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Happy New Year!

Last days of QUWA


I want to remember two of the happiest days of my life:

Day One: First Last Day of QUWA

We did an affirmation circle. Every woman had the chance to sit in the middle and listen to every other person tell her something they loved or admired about her.

Bana and Eman said to us afterwards: “Thank you so much for this opportunity. We always wished we had a space where it would be appropriate to express our feelings for others in the group, because so many thoughts come up when you spend this much time with people”. Most people said they’d never done anything like it before.

Arab women are so bold, so honest. Their “compliments” sometimes went like this: “When you first walked into the room, I thought you were so arrogant. But now I know that you are confident and loving and thoughtful.”

 At the end of the go-around, the woman sitting in the middle is supposed to say “thank you, I know this about myself”. When we did it at Impact, it was awkward, but these women made a joke of it, understanding the point completely at the same time. “Khajaltooni”, you’ve made me shy, they’d say. “Thank you so much for your kind words, and I love and admire you all so much more. But to be honest, I know this about myself.”

So many of the affirmations came in the simple form of “min awwal ma shuftik, wa anti qareeba min qalbi”, since I first saw you, you have been close to my heart. I have never heard a phrase that so perfectly encompasses sincere love for another human being as this one does.

The affirmations took longer than we planned for, so we didn’t have time to do the self-defense final test that day (Amo Mahmood, the school’s caretaker, was losing his patience with our overtime). We had a rushed but beautiful graduation ceremony outside. Fatin’s younger sister and her friends–a group of bouncy elementary-age girls–helped me pass out the flowers and graduation gifts while Zeinab read the names on the QUWA certificates. Then the little girls asked me if we had extra flowers and gifts for them, and I silently thanked Allah we had leftovers.

Aminah wrote each woman’s name on her certificate in beautiful Arabic script, she was known for her calligraphic handwriting. We brought two QUWA cakes from MADO cake shop on Istiklal street, and the cake-makers drew smiley faces next to the word, somehow knowing it was a happy occasion.  And the ladies of QUWA cooked the most delicious feast for us, the best pizza I’ve ever had, grape leaves, raw kibbeh. We gave a plate to Amo Mahmood downstairs; Eman took it down and said that would quell his irritation so we could stay in the building later. At the end, we cut the cake on “1, 2, 3 QUWA!”

DAY 2: Second Last Day of QUWA

We met again Saturday morning to do the self-defense “final exam”. Most people were late because they went on a swimming trip the day before and were exhausted, but everyone came. While we waited, Um Jannat told us stories about raising her kids, and we all laughed along, wondering if we would ever stop being in awe of her.

We finally started and the energy was explosive. We recorded the girls on the floor so they could watch their fights later. Even Sumayya, Fatin, Ghada, and Shereen didn’t stop until they kicked us to the floor. The Der’aa sisters were fighting with unprecedented strength–Zeinab and I took turns with them because by the end we couldn’t stand. Bana’s and Eman’s kicks were actually painful but filled us with joy. Masa didn’t want to fight at first, then she kicked ass farther than she ever had before.

After each fight, Z and I lay on the floor and they yelled “Unthuri, Qayyimi, Alnajda Alnajda Alnajda!” (Look, Assess, Help Help Help!) When we first taught them this phrase, I embarrassingly demonstrated it by myself; now, we were all chanting together, our voices hoarse. Every woman did her fight individually, but the line of women standing behind her thundering and clapping, yelling reminders to slap the mat and kick the target, left the room and our hearts trembling with almost unbearable strength.

We gathered in a sweaty circle at the end. They asked us to sit in the middle to do our affirmations since we didn’t have time before. I have never felt my personality so simply and completely recognized, understood and embraced as it was by this group of women.

It was time to go. We took a million pictures and accepted a million gifts. We danced. Fatin really was a beautiful dancer, as everyone had been telling us all month. Um Jannat told us we were her daughters and she wished that we had met in Syria so that she could have hosted us in her home. She said, “wala’tuna wa taraktuna”, you have ignited us and now you are leaving.

We walked to the metro station together; Ghada and Shereen told me they never miss a day of QUWA, that they argue with their mother to let them come. I love Shereen so much; her eyes are magically playful and she feels like an old, old friend.

We talked and laughed loudly on the metro, so much so that the Turkish metro-riders gave us disapproving looks and told us to be quiet. We joked that we were just having too much fun for them. All the QUWA girls were getting off at the Fatih stop, but we had one more stop to go after them. But they pulled us off with them. We took one more group picture. We said tearful goodbyes. With some people, I couldn’t speak. We just hugged.

