Mira Obed is 22, slender, and beautiful, with a smile so wide it shows all of her teeth. She covers her hair with a hijab but wears slim-fitting jeans and a breezy blouse. Her burgundy fingernails grip a smartphone in a colorful case, and messages from Facebook and WhatsApp float across its screen. She seems happy and at ease among the men she now works with at an expatriate radio station that broadcasts from the Turkish city of Gaziantep.
Since arriving in Turkey more than two years ago, Mira has thrown herself into her work — a job that she likely would never have landed in her homeland. In that sense, she is lucky. It’s best to be busy and tired, she believes; to work all day, and have only a few hours left over for remembering what she has lost; to be too tired to turn on the television, now permanently tuned to news bulletins filled with images of her burning homeland.
My life was at the mercy of my father, and he didn't uphold this trust. In the end, he married me off while I was very young.
During the time she has lived in Turkey, Mira has become the radio station's first female sound engineer. “The way our community looks at women — not all of it, but the majority of it — the girl is raised with her family, then grows up, gets married, has children, and that’s it,” she says. “So I got out of that. By doing this, I was able to get out. I work a job that people thought was only for men, and that women cannot do.”
But sometimes when Mira lies in bed at night, with the crooning of an Arab romance singer echoing from her smartphone to help lull her to sleep, she lets her mind go back.
“I miss living at least one day in Syria when it was peaceful,” she says. “But I don’t like to remember Syria by all the things I have seen in the end.”
“Our life in Syria was good. My father’s job was good, our house was in a good neighborhood,” she says. “Our house never leaves my mind, although I do sometimes forget how it was. I try to only remember the good things, from before I was 14.”
Those were the days, Mira says, before the war broke out and ISIS fighters began publicly executing those who opposed them. And before she was married off to a man from overseas almost twice her age and had a child of her own. And before that child was taken away from her.
“Before the revolution, there was a wedding,” Mira says. She hesitates, weighing how much she wants to share. “I felt very bad at my wedding. Sure, I was happy about the dress. But at the same time, I didn’t know where I was going. I didn’t know why, or what marriage was.”
By doing this, I was able to get out. I work a job that people thought was only for men, and that women cannot do it.
Her husband traveled back and forth to Syria, visiting only occasionally. When she was 18, Mira became pregnant with a son. Syria was becoming a dangerous place, and her husband urged her to have the baby abroad, in part so he could register Mira and their baby as Saudi citizens.
“I went to Jordan. I went alone, I just booked a flight and went alone. They almost didn’t let me leave because I was only 18-and-a-half at the time, almost 19, so they were asking why I was going to Jordan by myself,” Mira says. “I entered Jordan and delivered the baby there. The baby was born in the kingdom, and was supposedly registered properly and everything. I didn't know. [My husband] was the one doing the papers and the registration.”
Mira returned to Syria with her son, Hamza, in 2012. The fighting between rebels and government forces intensified. The family struggled with meager amounts of food for months, hoping the situation would improve. But when the house across the street was shelled one night, Mira’s father decided the family had to leave the next morning.
Mira had only a few moments to look around the only home she had ever known. There was no room in the car to bring anything but papers, she says. She hurriedly pocketed her marriage certificate and Hamza’s birth document.
“When we left, there was already a clash happening between the Syrian army and Free Syrian Army, which we did not know about,” Mira says. “We didn’t notice until we were on the way and saw that the streets were absolutely empty, and when we had passed by a Syrian government checkpoint, there was nobody there.”
Suddenly, shots rang out — Mira says it was impossible to know from whom. Bullets hit the family’s car. Mira’s father sped up, barreling across the checkpoint and into Turkey.
They had made it out of Syria alive. But in Turkey, the family literally had only the clothes on their backs.
Bullets hit the family’s car. Mira’s father sped up, barreling across the checkpoint and into Turkey.
Mira learned that all of the papers from her marriage and Hamza’s birth were forged.
“So I said, ‘All right, if the marriage is not official, my boy at least is Saudi. Please show some care,’” she says.
That’s when Mira says her husband returned, and took the baby away. Hamza was nearly 2 years old. Mira says she has not seen a photograph or spoken to her son since.
As a refugee, fighting to get Hamza back has become another one of life’s daily battles. Battles, Mira says, she must fight alone.
“I have to work, to be independent, to show everyone so that they can no longer say that I’m just a weak girl,” Mira says. “I am not weak. I can work, I can build, and I’m capable of getting my son back.”
And while the war in Syria has disrupted many of the things that brought Mira joy, it has also disrupted many of the things that held her back. In Turkey, she says, she has found a new path for herself.
“My life was at the mercy of my father, and he didn’t uphold this trust. In the end, he married me off while I was very young. Even your family does not have a right to control your life,” Mira says. “As a woman, I can’t imagine anyone knowing what is best for you as much as you do. Even if you can’t do anything, you should at least live however you want.”
Filmmaker Tarek Turkey contributed reporting from Gazientep, Turkey. This story draws on interviews conducted in person in Turkey and on the phone from New York.