A seven-year-old girl snatches the camera away first, intent on being the photographer for what has quickly become an impromptu photo shoot with three other friends. In the otherwise empty classroom in a village north of Amman, Jordan, Manal sweeps in to take that camera back, sending the four scattering to various corners of the room.
Manal, 24, sits and smiles ear-to-ear as soon as her face is angled out of the girls’ lines of sight.
“I love the babies, and I feel good when I teach them. I give something to the children,” she says. “When I look into their eyes, I see the joy. It’s a good feeling.”
It’s positivity in what is otherwise a seemingly destitute situation. Manal has been living in northern Jordan for the past year and a half after fleeing Homs during the ongoing Syrian war. Formerly studying at university for her degree in chemistry, she was forced to leave her education—and economic future—behind in favor of the safety and security south of her borders.
“In Syria, there is kidnapping and you cannot go without anyone. There is no electricity, there is no water,” Manal explains. “When you are walking in the street, the sniper can shoot and kill you, without any reason…You cannot live there.”
She now teaches young students—both Jordanian and Syrian—in the small school less than eight miles south of the Syrian border. With this job, she is the sole supporter of her family. A mother, brother and two younger sisters, none of whom are able to work due to age—too young or too old—and strictly enforced labor laws for refugees, (Manal explained men are more strictly watched).
Her father died in Syria, leaving her as something of the father figure in a household reliant on her to stay afloat. In Syria, she worked in the university laboratory—an “amazing job.” Manal was preparing to continue on for her Masters and PhD.
In a situation shared by fellow, younger generations of Syrians having fled their home state, she cannot attend university in Jordan. Even if that option came around, she couldn’t leave her family fending for themselves without an income or a legitimized place in their host community, as she holds now through her work at the school.
“Everything in the past was beautiful,” Manal says. “Life here is very difficult. I am happy when I work, but I am sad. I cannot study. I cannot reach my aim in life.”
Manal’s story, while unique to her in the details, largely mirrors the struggles faced by Syrian refugee women—whether in a host country or even still in Syria. Living in displacement, many running homes in the absence of husbands, fathers, education and personal sense of security, Syrian women are defying not only gender norms, but also the self-imposed limits of strength and resilience many might otherwise face.
The situation in Syria is devastating—many areas a war zone, regime checkpoints to stop people from fleeing, near-daily bombings and a specific type of chaos caused by imported extremist groups that did not exist even a year ago. Rape is cited as one of the main reasons families flee to the neighboring countries, and the economic situation is severe enough to see people starving in their home country. And while the situation for refugees in host countries—whether in camps or cities—brings security from war, it certainly does not equate to not stability for all.
It is this destruction and tumult, however, which the women of Syria fight to rise above. Many are supporting their families, financially and psychologically, making and acting upon the decision to flee danger through danger for a chance at safety. They establish a sense of normalcy and independence in the face of adversity—culturally, financially or otherwise. They are winning that battle.
By the end of the conversation, the girls have made their way back to Manal, tucking themselves into her arms and peaking around her waist. It’s this picture of innocence and protection that starkly contrasts the fact of the words coming across the table from their teacher.
“Syria became a dying country and a war country,” Manal says in English, not understood by her students. “There is no security. None.”
The four little ones stay where they are, beaming up at their role model. And she is there, smiling back at them, the sadness in her eyes not hidden, but rather accompanied by the resolve she wears so well.