Behind the Headlines
How Syria's 'Rebel Mother' Rebuilt Her Life In Turkey
Najlaa Al-Sheikh has a round face and almond-shaped brown eyes. On a warm day last August, she wore a white hijab tucked into a button-down shirt and light blue jeans. In the garden courtyard of a house once owned by a rich Turkish family, Najlaa sat at the center of a long table, leading a group of women in a discussion familiar to mothers around the world: how to balance the stress of work and raising children.
"Just count to 10 when you feel like you are fed up," she offered the women gathered around her as she stirred a cup of coffee. "When you say one, two, three, you have already taken time and space to calm down. One, two, three, four, and you didn't let the anger make your decision."
These women have much more to balance than just work and children, however. They are refugees, forced to flee violence and civil war in their native Syria and resettle here, in Kilis, a Turkish city five miles from the border but a world away. More than 4 million Syrian refugees like these people have fled since the country's civil war began in 2011; the majority are women and children.
Here, the women know Najlaa as a loyal friend, a take-charge ally, someone who has helped them regain their dignity and rebuild their lives through job training and college courses.
"They say that women make up half of the community, but from my experience, I feel that they are the entire community," Najlaa said. "I personally feel that the woman is the person capable of truly achieving something. Because in the end, she is building families and a new community."
"We left to Turkey urgently because my son was hurt," Najlaa told Refinery29. Back then, in the summer of 2012, she and her sons had already fled within Syria three times — from her home of Daraya, to Aleppo, and then to Azaz. She was frantically searching for her husband, Hasan, who had been arrested by the military right before their children's eyes. And her own work supporting Syria's pro-democracy rebels had made her a target, too.
Najlaa had decided to enter the fight against Syria’s government the year before. When she saw men filling the streets to protest the Assad regime outside of her apartment in a suburb of Damascus, she didn't hesitate to join them.
"I've been active since the beginning of the revolution, from the first day they shouted 'Freedom!'" she said.
Nothing lasts, the war will end, and it will then be clear to women that the more work they put in, the more they will harvest.
Najlaa said she was motivated by how her family had suffered under both Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria from 1971 until his death in 2000. Najlaa’s father-in-law was arrested by the military for being a political dissident in the 1980s. He was sent to Syria’s Tadmor Prison, tortured, and then executed.
Najlaa and the other women quickly became a force to be reckoned with in the movement to bring democracy to Syria. But with that recognition also came risk; Daraya was becoming known as a hotbed of revolutionary activity, and a target for government forces.
Then Hasan was arrested. Najlaa believed she would be next, and that her children would be left alone with two parents in jail. Assad's forces were already surrounding her house.
"My house was on the fifth floor, so I hid in the elevator shaft on the sixth floor, on the roof, with my kids. I stayed until the next day. I was covering [my kids’] mouths so the security won't find out that I'm there," Najlaa said.
"I would almost faint every time we would arrive at a barricade. My kids would even get nervous," Najlaa said.
When she arrived in Aleppo, she didn't stop supporting the revolution. Najlaa worked to help injured people and made signs for the rebels. Soon, her work forced her to flee again, this time to Azaz, where some of her relatives lived.
Then her 9-year-old son, Amr, was injured by one of the many improvised bombs that rained down on the city as forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad battled the Free Syrian Army. Najlaa knew she had to flee. She arrived in Turkey with her two sons and the clothes on their backs.
"The first obstacle for me was accepting that I was outside my homeland…. I saw Turkey and it was beautiful, nice, and heaven on earth, but it has no soul. I want my homeland," Najlaa said.
With no means of contact, Najlaa said she didn't know her husband had been released from prison and gone to look for them in Daraya. The military had taken over the entire neighborhood; Hasan could find neither his wife nor his children.
I've been active since the beginning of the revolution, from the first day they shouted ‘Freedom!’
Hasan searched for his wife and sons in Aleppo and Azaz. Then, government forces and pro-government militias massacred hundreds of people in Daraya in August 2012, according to eyewitnesses. Najlaa was desperate to find Hasan.
“I didn't bring anything with me to Turkey; I came with my sandals,” Najlaa says. [After I had gotten settled] I opened my account from the Internet cafe and emailed my brothers-in-law [in Qatar].”
Najlaa says her brothers-in-law relayed the news to Hasan that his family was alive. Two weeks later, he finally arrived in Turkey.
“When I met him in Turkey, it was like a meeting in an Indian movie, I was crying,” Najlaa said. But she quickly realized that the three months he had spent in a Syrian prison had taken their toll on her husband. Hasan had lost more than 60 pounds and bore the psychological scars of torture.
“The challenge was how to deal with my husband in a foreign country while he has obvious issues, issues because of the torture he has endured. I gave him guidance, and tried to give him mental support.”
Through job-training workshops, college preparatory classes, and lessons for children, Najlaa has begun to rebuild Syria in Turkey. On a recent day at the center, women in hijabs carefully pulled needles through cloth, making the Syrian revolution’s equivalent of Barbie dolls.
“We called her Hajier, first martyr of the revolution,” Najlaa said as she held a doll with a kind face and golden-brown braids made of string.
Over the past two years, her women’s empowerment center has grown to 18 employees who volunteer teaching English, sewing, and hairdressing. And the center's impact has already been felt. Twenty seamstresses found jobs immediately after graduating from the center’s program, she said.
The achievements of these women are now the only thing that brings her joy, Najlaa said. They also give her hope that someday they will be able to return to a peaceful Syria.
“The war will end. Nothing lasts, the war will end, and it will then be clear to women that the more work they put in, the more they will harvest.”
Najlaa’s own harvest surrounds her — women who now have the skills they need to remake their lives far from home. In the courtyard of the Honorable Women's Center, a garden grows, and each plant has a name.
"When I started this project, I asked every woman to bring a tiny seed or plant, and plant it in a pot. They asked me, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘So when you decide to leave us one day, you have a root here,” Najlaa said and smiled.
Filmmaker Tarek Turkey contributed reporting from Kilis, Turkey. This story draws on interviews conducted in person in Turkey and on the phone from New York.
About Behind the Headlines
Refinery29’s original series “Behind the Headlines” takes an in-depth, human look at the policy debates dominating the global news media, from American immigration reform to the continuing struggles of Syrian refugees and Afghanistan’s lingering gender inequality crisis. Bypassing the pundits, we’re dedicated to spotlighting the stories of the people whose lives have been profoundly impacted by these issues, and believe that their voices must be heard.