Aminah, Jenna, Sara, Eman, Bana, Alaa, Shereen, Ghada, Heba, Fatin, Asya, Um Jannat, Serene, Tala, Sakina. These are not their real names, but these women are the realest. They revived me; they gave me life.

I only pray to Allah (swt) what we prayed together that last day: to allow us to meet again, this time in a free Syria, Egypt and Palestine.

With love,



What do you say to Ghorba?


My friend Suha once told me that her favorite Arabic word is ghorba.

Not because it sounds particularly beautiful or is a word we use in everyday talk, but because of the weight it carries.


Even saying it is heavy.

It is a single, smooth word that takes too many sloppy English words to explain.


Alienation. Expatriation. Displacement. Being detached from your homeland. Having a home that is inaccessible to you.

Ghorba is hefty, solemn, wounding, chilling.

Ghorba is an opportunity. A risk. An unforeseen consequence. A last resort. An imposition.

In this last QUWA session, we talked about ghorba. Alyaa* shared how guilty she felt being away from home; from her aging parents who had relied on her most. Ghorba is haunting. It distances and cools people in unexpected ways. When Alyaa* calls home to check on her parents, the conversations are short. Her mother doesn’t like keeping the phone line busy. What if they call and tell us where your brothers are? What if they call to tell us that they’ve found them or found their bodies? I am doing fine. Just take care of yourself. We need this phone line. It is a lifeline.

She feels like a traitor, she says. Why did she get to leave? Why just her and not the rest of her family? Should she have stayed? Would things maybe have gotten better if she had just been more patient? At least she would have been surrounded by her mother and father and those she loves, right? The women in the QUWA circle remind her that nothing would have been guaranteed had she stayed. They warn her of romanticizing what she escaped from. That her leaving may actually be better for her parents–they don’t have to worry about her the way they would have had she stayed in Syria. “Yet it may happen that you will hate a thing which is better for you; and it may happen that you will love a thing which is worse for you…” (Quran 2:216)

Alyaa* knows this. She knows she had to leave and she knows why she did. Her seven-year-old daughter experienced shelling over and over. One time, as they ran and sought shelter in a nearby bathroom, she saw the remains of a dead man. Until this day, her daughter cannot go to the bathroom alone. She says she still seems him. She knows the details of his face well. Every once in a while she asks her mom about him. Why did he die? Who killed him? Was he a regime supporter? Did he deserve to die? She is seven.

Basma* questions herself everyday. She also lives here alone now with her daughter. What does it mean to be disconnected from not only a house or your nuclear family but from a deep-seated, interconnected community that raised you and nourished you and fought you and supported you? What does it mean to lose all of that amid your burning desire for communion and partnership to make it through the worst of days and to celebrate the most thrilling of days?

Fayza* says she feels useless. She is overcome and fed-up with the idleness she experiences. She used to work. She was active and her day was busy. Now, there is no productivity in my day. The women tell Fayza* that her worth is not measured by how “productive” she is. Her significance is not determined by the capitalist scale that tells us you are what you do or you are what you produce or what you earn. If you spend the day taking care of yourself, doing what you love or learning something new–that is a win. If you spend the day supporting a sister in healing, helping her make a stride forward or growing a bond of love between you that was not there yesterday, that is worthy. Fayza* does these things regularly. She is worthy and constructive and valuable.

Um Jannat* says ghorba sucks because there’s nothing you can say to those you’ve left behind. She no longer wants to or is able to call her family in Aleppo. Her genuineness keeps her from practicing fluff conversations of the repeated “how are yous” and “inshallahs” that don’t really serve any purpose besides hearing each other’s voices for a few minutes. Now she just checks in from far away or through someone else–to make sure they are alive. What is there to say? Really, what is there to say? What on earth can you possibly offer to console or empathize when you know what the situation is? When you already know it worsened since the last time you spoke to them? What is there to say to a partner you left two years ago thinking you were saying goodbye to them for just two weeks? Um Jannat’s husband is in Syria. He fears leaving their house because that is all they have left. If they are all gone, and someone takes their house the way their neighbors’ homes have been taken, returning home one day will be impossible, even more impossible than it is right now.

Some women say ghorba is difficult but that as hard as it is, they won’t return until their home is liberated.

