Homelands & Strangers

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“I work to support my family.” About a third of the room takes a step forward. 

“I can trust or rely on the police when I need help.” Only two or three people move in.

“I’ve tried to hide that I am a refugee before.” First, a few bold steps. Then, a few hesitant steps follow. There’s a deafening pause. Moments later, almost everyone is inside the circle.  

“Syrian women used to be valued. Now, people see us as disposable,” Bana* shares in our debrief of this activity. She tells us a story of a Syrian woman who married a Turkish man. She didn’t speak Turkish and he didn’t speak Arabic. After a few weeks, they divorced. 

Fayza chimes in and shares a similar story. The group nods, saying that these temporary or unofficial marriages exploit vulnerable and impoverished Syrian women refugees and have become a noticeable trend. 

“I’ve tried to hide my refugee status before.” Why? 

Siham* says she’s tired of her second-tier status, that it isn’t right or just for her to belong to “altabaqa althanya” because she’s a Syrian, a refugee, or a woman. 

Fayza* says that, indeed, life here is hard, but it’s not because of discrimination or oppressive obstacles. “It’s just a different culture. And as strangers, nonnatives or guests, we need to be on our best behavior.” We need to be grateful that this country has opened up its gates to us. 

I look around the room. Some nod, some cringe. Siham* goes in. “Why am I a stranger? I am not a stranger. I am just trying to live, like anyone else. Who’s really a native anyway? We can’t be apologetic about our existence.” I nod vehemently in support of her words. I share that I was born and raised in the US, but regardless of my behavior, regardless of how nice I am, I am perpetually viewed as foreign, out of place.  

“That’s different. You were born and raised there–it’s not right for you to be treated that way. But for us, we haven’t been here for that long and we don’t know how long we will be here. We are temporary guests,” Fayza* responds.

“Actually, I like it here. I am here to stay,” Mariam* gently adds this side note. Even if the regime falls, and regardless of what comes next, she tells us that she wants to stay here, in Istanbul. This draws skeptical looks from around the room, some shock even. A couple of people get ready to intervene, but I try to steer the conversation back and let Mariam’s comment stand on its own. It’s already too difficult for her to share; she can’t be shut down the few times she does.  

Fayza* says that Syrians face discrimination, exploitation or have a bad rep because they’ve behaved poorly or have tainted Turkish culture. That if they could just abide by the norms here, their situation would be OK.

Janat* agrees. She shares a proverb. El ghareeb adeeb. “The stranger or foreigner is courteous/civil,” always on her best behavior and always dealing with people in the best way. When people here think poorly of us, she says, it’s because they’ve interacted with Syrians who’ve ruined our image. So we ought to set the best example at all times. 

Siham* denounces this burden of representation talk floating around. She says it isn’t fair. She’s tired of respectability politics used by Syrians to police other Syrians in the diaspora. And she’s tired of the baggage that comes with “Syrian refugee”–much of which is inaccurate and does not reflect her experience (assumptions about poverty levels, skills, educational background, political and social views, etc). 

She shares that cultures mix all the time, they all have the good and the bad, and we can’t view absorbing or inheriting “bad” social mannerisms as a one-way street. She gives examples of things she doesn’t like about her new home, and says that having recognizing that, she would never essentialize people here for it or blame them for negatively influencing her. 

If we want to talk about culture, Siham* says, we should talk about how much our culture was utterly suppressed by the regime and continues to be in the diaspora. “The Baath or nothing. That was the logic.” she says. “How can we blame our culture when we haven’t even had the freedom or space to shape one?” 

We bring up the statement, one more time, for any last thoughts. “I’ve tried to hide before that I’m a refugee.” 

Dalia* thinks this statement is too loaded. She says she doesn’t like the word refugee, and doesn’t want to be identified as such. Others respond that it is simply a status of location and citizenship, not a derogatory word to be ashamed of. She knows this, but she wants to choose how she identifies, and “refugee” isn’t at the top of her list. It’s not on her list. 

