"We were like birds in the cage"

06 November 2009

Al-Tanf Graduation Ceremony

November 2009

"You cannot imagine how important this trip is for us," exclaims Intisar Yusef Mahmoud, a Palestine refugee from Iraq, as she and fifty other women made their first trip outside of the camp in over 18 months. Life is tough in al-Tanf, an isolated and desolate refugee camp located 250km east of Damascus, along the Syrian-Iraqi border.

Intisar and other women from al-Tanf travelled to UNRWA Women‘s Centre in Yarmouk and Tartous in late October to celebrate their graduation from courses in hairdressing and beautification. The trip was organised by UNRWA‘s relief and social services programme to honour the women and their accomplishments.

Nearly 90 women living in al-Tanf camp enrolled in vocational training courses offered by UNRWA, and those who successfully completed the six-month course were awarded a certificate at the graduation ceremony held at the Yarmouk Women’s Centre.

The living conditions in the camp are seriously below standard, as most refugees live in tents between the highway and a six-metre-high wall. UNRWA organises social activities in the camps in an effort to better the inhabitants’ lives.

One of the teachers, Manal Khalife, proudly boasted about the accomplishments of her students and the subsequent opportunities that have enabled her students to put their skills into action. "We recently did the hair and make-up for a bride whose wedding was held in al-Tanf. The wedding crowd had to drive around the camp by ambulance, since there were no cars available. You see we can still manage to celebrate and make the most of our circumstances, despite our lack of resources!" Manal laughs.

The training activities have provided the women with an outlet to express themselves and free their minds from their harsh surroundings in which they are forced to live. Social worker Ishtar al-Dali has been running projects in al-Tanf for the past year in order to help alleviate the stress of everyday life.

Daily activities organised for women and young girls include an embroidery course, a Qur’an study course, as well as a discussion session. "Girls can write their questions on little slips of paper and then drop them in the box. We then try to answer their questions and solve their problems individually or as a whole in a group," explains Ishtar al-Dali.

The recent training programme has given the women a renewed sense of optimism. "My students were very motivated and excited about the training. The course gave them hope and made them believe in themselves," Manal Khalife says.

"Before UNRWA activities were implemented, our only options were to watch television and to pass our time at home," says Intisar. The hairdressing course provided her relief from the doldrums of everyday life, and her participation in the graduation ceremony allowed her to leave the al-Tanf camp for the first time in over 18 months. Still, she continues to worry about her children’s chances for a better life in the future. "I‘m waiting to hear whether my family can be resettled in a third country; we are awaiting answer from Finland. I hope for a better future for my children. They do not have a chance to further their educational studies if we stay in the camp."

Text and photos by Karoliina Romanoff

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