It moves me when people make ultimatums like “I’ll never return home until (insert XYZ wish) happens.” I wonder, do they do this because they really mean it? Or do they say that to feel more control over a situation in which they actually have no control? I think of my own baba, how he says this now about our homeland. He says he won’t return until it passes through this fascist stage–even if death strikes a relative. But the truth is, baba probably can’t return if he wanted to or tried to. And that’s so damn sad for someone who just a few years ago thought that his days of ghorba were numbered, and that الإنتماء–sweet belonging–was on its way.

Eid Mubarak. May we grow homes of forests inside us that can never be desecrated or destroyed. That can always rebuild and re-evolve.


The Derʿaa Sisters

Haliç, Istanbul

Haliç, Istanbul

In the QUWA Collective, there are three sisters from Der’aa. Der’aa is the city that ignited the Syrian uprising in March 2011 when a group of kids painted anti-government graffiti on their school walls.

I don’t know where to begin when it comes to Sarah*, Ithar* and Tuqa*. I cannot overestimate or begin to describe all that they offer to the Collective . The Der’aa sisters are some of the most womanist, decolonizing, self-loving individuals I know–yet they never use these words. They are intelligent, visionary, agentic, reflective, fierce and warm.

On the first day I met them, while every one else greeted me with the customary two kisses, one on each cheek–they greeted me with four. One on one cheek, and three repeated kisses on the other cheek. It was just a glimpse into the energy, uniqueness and magnanimous love I would later discover about them.

The Der’aa sisters came to Turkey five months ago or so. The three of them live together here on their own. They lived a long chunk of their lives outside of Syria, in other Arab countries, and returned to in the 2000s for college. They were there for about five or six years when the uprising began in 2011. At the time, Sarah, the youngest of them, had just started medical school. She had always wanted to study public health or health care management, but the field wasn’t available where she lived. Ithar, the middle sister, was halfway through dentistry school. She used to want to be a nurse but was wary of how the profession was looked down upon socially. She wanted to pursue something that would give her more credibility, help her be more heard. Pressured by Syria’s academic hierarchy and respectability politics, she pursued dentistry instead. And Tuqa, the one who truly was invested in the medical field, was one licensing exam away from becoming a doctor when her university shut down and she had to flee.

The Der’aa sisters’ have a vast worldview. Largely because they’ve spent much of their lives traveling, jumping from one place to the next out of necessity. But they also possess this raised consciousness because they are intense readers. They read everything and anything–Arabic books, translated books, books on self-help, health, religion, emotions, politics, gender.

The Der’aa sisters are wildly brave. Their bravery shines through in the healing circle, both in what they share of themselves and how they do so. Tuqa was the first to cry in a session; to show us that in this space emotions do not need to be explained or apologized for, that only we can give permission for these tears to fall, to be cried out and mourned so that maybe one day we can heal.

Ithar was the first to say, in a quick go-around check-in at the end of a session (where most people said “good” or “I liked it”) that she, in fact, was bothered, uncomfortable and annoyed. Her abrupt honesty threw some off, but paved the way for more genuine conversations where we could work through our discomfort.

And in the QUWA transition, as Nour and I moved back and invited participants to take turns facilitating the healing circle, it was Sarah who volunteered to facilitate first. She chose “womanhood” and “gender oppression” as the topic for discussion, something I had shied away from bringing up directly because of my outsider and white-distorted lens.

With the bravery of the Der’aa sisters comes risk. They know this, but it does not stop them. Instead, they look after one another, fiercely. Affirming and supporting one another–on the mat and in the circle–in and outside of QUWA.

There are subtle yet recurring aggressions against the Der’aa sisters for a number of reasons, the most obvious because they are from Der’aa, a rural city in the southwestern part of Syria. Most of the other women are from Shaam, Aleppo and bigger cities. This divergence manifests in prejudices around dialect, class and skin color.


In the circle that Sarah faciliated, the Der’aa sisters spoke honestly about the differing forms of gender oppression they faced, both interpersonal and structural. They drew from personal experience and from many readings on these issues. They spoke honestly about misogyny, victim blaming, and unjust power relations in their communities, in their new home and around the world.

As expected, they faced strong resistance. It soon became clear, though, that it wasn’t just resistance to their ideas, but to them.

“I think these things you are talking about are anomalous. It may have more to do with the area you are from than it actually being a widespread problem.” Other women nodded and agreed, “It is something إستثنائي” — What you speak of is rare, exceptional…let’s not focus on those negative things.