Today’s session was supposed to be about collective action and mobilizing around issues and obstacles in our community that we want to change. But the women of QUWA reminded us that raw conversations on how we conceptualize our “community” in the first place must precede attempts to rectify and build it. 

zk

هدي الحيطان إنتي مصدر كل الأمان

 

the backs of our QUWA shirts have a line that says,

“هدي الحيطان إنتي مصدر كل الأمان”

or “knock down the walls, you are the source of all security.”

it is a line from an arab woman hip hop artist, Mayam Mahmoud.

today, we did away with many walls we don’t want, and replaced them with quwa.

The Impact of Interactions

Yesterday, while taking roll call, I asked where Dalia* was. Her friend responded, “Dalia is gone. She went back to Syria.”

I said OK, moved on and called the name of the next person. But all is not OK. All I could think about for the rest of the session, on my way home, and now–is Dalia*. 

How can this be? Dalia* was here just the day before. How did she leave so suddenly? Why are we acting so casual about her leaving? About going home? What is she going back to? Who is she going back to?

I am so sad I didn’t get to to say goodbye. 

Finding QUWA in Self-Love

Today, we talked about self-love. I was nervous about bringing up this topic, just because I used to get annoyed at how much I heard this phrase thrown around carelessly during undergrad. As if loving yourself is a trendy, clean fact and not a messy, scary, contradictory struggle for some of us. Speaking with other women and listening deeply to myself, I now know that some people truly don’t love themselves and don’t know how to. And they certainly don’t need to be pressured or shamed for not being able to. Keeping this in mind, we tried to tread very softly for this topic.

Our Healing Circle today was also an outing. Sahar* had suggested a new place, and the rest of us figured it would be nice to take a break from the stuffy classroom and loud street noise we’ve grown accustomed to in Esenler. Gulhane Park was scenic, breezy, shady, cathartic. 

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We started by going around and sharing one thing we love about ourselves. Jannat* loves that she is tender-hearted. Tala* loves her nuanced outlook on life. Khalto Ayat* loves her taqwa, her relentless closeness to God. Faten* loves her laugh. Dina* loves her ability to guard her rights. 

We talked about acts of self-love and exchanged ideas on tangible things we can do to remind ourselves why we are brave and wise and lovable. To renew out commitment to working on loving ourselves. To affirm that we are worthy of a whole love. Sahar* says she likes sitting in front of the mirror, brushing her beautiful hair, and complimenting herself. Someone stepped in, asking if she did this because she felt she lacked compliments from others or if this was her way of prompting others to compliment her. She firmly said no. That she did this because she genuinely wants to remind herself what she loves about herself. And because she really just loves her hair. In this mirror exercise she doesn’t only compliment her physical looks, but also praises what she loves about her personality. “Sometimes, I’m just like wow, who is this fabulous person in front of me!”  People giggled, but really, we probably all want Sahar’s* self-love.

Another person, Inayah*, said she recently started to write down the things she likes about herself in a notebook. She comes back to this list when she is angry with herself or too tough on herself. Khalto Wafaa* said that she compliments the things that she does, even when they don’t turn out good or as expected. For example, if she cooks something for the first time, before/while serving it to her family, she talks about how delicious this meal is and how everyone is so lucky to have a chef like her around home. 

Since we’ve managed to build some trust and intimacy during the past weeks, we didn’t skirt around the difficulty and struggle that comes with self-love. We talked about how sometimes, even the things we love about ourselves, can be a source of shame or guilt because of what others around us say or because we prioritize others’ feelings/perspectives over our own. For example, Dina* who had mentioned in the beginning that she loves that she defends herself and is able to stand up for herself, said that sometimes she simultaneously feels bad about this. When she replays images of scenes where she defended herself, she begins to question herself: was I too harsh? was it bad that I hit him on the face? do I overreact? 

Others expressed similar sentiments of shame or guilt about things they would otherwise love about themselves. “I love that I’m tenderhearted, but it causes me so much pain when people take advantage of me, so I also hate this about myself,” Jannat* shared. Similarly, Shayma* who mentioned in the beginning that she loves her ferocity/rage, shared that it is some thing she is also very self-conscious. 

Someone asked how we can change these things that we don’t like about ourselves or what we can do to work on them. 

