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Meet The Woman Teaching Other Syrian Refugees How To Rebuild Their Lives

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 centre 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."
Photographed by: Tarek Turkey.
Najlaa Al-Sheikh (center, in white) leads a group of refugee women in a discussion at the Honorable Women's Center she founded in Turkey.
But Najlaa, 36, vividly remembers her first weeks in exile, three years ago, when nothing was certain and she had no community of her own.

"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.
Early on, Najlaa brought her two sons, Hussein and Amr, with her to the protests, and rallied other women to join her. What began as a few women marching down the streets in their traditional chadors quickly evolved into an energised movement, with women chanting slogans and waving placards denouncing Assad.

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.
Friends from the revolutionary movement helped smuggle them out of the building. Najlaa and her children then travelled over an entire day and night, crossing 37 roadblocks to make it through army-controlled territory to Aleppo, which is usually only a four-hour journey.

"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.

“He contacted his brothers living in Qatar, and they told him that they knew nothing about us, only that we were bombed in Azaz about a week ago,” Najlaa said. “They had searched for my name and my kids' names on the list of martyrs, but they couldn't find us.”

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 realised 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.”
As Najlaa struggled to care for her two children and her husband in Kilis, she watched other Syrian women line up each day for bread and nappies. Seeing them forced to beg for the basic things they needed to live sparked an idea. The only way to rebuild the community she had lost in Syria was to help women like her get back on their feet. That’s how the Honourable Women's Centre was born.

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 centre, 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 centre has grown to 18 employees who volunteer teaching English, sewing, and hairdressing. And the centre's impact has already been felt. Twenty seamstresses found jobs immediately after graduating from the centre’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 Honourable Women's Centre, 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.