Sarah retreated. She was in a difficult spot because of her role as a facilitator.  She said that what she was bringing up was mostly from books she had read and from her conversations with other women, including me. I cringed at what was happening. That she felt pressured to use me as legitimacy for her ideas and words when her brilliance stands wisely on its own. In our go-around check out, she cried, saying she felt so aged, so old, to have experienced so much at 22 that other women around her of the same age or older had dismissed as “rare” or something they did not even know.

But Ithar pushed the circle back, saying that labeling their ideas as something “rare” and distinct to their hometown was unfair and missing the point. She pointed out that in Der’aa women actually had a more active role and gender justice was more a reality since women frequently worked and cultivated their land alongside men. This is in sharp contrast, she explained, to the women of the city, who would only leave their home to shop or eat or live out their socialite lifestyles that actually kept them distracted and trapped, complying with their own oppression.


Her words moved many. Some apologized, saying that they did not mean to look down at people from Der’aa, and that they were grateful that the war had allowed them to meet people from Der’aa and from other rural areas whom they otherwise would never have come into contact with.

Similar sentiments toward the Der’aa women have come up in other sessions too, like the one about chosen family. Tuqa loved the idea of a chosen family, of intentionally choosing people whom you want to play a significant role in your life. One khala resisted the idea, saying that your “real” family always had to come first, that despite flaws or shortcomings you had to accept them after all they have provided for you.

This khala is particularly difficult to challenge, but Tuqa did, saying that the idea of chosen family wasn’t something new, and that it didn’t contradict loving your blood relatives if you do in fact love them. Instead, “chosen family” gives name to something most of us already know and practice every day since we come from collectivist communities that extend beyond our immediate kin.

The khala insisted, interrogating why she was not speaking to her family members (an already tough thing to disclose), and suggested that what she had experienced must have been particularly bad, and again, a rare case that does not speak to most of us. إستثنائي

Tuqa pushed right back. Sometimes your immediate family gets caught up in only providing material support–that’s why we need chosen family, she said. With chosen family, there’s greater respect for your boundaries; and there’s greater willingness for you to articulate when those boundaries are crossed. “We tolerate abuses and problems from family that we would never tolerate from a friend–why?”

With all of this, the Der’aa sisters are committed to us. They are always present, on time, wearing their QUWA t-shirts–even when there isn’t self-defense training. There are moments like the ones mentioned above where they could have easily walked out or given up on us, but they don’t. They realize that in many ways their healing is connected to that of the woman sitting next to them, so they keep going, stretching the circle a bit more each time while sharpening our vision of sisterhood.

all the QUWA to the Der’aa sisters, and to Der’aa, for their fearlessness.


Help Sustain QUWA

If you like and support the work QUWA is doing, please help us continue by making a donation. The donations will help pay for program development, transportation costs for participants, supplies for the Healing Circle, and participants’ collective action projects. We are so grateful for your support.

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QUWA Featured in GOOD Magazine

Syrian Refugee Women Learn Self-Defense with Predictably Badass Results

by Tasbeeh Herwees

“Today was tough,” wrote Zeinab Khalil. “Maybe the hardest session we’ve had yet.”

Khalil published this on the blog she runs with her friend and colleague, Nour Soubani, which documents the two Arab-American women’s experiences running a self-defense program for female Syrian refugees in Istanbul, Turkey. The project, called QUWA (the Arabic word for “strength”), is divided into two main parts: a physical self-defense class and a healing circle, designed to encourage emotional well-being through discussion. But the tough session Khalil referenced in this particular post wasn’t referencing a grueling workout, rather it was about a circle gathering that addressed relationships, and how the war and the participants’ displacement had changed how they now relate to other people.

“It was about naming and recognizing the violence we face in its multiple forms,” wrote Khalil. “People were eager to share the ways that the events of the past few years have changed their lives.” 

Since the uprising and subsequent civil war began in 2011, more than nine million Syrians have fled their homes, and over half a million have sought refuge in neighboring Turkey. These days, it’s difficult to walk the streets of Istanbul without hearing a Syrian accent among the crowds or running into displaced Syrian children. Although Syrians face better treatment in this part of the region than in Lebanon or Jordan, where they are often subject to violent racism, their refugee status leaves them vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation, including sexual abuse.

Three times a week, two hours per session, Khalil and Soubani meet with their class at the Sham’una school in Istanbul to oversee both the self-defense portion and the healing circle. In the first session, the women are instructed on how to protect and defend themselves against physical transgressions they may face on a daily basis, from employers, acquaintances, or strangers on the streets. 