Huda* mentioned that perhaps the solution to these deflections from our self-love is to drop the people who get in the way of them–instead of dropping the things we see as precious in ourselves. What a comfortable thought to sit with. 

 

with QUWA,

zk

Drawing Our Hurt & Healing

نضع رؤوسنا المتعبة على الوسائد لو إستطاعت هذه أن تتكلم لروت  قصصا تملؤها المعاناة . معاناة أصلها من داخل النفس ولكنها تتغذى من محيط ينقصه الفهم و التقدير. هدفنا إعطاء الصوت لهذه االمقاومات الوحيدة  المنعزلة  من خلال مشروع  “وسائد القلق” الدائم المستمر .

Shaamuna

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المؤمن القوي

A hadith we keep coming back to at QUWA after someone mentioned it the first day and as we continue to redefine for ourselves what it means to be “strong”: 

عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ، قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏“‏ الْمُؤْمِنُ الْقَوِيُّ خَيْرٌ وَأَحَبُّ إِلَى اللَّهِ مِنَ الْمُؤْمِنِ الضَّعِيفِ وَفِي كُلٍّ خَيْرٌ احْرِصْ عَلَى مَا يَنْفَعُكَ وَاسْتَعِنْ بِاللَّهِ وَلاَ تَعْجِزْ وَإِنْ أَصَابَكَ شَىْءٌ فَلاَ تَقُلْ لَوْ أَنِّي فَعَلْتُ كَانَ كَذَا وَكَذَا ‏.‏ وَلَكِنْ قُلْ قَدَرُ اللَّهِ وَمَا شَاءَ فَعَلَ فَإِنَّ لَوْ تَفْتَحُ عَمَلَ الشَّيْطَانِ ‏”‏ ‏.‏

Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) as saying:

A strong believer is better and is more lovable to Allah than a weak believer, and there is good in everyone, (but) cherish that which gives you benefit (in the Hereafter) and seek help from Allah and do not lose heart, and if anything (in the form of trouble) comes to you, don’t say: If I had not done that, it would not have happened so and so, but say: Allah did that what He had ordained to do and your “if” opens the (gate) for the Satan.

Self-Care Day: A License to Live

Day three’s healing circle was about self-care, the things–big and small–that give us pleasure, make us feel at peace and ease. QUWA headquarters is filled every day with world-running women, women who direct multiple branches of schools for Syrian refugees in Turkey, young women who work 8am-6pm at factories every day while teaching themselves Turkish and applying to Turkish universities, women who complete their studies while also looking after their communities, families, parents, siblings, friends, and children. So today we focused on how we can center ourselves and take a step back from all the to-do lists and responsibilities to fulfill the ultimate responsibility we have to take care of ourselves, to nourish and sustain ourselves and preserve our vital strengths.

We talked for a bit about why it’s important to practice self-care, but one khalto in the circle wisely said it best: و إن لبدنك عليك حقا  “And verily, your body has rights over you”(Hadith). At the end of the day, if we’re not well–emotionally, physically, mentally–we won’t be able to achieve anything else.

Since self-care is supposed to be about pleasure and the activities or time spent for inner peace, we wanted to gift ourselves some self-love. First, we named the things that bring us relief. We asked ourselves, what are the things far removed from work, or family, or school or activism, that we simply enjoy doing? What do we love to do (or not do)? In my small group, I heard some fantastic responses: Rawann** said she likes to take walks alone and spend time enjoying the beauty of Allah’s creation and remembering Him through his signs; Sarah**loves the beach and being by the water; Noora**doodles drawings and designs in her journal, and writes short stories from her own imagination; Ghada**, a microbiologist and one of the most gentle, caring souls I’ve ever met, said she loves to take care of insects, having raised a butterfly from caterpillar to cocoon to its beautiful wings. (Ghada is a 27 year-old powerhouse–she is also learning Turkish, teaching at a school in Istanbul, applying to MA programs in microbiology, and in her free time, she experiments with homemade, all-natural face masks and skincare, and does organic cooking). My personal favorite though, was Ayah** who said that when she’s feeling a lot of pressure, she goes somewhere completely empty and secluded, and just YELLS at the top of her lungs.

