.

Meryem is a strong woman. It was her who took the decision to leave, it was her who convinced the men of the house it was time. “Why?”, I ask, “did your husband not want to leave?” She looks into my eyes once again.

“His nephew’s wife, a piece of shrapnel hit her stomach, right in front of his eyes,” she says as she draws a large circle with her hands underneath her chest. “She was a young girl that he loved her like one of his own children. When she  died he suffered a seizure” her hands begin moving again, “he was never the same again.”

Soon after, another bomb landed next to their home. Meryem began to pack their bags. “Enough!” she told the men of the house, “we are leaving.”

They take to the road, entering Turkey through the border town of Kilis, before moving on to Urfa to join relatives who had also recently arrived. Their extended family tries to accommodate them, but in a house with only two rooms, it becomes impossible.

The family spend a week in the courtyard of a mosque. Meryem remains determined, searching day in and day out for a place they can afford with what little money they have left. She eventually succeeds. Now they must find jobs.

Meryem is a hardworking woman. She used to run a beauty parlour in Aleppo and employed several people. “I am a good hairdresser,” she says, “I know what to do with hair.” She spends every day of her first months in Urfa looking to put her skills to work.

Meanwhile, despite not being legally old enough, her two sons begin to work as day labourers, taking unsafe and hazardous jobs. They work too much and earn too little, but they put food on the family table. Her husband is unable to find employment. Meryem endures in her relentless search.

Finally, she finds something: a beauty parlour run by another Syrian woman where she earns 100 Turkish Lira a week (approximately 28 US Dollars). But the parlour is far from home, forcing her to take two buses each way and spend a significant portion of her income on the journey alone.

Each morning she wakes at seven, gets ready and leaves the house to open the shop at nine. Waking early is not a problem, but she feels unsettled about returning home alone, rarely making it back before nine in the evening.

“One night a crook held me up in the dark,” she says, “I was so afraid, but by sheer luck, another person appeared on the road so I could escape.” That day, Meryem vowed to find another beauty parlour closer to home.  

She finds that too. One that pays more than her current job. She explains the situation to her employer; that she needs to leave, the journey, the fear. But she receives an unexpected answer: “You can not leave, if you do I will put you to shame.” Meryem has talked of war, of leaving her country, of her struggle to hold onto her life, but this is the moment her eyes open wide with rage.

Meryem is a religious woman. Her employer who shares her culture knows this and shows her photographs taken during a private moment. Meryem is pictured without her headscarf, relaxing in a short sleeve shirt, her hair down to her shoulders, secure in the confidence of being surrounded by other women.  

“I will expose you,” her employer threatens. Meryem remains silent and continues to work. But her mind is set: she will find a way out. She tries to explain her situation to the police, but can’t seem to make herself understood. She finds someone who will translate. But the police laugh in her face and say: “we will only believe you if you show us the photographs.”

Meryem once again refuses to succumb, she will not be forced to work under duress. She quits the parlour. But her employer makes good on her threats. Using the photographs on her phone, she opens a fake Facebook account under Meryem’s name, and alongside Meryem’s phone number she adds: ‘Available for prostitution.’ Through clenched teeth, Meryem tells us that “she probably published it on other social media websites as well.”

Left with no choice, Meryem changes her number – the only way her family and friends, dispersed across several countries, know how to reach her. Yet, she still finds comfort in having dealt with the situation without her husband or children hearing about it. “If this has had happened in Syria that woman would have gone to jail,” she adds,  “here, no one cared.”

All Syrian refugees have a unique story, but they share the same patterns of injustice and exploitation. In the case of women, such experiences are multilayered. On one occasion, Meryem explains, “my knee was hurting so I went to the doctor, who asked for my telephone number and added with a sleazy smile that he would like to care for me intimately.”

“It is not as if we don’t have to live with the improper behaviour of men, their words and harassment on the street, we live with that each moment, but I was furious because my employer was also a Syrian woman.”

Brave, hardworking, and confident, Meryem is aware of her rights and is determined to assert them. But she sketches out the stories of what other women have endured. She talks of men making requests “that know of no limitation” before giving women work. She talks of women forced into prostitution, of women who pray for the opportunity to be the second wife of a man just for the need of food and shelter. Of young girls married off to elder men in exchange for a dowry. Of women who fear to communicate what they are living through to their closest loved ones, let alone the authorities.

Our conversation comes to an end. I no longer have questions and Meryem needs to go to work. We embrace. She fixes her light brown eyes directly on mine and smiles, “we are alive, are we not? Thanks be to God, stay safe.” She gets up and leaves.

The wind of Urfa envelops the narrow streets, brushing my face. Yellow light casts shadows across the walls, shadows that hide new stories playing out in the alleyways of the city of prophets.

This story was originally published in Turkish magazine MUKAVEMET. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect in any way the institutions to which they are affiliated or any other institutions referenced here.

If you would like to see more photographs from Şener Yılmaz Aslan, please visit his website which focuses on issues related to social movements.

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