Solidarity with our Syrian Friends in Need: Call for Donations 

"Last September, we embarked on a 10-day trip to conduct fieldwork in different cities in Hatay Province, Turkey, for our Advanced Research Project in the Gender track. We collaborated on “Amwaj”, waves in Arabic, a project that aims to empower female Syrian engineers and economists"

By Mariam Kerfai, Sarah Shafik, and Elona Wahlen

Last September, we embarked on a 10-day trip to conduct fieldwork in different cities in Hatay Province, Turkey, for our Advanced Research Project in the Gender track. The trip was made possible through a partnership with Geo Expertise, a Geneva-based non-profit organization founded in 2010. We collaborated on “Amwaj”, waves in Arabic, a project that aims to empower female Syrian engineers and economists by providing them with technical and soft-skill training, such as communication, project proposal writing, and water rehabilitation program design and management, among others. 

Our contribution to Amwaj consisted of conducting a series of qualitative interviews with women and men working for US, Turkish, Syrian, and Kurdish (Iraq)-based humanitarian NGOs operating in northern, northeastern, and northwestern Syria. Several of these organizations were founded by Syrian professionals, coming from various backgrounds, who reoriented their careers, either by choice or necessity, to work in the humanitarian sector. These in-person and virtual interviews allowed us to explore the overall experience of women employed in the water/WASH sector including the barriers they face to finding a job as well as the greater sense of empowerment they achieve once employed. Our interviewees’ feedback and recommendations also allowed us to synthesize a list of best practices for the training. 

We had the privilege of meeting Syrian refugees whose stories and current situations deeply moved us. We were humbled by their determination to build new lives for themselves and their families despite enduring significant emotional and physical trauma. We were struck by their precarious statuses and their uncertain futures. Several people were waiting to receive a confirmation on residency permits that would finally allow them to move freely in Turkey; a few others anticipated their long-awaited Turkish nationalities. 

Through our connection with Dr Ahmed Haj Asaad from Geo Expertise, we were invited to stay at Walla, to make a promise in Arabic, Supportive House in Reyhanli, Turkey. Over the past decade, the shelter has been supporting the reintegration of displaced refugees–women, often widows, and their children–from the Syrian conflict and helping them to establish themselves in their new community in Turkey. Walla was our home base for the duration of our trip. 

When reports and pictures of the region’s earthquakes and aftershocks started appearing two weeks ago, our first thoughts were of our new friends and acquaintances. Were they safe? Could we support them in any way? 

A view of Syria in the distance from Reyhanli

In Reyhanli, we received an extremely warm welcome from our hosts and spent some of the most memorable moments of our lives with them. When we first arrived, each family or individual resident took time to get to know us by inviting us to drink tea or coffee with them in their part of the house. We exchanged stories about our families, future aspirations, and life in general. Our conversations were bittersweet: a mix of loss, nostalgia, yet hope and so much laughter. We mostly spoke in Syrian, Egyptian, and Tunisian dialects, as well as in English. 

Meal time was always convivial. Everyone would gather in the main dining area and dig into the delicious food that one of the residents would prepare for the house. More conversations and laughter would ensue. After a particularly long day out interviewing, we returned to the comforting smell of Mulukhiyah wafting from the kitchen. 

Our stay at Walla culminated in a surprise double-birthday celebration for Sarah and one of the little girls living there. The festivities included a banquet, music, and several exhilarating rounds of dancing Dabke. It was truly a night to remember!

Although it was brief, our trip felt much longer as we had fallen into the rhythm of early mornings, late nights, and cups of coffee or tea, and making interview call after call. We gained new friendships and developed a deeper understanding of and appreciation for Syrian culture. 

The entrance to Walla Supportive House in Reyhanli

Walla Supportive House receives its funding from the Swiss nonprofit, Human Action International Organization (HAIO), and is run and managed by HAIO staff. Back in Geneva, we met with Paul Viola, the Founder and Director of HAIO, to discuss ways in which we could support the women and children whom we had become so close to at Walla. 

Before the earthquakes hit, HAIO had been experiencing some financial hurdles, especially when Covid-19 was at its height. While rent for the house has always been paid, there have been times when Walla Supportive House had to wait anywhere from 3 weeks to 2 months to pay for food, utilities, and the educational initiatives that it organizes. Recently, residents had to pool together their meagre funds to pay for food in October and November. The dependence on donors and their timelines can be difficult to plan accordingly. For example, one donor has agreed to contribute next month, but HAIO does not know exactly when in March it will receive funding. Furthermore, there are simply not enough current donors and donations to achieve the guarantee of a continuously safe and stable environment for its residents that HAIO strives for. It has thus been paramount to seek new sources of funding. Our sincere hope is for Walla to continue operating.

Sarah surrounded by some of our new young friends

It has been devastating to see the damage and death toll caused by the earthquakes that have struck the region. Refugee communities are particularly more vulnerable as they do not always receive the necessary aid. While our friends at Walla have not suffered from any direct hits, several buildings in the surrounding neighborhoods have either collapsed or have been partially damaged. For now, they are safe but very apprehensive of the precarious situation. 

Now, more than ever, the women and children at Walla need support. As such, HAIO is welcoming donations to meet Walla’s residents’ basic needs, as well as its efforts to serve families and children in the greater community who have been affected by the earthquakes, especially during the cold of winter.  

If you would like to support Walla financially, you can donate through this link, or by scanning the QR code below. Any contribution amount truly counts and it is guaranteed that all funds go directly to the shelter and its initiatives. Since HAIO is a registered nonprofit at the registre du commerce du Bas-Vallais, donations are tax deductible. 

Finally, we ask for you, dear reader, to spread our message. Thank you! 

Note: Photos of the women at Walla Supportive House, their names, and other possibly identifiable information have been omitted in order to respect their privacy and ensure their safety. Permission was granted to share a photo of their children. Photos and names of the employees whom we interviewed at the humanitarian NGOs have also been omitted to ensure their safety.

Photos taken by Mariam Kerfai, Sarah Shafik, and Elona Wahlen 

Cover photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

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