I was born in Damascus. My family are originally from the Golan Heights, an area that came under Israeli control after the Six-Day War in 1967. At this time, many Jolani people were internally displaced into Syria, where the Al Wafideen camp was set up for the refugees from the Golan.
Al Wafideen camp is like a small town. It is very poor and even before the war in Syria the people there were employed in low paid jobs like cleaning and domestic work for wealthier families in Damscus. Growing upon this place was difficult. Children in Al Wafideen do not believe that they have the possibility of a good future. The community is simple and traditional; it is quite conservative and attitudes within the community, as well as a lack of education mean that people cannot envisage a life beyond the daily struggle of putting food on the table. Growing up as a young girl in this environment is especially hard. Girls are expected to marry young, forget their education and to work to support their families. They have little social life outside the home.
As a child I always wanted something more for myself. I loved school and was passionate about my studies. I loved art and English, and I dreamed of going to University. The education system in Al Wafideen was very poor. The English teachers could not speak English, we didn’t have access to books or the internet and we were often without electricity in the home; we had to depend on ourselves if we wanted to succeed. When I was studying for my Baccalaureate it was my dream to go to university to study English literature. I loved Shakespeare, English films, novels and English music; I desperately wanted to take these interests further.
This however, was not to be. My family did not support my ambitions and because I was one mark short of making the grade for the English course at university, I was forced to take another subject, which I had no interest in. Before my studies had finished the war in Syria broke out. Life was difficult before the crisis but it became even harder during this time.
The streets became very dangerous. It was impossible to go out at night. The area next to the camp was destroyed and we were often without electricity for many hours in the day. The pressure from my family to work in low paid jobs became even greater. When I wanted to pursue my studies in English further and to take a translation course, my family did not support me at all, so I had to take several jobs to pay for this myself.
In 2015, my brother left Syria and travelled to Europe. During this time he volunteered with an English organisation who were working with refugees and this organisation asked me to do some artwork for their website. Through this I met an English woman who I started talking with regularly and who encouraged me to pursue my dreams.
There were many times when I would lose hope. Being a woman in my community is hard. There are many good traditions in my community like the strength of the family, but there are also many traditions that can hold women back. There is a great deal of bigotry, women are not expected to go out alone and there is no freedom to make your own choices; you are expected to take permission from your relatives for the smallest of freedoms. Things that many people take for granted are impossible for a young woman in my family. You cannot choose what you want to wear, you can’t choose your job, you can’t even choose who you fall in love with. Every decision you make is judged and you are told that you are wrong and that you cannot be trusted to make your own decisions wisely.
This was not the case for my brother. In my community and in my family, the boys can choose what they want to do and how they want to live their lives. Nobody will question them or make judgements about their choices.
This lack of freedom made me even more determined to choose my own path. At times this was very challenging. When I chose to study, I did not have the support of my family. It was very difficult to support myself because I had no job and my mum would not give me the money to pay for my course. When I fell in love, my mum didn’t approve of my choice and my family did not speak to me, even though we were living under the same roof. I went through life every day as if I was a stranger in my own home and it was only when I broke off my engagement that my mum began to speak to me again. My brother still doesn’t speak to me now, six months later.
The last two years at university, studying what I love has really changed me as a person. I finally feel like I have achieved something in my life and it has given me fresh hope to be able to make my own choices. I feel stronger now and that is growing every day.
Last month, after speaking to my English friend for more than two and a half years, we finally got the chance to meet face to face when she travelled to Lebanon to visit. It is not easy for a Syrian to travel over the border; it takes a lot of planning and there are no guarantees that you will be given permission to enter the country. Syrians used to be able to go freely in and out of Lebanon, but the crisis has changed this. There are now many Syrian refugees in Lebanon and due to this, travel has been limited. It took weeks of preparation and a lot of anxiety to make the visit. My friend helped me make a passport and she supported me in finding an English course, some private lessons and with booking the IELTS exam, which will enable me to apply for university scholarships in English-speaking universities.
When I first arrived in Lebanon I was very shy and nervous. I did not have much confidence, I did not believe in myself, I was easily discouraged and did not have any belief in myself or my own abilities. In just a month my whole life has changed. Simple things like speaking to a bus driver once filled me with dread. When I first came to Lebanon I had to be collected in Damascus by a private car to drive me to the border. By the time I had to leave to go back into Syria to renew my visa so I could return to take the exam, I was able to travel all the way there and back again alone. I would never have imagined that this was possible for me.
When I first arrived in Lebanon I did not have the confidence to go to the shop alone or to walk myself to school, just a month later I can happily get in a minibus in Beirut. I can travel to another town, take another bus and make my own way across the border and on to the centre of Damascus. The feeling of liberation I feel fills me with more hope and I am now dreaming of travelling to more new places. Maybe I will take a plane next year to Malaysia, to meet my British friend for some more adventures.
In this last month I have seen the sea for the first time, I have stayed in hotels, I have taken my English language skills to a completely new level and I have laughed a lot. I will never be that frightened, anxious person again. I am a new woman, with a new belief in myself and I am looking forward to my future with a great sense of excitement.