Little things take on outsize importance in times of conflict. Like haircuts: In the collective shelter at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) Safad School, located in the Rukin Eddin neighbourhood of Damascus, Jumanah al-'Askari provides them for free, including to most of the children in the shelter. “In most cases I don’t charge anything, because most of us have little money. I wanted to do anything that I could to help the other residents,” she explains.
In 2009, Jumanah worked in a hairdressing shop in the capital’s Harasta neighbourhood, but the conflict that began in 2011 forced her to leave – first to safer parts of Damascus, and then for several months to Beirut. Now, like her 'customers’, she too is a resident of the Safad shelter. Her resilience and generosity are traits shared by many of the refugee women who have been displaced by the country’s violence.
Difficult times typically highlight individuals’ greatest strengths, and in the shelter, it is impossible to ignore the dynamism and potential of the 33 women who now call it home. Many of them have suffered traumatic experiences; most have no source of income or marketable skills, but they are determined to use the skills and knowledge they have to improve their lives both now and in the future.
UNRWA is working to encourage and support these women by adapting its Engaging Youth project, funded by the European Union (EU). Originally established in peacetime, the project now works to support people who find themselves in a very different situation. As Fouzi Madfaa, the Chief of the UNRWA Technical and Vocational Training programme, explained, “The skills they gain here will help these women rebuild their communities when they return home, after the conflict, and seek gainful employment.” Without the long-term support from the EU, he added, the project would not have been possible.
The project offers courses that help the women develop job skills, improve living standards and explore opportunities for self-sustainability. There are also psychosocial support sessions where women can recount their stories and share their experiences, as well as courses in hairdressing, like the one Jumanah attended, and crocheting. Isslah al-Jazari, who first sought refuge with her in-laws in Qaboun, attended the latter when she reached Safad with her family.
Isslah has a diploma in Arabic literature and religion, and explains that with nothing to do, “displaced women sat idle in the shelter all day long, feeling frustrated.” She learned about the courses from a project Career Guidance Offer, who visited all the women personally. The three-month crocheting course, she says, “provided us with a lot of support. It strengthened our spirits and the bonds between us.”
When the course was over, the shelter organized an exhibition to allow graduates to showcase their work, including knitted sweaters and baby clothes. Isslah has started making clothes for her family, and has partnered with another woman to sell her products. “I would recommend that all the women take this course,” she says.