“Our class gives [students] practical ways to really mark their own space,” says Khalil. “We talk a lot about boundary setting and saying no and what is their comfort level with different people.”

A self-defense instructor engages the women in hand-to-hand combat and they play out different scenarios in which they may feel threatened.  The self-defense component, however, is only supplementary to the healing circle. 

“Although the project started with self-defense as the main goal or purpose, we realized we needed to address the types of violence that are not physical and the ones that happen in other ways,” says Soubani. “In the healing circle, we try to do that.”

During the tough session that Khalil recounted on the blog, she heard poignant stories of how the conflict and its attendant stressors shredded relationships with mothers and best friends. But the most difficult experience came as they moved on to discussing why people stay in unhealthy relationships. One of the older participants forcefully advocated for all Syrian refugees to stick together and forgive each other, no matter what. Khalil had the impression that this elder considered dysfunctional personal relationships to be petty concerns when compared to the collective experience of surviving Syria’s unrest. But younger participants were not so sure. Some tried to counter that their individual feelings were still valid, even in the face of widespread violence and displacement. Khalil was torn as to how to support these women with conflicting opinions, and allow space for the less strident to have their voices heard while giving due respect to the elder woman and her worldview. 

“I feel that I could have been more proactive with facilitating; less neutral,” she mused on the blog.

Apart from inter-community strife, many of the women have to deal with the uncertainty and isolation that comes with being a refugee. Hariri, a 23-year-old Syrian woman from the city of Dar’aa, originally fled to Saudi Arabia with her family when the conflict first began. When they realized it wasn’t going to end any time soon, they moved to Istanbul, where she could finish her degree in biology. 

“For a time, I just stayed at home, cut off from society,” says Hariri. “There was a period of one to two years where I did not mix with other people, and when I did, it was with people who were harmful to me.”

Hariri says attending the healing circles, meeting other women, and learning how to defend herself have allowed her to rebuild her life in Istanbul. It has also transformed the way carries herself. 

“Now when I walk alone, I can do it with some confidence,” says Hariri. “I used to be afraid, afraid for my safety. But now I even take my time walking outside.”

Umm Janat Speaks in Poetry

Umm Janat is by far the fiercest khalto I know. At 55, she carries herself with a dignity that commands respect and attentiveness from everyone and anyone near her. 

Umm Janat speaks in poetry. If I used to like Arabic before, now I utterly adore it. She embodies the beauty of spoken عربي.  She gives every letter, every syllable its due. Every word sounds a million times more certain when she speaks. Her words are marked and lasting, they are engraved in the air around her as she speaks, listening to her, taking notes carefully, the way I am doing in my mind.

Umm Janat is a storyteller, a scholar, a saint. When speaking, she shares both from personal experience, and draws on proverbs, ahadeeth, Qur’anic ayahs, writers, philosophers–all right on the spot. She can capture the topic I need 10 minutes to explain in just a phrase. For example, when I rambled on and on explaining self-love, making all sorts of disclaimers that this is a love rooted in self-acceptance, self-worth and not a pathological or selfish narcissism (using definition from bell hooks), she nodded and said to the room “Rida with the way God has shaped us is how we come to love ourselves.” Contentment. Acceptance. Gratification. No single word really gets at Rida. 

 I don’t know how this beautiful word escaped me. It is a reminder of how limiting  and verbose english can be. Moments like these from Umm Janat remind me that I can’t translate every word that signals compassion and self-love and dignity because so much of that is already rooted in the beautiful Arabic words Umm Jannat and the women of QUWA speak. Their sentences are strung together by these attributes. Sometimes I stress over the technical terms, of translating and finding the right word in Arabic as close as possible, but then I hear and see and feel traces of self-love and spirituality and collectivism embedded in their speech, and that’s when I realize how silly or redundant it can be at times to try to name or explain these things.

To be honest, I used to be kind of terrified of Umm Janat. Besides being utterly self-conscious of my Arabic around her–infusing fus-ha and Syrian in my speech to try to compensate for my clumsy Egyptian dialect–I was super concerned with what she thought of the content of the QUWA program, what she made of the things we spent hours planning every night. Whenever I would introduce a topic or an activity for the session–for healing circle or self-defense–I anxiously evaluated her facial expressions. Gaining her affirmation meant the world to me. A slight smile or nod sent me flying. But a straight face–or even worse–raised eyebrows or a question of clarification made me want to hide behind the curtains and run away from my foolishness. In our early sessions, sometimes I felt she was skeptical, like she wanted to see what all this collective healing talk from these non-Syrian refugees was about. I had to work for Umm Janat’s approval, and rightfully so.

