“Palestine refugee women’s lives have always been very difficult. We lead lives of continuous struggle, very different from the normal life enjoyed by others,” says Maysoun Za’ttoutt. Those same difficulties and challenges have formed and shaped Maysoun, making her into the kind of woman who can provide an anchor for her family no matter the storm, who can be a rock for her community in the most trying of circumstances.
Maysoun knows all too much about that: She was only recently able to escape from the Palestine refugee camp of Yarmouk, in Damascus, after being trapped there for six months during which the camp was besieged, with no access to help or support from outside. She will never forget the memory of the haunted, hungry faces of her children. “We lived in a nightmare world,” she recalls. “Most people, including my family, were living on soup made from just water and spices”; others foraged for wiled vegetation.
Before the situation in Yarmouk grew unlivable, Maysoun had worked as a substitute teacher at Syrian government schools in Damascus. She watched as the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) schools that Palestine refugee children in Yarmouk depended on closed – some for security reasons, others because they were converted into shelters for refugees – and decided that something had to be done for the children of the camp. If they didn’t complete the curriculum requirements, they would lose an entire year of their schooling – letting the conflict attack their future as well as their present.
“My husband and I decided to make use of the al-Dimashqiyeh Wedding Hall in Yarmouk,” Maysoun says – “it was better than the alternative, which was no education for the children.” She recruited volunteer teachers to help, and UNRWA allowed the use of its desks and stationery. Maysoun notes the important support of the community – “We used to receive in-kind donations like mazout fuel from families who remained in the camp” – that was instrumental to the success of her initiative. Eventually, around 600 young students joined the makeshift school.
Maysoun and her family were lucky to make it out of Yarmouk. But, she says, “My memories have not died, I haven’t left them buried in Yarmouk. Those events are still very much alive, etched into my brain.” She is not losing a single moment to grief, however, turning her sorrow instead to motivation for a better future for her children – “one based on a good education and a successful life.”