On March 6th, 2011, a group of students in Dara’a, Syria were arrested, imprisoned, and tortured for spray-painting anti-government graffiti on the wall of a local high school. As word of the teenagers’ treatment spread, the anti-regime movement grew rapidly, sparking government retaliation. Now, after more than ten years, Syria’s civil war continues to displace scores of men, women, and children every day.
According to the United Nations, there are 6.6 million Syrian refugees around the world searching for safety and stability, 80% of whom are women and children. The people of Syria are fighting for their future. Alongside our partners, Women for Women International has witnessed the remarkable power of Syrian women refugees who are finding their power in extraordinary circumstances.
When civil war ripped through Syria, its citizenry fled to bordering nations including Iraq. Iraq hosts the fourth largest group of Syrian refugees, almost 250,000 people. Our global staff identified partners in Erbil, Iraq to continue to provide training to refugee women displaced to northern Iraq. Ultimately, after several years and the founding of a permanent Women for Women International office in Iraq, our staff were able to locate a group in Syria that directly works with internally displaced women.
In 2020, we forged a partnership through our Conflict Response Fund (CRF) with a local organization called Women Now for Development (WND) to launch a training program for internally displaced women in Idlib, Syria. Simultaneously, we opened our country office in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, to support women impacted by conflict in Iraq and Syria.
Conflict response, usually launched through partnerships with local organizations, is a fundamental part of our DNA. With partners, we can support women more swiftly. CRF is a separate funding pool designed to more rapidly help women who are caught in the current horrors of our time.
In March of 2021, the project in Idlib concluded, and its outcomes are not only a testament to the contextual understanding of local groups like Women Now for Development, but of the unparalleled strength and power of the women of Syria.
Before kicking off the program, WND conducted a comprehensive questionnaire to directly connect with Syrian women; identify market needs, job opportunities, and their needs; and tailor the training and knowledge-building activities around their nuanced circumstances. The survey was conducted in August and September 2020 and found that vocational training in sewing skills and information technology would be uniquely powerful to women looking to find jobs and stability.
The Power of Vocation
The vocational trainings took place over the course of three months at the end of 2020 and into the beginning of 2021. Classes were held three times each week for two-and-a-half-hour sessions and were attended by sixteen women. During sewing coursework, participants learned skills like stitching, taking body measurements, designing clothing, and using a sewing machine. Often, to begin a small enterprise, aspiring business owners require initial investment or other kinds of support. To kickstart participants’ small business after graduating from the condensed program, WND hosted business administration training, encouraged participants to submit business proposals, and distributed grants to each future businesswoman.
“This training benefited us greatly because we were able to learn a profession we did not previously know. We learned about project management, marketing, and how to divide profits. We learned to depend on ourselves.”
In a country where internet access is limited and women are often excluded from technological innovations, tech literacy can be a powerful tool. The computer maintenance and digital security course was attended by eight women, and, because the course had to be held indoors, safety precautions against COVID-19 were taken including social distancing and mask-wearing. Classes were held at the same frequency as the sewing training sessions and covered several topics like digital security, phishing and exploitation prevention, multi-factor authentication, encryption, and virus protection. Aside from tech best practices, trainees also learned how to download programs like Microsoft services safely, how to write a CV, how to create social media accounts and email accounts
At the end of the training, all participants rated a confidence level of more than 80% in the material learned. Similar to the women who participated in the sewing course, the participants of the computer maintenance and digital security courses were encouraged to attend business development training and received grants to jumpstart their careers.
The vocational training was an enormous triumph for the women the team worked with in Idlib. Together they achieved a 100% graduation rate and, in addition to the cash grants, participants received different types of sewing machines, sewing material, laptops, and tech equipment to help jumpstart their small business endeavors. The business development training gave women tools like knowledge of finance, marketing, publicity, and customer service in order to optimize their enterprises and profits. The training in marketing and brand creation helped women build their businesses’ personalities and individualize their products to help them stand out. Confidence in the principles of business and technology can open hundreds of professional, social, and personal doors left closed by conflict and trauma.
“During the [computer maintenance] training, I was able to reboot my neighbor’s laptop after it had broken down and used a proxy to work around bans on Google applications by using the tools I learned in the digital security course. I want to continue to develop myself and my skills in this field by training further, specifically in hardware… I have a passion for this field.”
The Language of Confidence
In an increasingly virtual world, the pandemic exacerbated barriers between resources and those disconnected or separated from them. But the WND team saw that these barriers could be scaled with access to the internet and computers. Their team in Idlib built a curriculum for 269 IDP and local women surrounding Arabic literacy, math, technology, and English all conducted fully online.
The Arabic literacy program was comprised of three groups of participants who attended one-and-a-half-hour sessions three days a week; each group attended training for three months for a total of 60 hours of training. During sessions, participants were given various writing assignments such as composing narratives about the experience of the working mother. Several participants created presentations around their own experiences of suffering as single parents or breadwinners. The opportunity to express one’s own experience provides both emotional catharsis and a chance to build one’s own personality and skill in their language. Learning confidence in one’s language is the keystone to a successful future and confidence in a woman’s individual self and place in her community.
The nearly 100 participants in the Arabic training achieved an 85% graduation rate, and a Zoom graduation ceremony was held during which graduates were encouraged to participate in plays and recite poetry.
“On the day of graduation, I had a job interview as an Arabic language teacher. In the interview, the questions were similar to what we learned in the WND training program, so I was able to show the interviewers what I’d learned, and I was able to get work.”
The math and English curriculums were similarly structured and fully virtual. The women in the math course achieved a graduation rate of 80% and those in the English course achieved one of 90%. Several women reported finding jobs immediately after training using the skills and confidence they had built for themselves.
“From this program, I took my first steps; here, my successes began, and my dreams came true one by one. I have become more confident in myself and my abilities thanks to my trainer. Since childhood, I’ve loved the English language and it’s been my dream to study it and teach it to others, but there were obstacles, the worst of which was the lack of encouragement I received to complete my studies when I was sixteen and to marry instead. When I heard about the program from my friends, I rushed to enroll, and once I had, I began to progress greatly. I was hesitant because it was my first experience like this, but I did not lose hope.
“In an interview to become an English teacher, I was asked to provide a model lesson. I remembered one of the lessons I participated in during the program and presented that. I was able to get the job.”
Literacy in a woman’s native tongue opens doors to basic rights in her everyday life, and fluency in math gives her the ability to earn income and manage money in public life. Additionally, a course like this creates an opening for adolescent girls previously forced to drop out of school to reenroll, creating a ripple-effect through her community and generations to follow. This project is a success story built entirely by the women who participated and their peers and allies.
With resources from our CRF, we strive to create relationships with organizations like Women Now for Development who understand the detailed contexts of their local communities. With partnerships like these, we put the power in their hands and in the women’s hands. And when marginalized women find their individual power, they build their shared power to move nations toward peace, to move the world forward.