Taking time for self-care is easier said than done. As one woman said, most of the time, we start to feel guilty if we take a “break” for ourselves when there’s still so much to do–to the point that we don’t end up relaxing at all! So to wrap up the day, we each gave ourselves a “license to live” (or more than one), a small written IOU that we could use at any time to take a dance break, to go out to the ocean, to do nothing, to read a book for fun. The best thing about this license? It never expires and can be used indefinitely.

In our one-word checkout, one woman chose the word “sisterhood”. It’s true. Self-care, it turns out, is infinitely sweeter when your sister survivors are behind you, encouraging you to put yourself first.

with peace,

Nour

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Relationships

Today was tough. Maybe the hardest session we’ve had yet. It was about naming and recognizing the violence we face in its multiple forms. We introduced it by first talking about our relationships. Following our discussion the previous day about healthy and unhealthy boundaries, we asked ourselves: what are signs of healthy and unhealthy relationships? 

People were eager to share the ways that the events of the past few years have changed their lives. “The revolution has changed everything, starting with my relationships with people. Especially with my mom. We don’t talk anymore. Whenever we do, we are yelling or depressed or apathetic,” Samya* offered. 

Manar* shared with us a recent episode in her life that forever changed her relationship with her best friend. Her house had just been bombed, and she received news that her brother had died (it turned out that this was misinformation and he actually hadn’t died). This news came shortly after her beloved aunt had been killed not too long ago, so the grief she felt was building onto an existing hole she already felt. In that moment and for the next few days she was in a state of shock, cursing everything and everyone from Assad to the revolution to the Free Syrian Army. Upon hearing this, her best friend was livid. She could not believe that she was cursing the rebels and the opposition. “You should give everything to the resistance,” she told her. “How dare you speak like this?” Manar says she regrets reacting in this way. Now her friend views her as weak, or as a traitor. But she could not help it–she wasn’t in a right state of mind, she said to us. Manar doesn’t speak to her friend anymore. 

After speaking about how some of our relationships have changed, we moved to discussing the reasons we stay in relationships that are abusive or unhealthy. People listed things like emotional commitments, economic attachments, and family, friendship, forgiveness. This is where things got tricky, and it was mostly a generational gap. An older khalto basically kept saying that everything else, any struggle or problem–in comparison to the war–was nothing. That if they could escape and live through this war, what was a dysfunctional relationship? Her words were authoritative and piercing. A couple of younger women mustered the gumption to offer a counterpoint, saying that other grievances and wreckages were legitimate and should not be undermined or isolated from the larger structural violence they face as a community. The khalto pushed back, saying that as a fragmented community, Syrian refugees could not pick at one another, that they could not afford to hate each other. They had to recognize, she said, that “everyone has their shortcomings,” and forgive others so that we may be forgiven when we mess up as well. 

I feel that I could have been more proactive with facilitating; less neutral.

But how do you resist, even if softly, a much older khalto, a precious elder whose wrinkles and exhausted eyes point to unspeakable stories and vast wisdom? The eye contact and nods I made with the younger women who clearly did not agree with her confirmed that we understood that the older khalto needed to talk. This was her current worldview, and she wasn’t ready to let go. Not at this moment. Right now, she needed to be heard.

In our one-word check out, Tina*–a medical student who was all but done with her studies in Syria and was just one test away from becoming a doctor when she had to leave–said she started the circle today feeling uneasy, but now, at the end, felt much more “quwa”. That recognizing the violence she faced was hard and emotional and made her cry while filling out the checklist as it triggered lots of traumatic memories of isolation and despair. She said it was extremely rare for her to find a place to talk and find affirmation–as she found in our small group discussions today–without others rushing to make comments or give advice. “We don’t know how to listen to each other. We need a cultural shift that centers the hurt, the one whispering, the vulnerable, the weakened.”

Samya* agreed. “Yes. I want their voices to be heard. And I want laws that protect them too.” 

til later,

zk

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Setting Boundaries

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In Session 4, we talked about setting and respecting our own boundaries–placing boundaries for how much we offer of our time, space, energy and selves. We discussed signs and examples of healthy and unhealthy boundaries using a checklist for each participant that asked us to mark if we practiced the listed behavior often, sometimes or rarely. One thing many people identified as an issue they had is “saying yes when I want to say no” and “accepting things (food, gifts, touch) that I do not want”. Some participants said that they may do this sometimes so as to not embarrass the person in front of them. One of the older khaltos hit the nail on the head right away, telling us that if we did not respect our own boundaries when it came to little things, we would gradually lose control of our own boundaries for more grave situations or for values we hold dear.

The conversation segued perfectly into our next activity. We got into pairs and handed out cards to everyone with various scenarios written out that one of them was supposed to act out to the other. The cards said things like “offer her baklava,” or “offer her a ride home,” or “ask her to hang out and go to the movies,” or “invite her over for dinner.” The challenge was for the invitee to refuse the offer in the way she saw fit, with the inviter being rather persistent and pushy. Initially, there were a lot of giggles, and even “sure, yeah, why not, let’s go to the movies!” We reminded participants that we were role-playing; that they should see the person in front of them not necessarily as the actual person in front of them but perhaps as an acquaintance, a coworker, stranger, or even a friend, etc.–the point is to practice saying no when you don’t want something across different situations and contexts, so we asked them to envision someone they needed to practice saying no to.

In the second round of practice, the responses were impressive. People declined offers and invitations in unique and competent ways. Some offered an unapologetic and curt, “No thanks,” and walked away, while others named an excuse or reason to escape the situation even amid overbearing pressure to give in. 

Our next activity took boundary-setting a step further. We learned how to value our space, and mark it. We learned how to take up a lot of space, with our bodies and with our voices, and to not always bend so that others may extend. To not prioritize others’ comfort over our own. We learned how to identify and imagine actually “carving out our space” (s/o to Angela for teaching me this concept). How much of a circle do you need around you to feel comfortable? To feel safe? Draw it out, mentally. Imagine it is there, and it beeps when someone crosses it.

Participants talked about how this circle would look different depending on who is with them and where they are, and we agreed that this changing meter is totally acceptable and needed (e.g. it is not a “double standard” or problematic for “lacking in consistency” as trolls may point out). The first rule in self-defense and self-care is that, precisely, there are no “rules”–you set and decide what resources to use and decisions to make based on the situation you find yourself in and your capabilities in that moment. 

People lined up in two lines on either end of the room facing each other. We told them to find a partner across them. One side of the room walked toward the other side briskly, making intense eye contact, maybe even saying something. The goal was for the people standing on the other side to tell the person walking toward them to “stop!” whenever they felt that they were encroaching on their marked space. After doing this in pairs, the QUWA organizers role-played a situation with each person individually in front of the whole group, where we asked each person to diffuse, evade or stop the situation in the way they saw fit, using their tools (voice, posture, situation-assessment, etc). We had scenarios at a quiet bus stop, for example, where a stranger or perpetrator would come too close or ask invasive questions like, “You Syrian, huh?” or “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” Sometimes the questions were more simple, “Do you know what time the bus comes?”

The responses were amazing. People practiced their “power poses”–they practiced “making themselves bigger” with their shoulders back, hands up, no smiles, and most importantly, using loud and firm voices when they felt it was necessary. The smiles were difficult to get rid of; not necessarily anymore because we were role-playing but because it is very common for women in vulnerable or uncomfortable situations to smile. 

The debrief at the end of the session was raw and vulnerable. We talked about the transgressions we’ve faced–from people we know and don’t know–the times we resisted, the times we didn’t, and the times we didn’t know we could. It was amazing to see someone like Manar*, who on the first day openly told the group she had no self-esteem and doesn’t like talking about herself, volunteer to speak first today. To speak about how she can’t let shyness keep her from not saying no or defending herself. 

Hand in hand, we closed with one-word check-outs. This is usually a closing activity that many of us find heart-warming and spiritually/physically connecting. But the true treat came when 12-year-old Rana* used the same powerful voice she used to yell “no!” just moments ago to now serenade us with her sweet, sweet singing. 

with love,

zk