But now, I know Umm Janat is soft. Now, I can hold her gaze comfortably, her eyes are empathetic and warm. One day, after class, she came to me, reached into her purse, and handed me a wrapped candy. “I wish I could give you more, I wish I could invite you over and host you. One day, God willing, we will. For now, this is for you. It is from Halab.” These were her last two candies from a box of sweets from Aleppo. She gave one to Nour and one to me. She gave me a piece of Halab, of her home. How much left of Halab does Umm Janat carry with her? I felt both honored and guilty to take a part of it.

7abeetik. She told me. I’ve come to love you. My heart dances. I am not accustomed to these straightforward, genuine proclamations of love (because of my reserved and basic “western” perceptions and practices of love). There’s no guilt anymore, just an overwhelming desire to embrace Umm Janat fervently since no words I say will ever suffice. No words can capture the gravity of her generosity. 

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It turns out I am not the only one who feels this way about Umm Janat. I am not the only one who fishes for her affirmation and opinions. In our last session, we did an affirmation circle. Basically, we sat in a big circle and each person had a chance to sit in the center of it, hearing affirming words from all the people in the circle one at a time, rotating from person to person and listening without any comments or interruptions during the activity. In the end, after the person heard all the affirmations and offered a thank you or her own feedback, she had to end with, “Thank you–I know that about myself.” It was a practice in accepting compliments and not rushing to return or back away from praise (as often is the case with women). During this activity everyone couldn’t wait to get to Umm Janat. Her words meant so much to us. It was like waiting in line to hear our fortune, waiting for someone to figure us out. Her comments for each of us were calculated, accurate, meaningful, concise and oh so affirming. When it was her turn to sit in the center, people spoke of her wisdom. Of how easy it was to speak in front of her despite the wide age gap. Of inter-generational honesty and understanding.  Of her powerful voice. Of her killer heel-palm in self-defense. In the end, she smiled. She offered some feedback on the things she heard. “If only you could see you through my eyes,” she starts. We think she’s about to endow us with more wisdom or switch gears and dilute the praise we’ve just given her, but instead, she cracks a smile and says, “Thank you for your words, but I already know all this about myself!” 

One day, we discussed stalking, verbal abuse and street harassment. Everyone had something to say, but as soon as Umm Janat spoke we all turned to her–young and old–to eagerly listen to her story. She shared a traumatic experience a few years back during Eid festivities in Aleppo when she and her elderly mother and daughter were followed by a creep all the way home. She hadn’t revisited or told the story since then and it clearly was affecting her to even share it. She stopped a couple of times to drink water and told us she was getting goosebumps retelling it. But she continued and held the same magnificent, storytelling  voice. 

She shared how she escaped this stalker, how in the last desperate moment when she thought he was about to attack, she told her 20-something year old daughter (who is also with us in the healing circle) to run and escape while she continued to walk as fast she she could with her elderly mother. She finally stopped at the house of a neighbor,  of people she had only met once before since they had just moved in. She said she felt embarrassed to do this but her livelihood was at stake, and there’s no time for embarrassment or explanations when you need to survive. Umm Janat’s chilling story of how she escaped the perpetrator carried crucial lessons for survival for all of us. “You have to expect anything. You always have to evaluate the situation around you. You must walk with certainty.” I close my notebook–all the notes I planned to share on assessing and evaluating our surroundings have already been explained by Umm Janat.

Umm Janat’s voice is remarkably authoritative. It captures your attention and flows smoothly, but when she wants to, her voice can paralyze you. She shared the story of a time years ago when someone tried to mess with her and her daughter on the bus.  “I looked at the perpetrator,” she said very calmly. “I turned to him. And you know what I said?” All eyes and ears fixed on her. “YA HAQEER!” she yelled in a tone we did not recognize. “YOU SCUM!” Before we burst into laughter, we froze in horror at the roaring sound none of us expected. Did that really come from this sweet khalto? I put away my notes of our voices as weapons, of not forgetting to use our voice forcefully during vulnerable moments out of shock or embarrassment. Again, Umm Janat had explained it all. 

The other story she shared was of someone who once harassed her and her daughter over the phone with persistently desperate and flirtatious phone calls. “I started nicely,” she said. “I told him, my son, didn’t your parents teach you how to speak courteously on the phone?” The “my son” was supposed to shut him down, embarrass him, humble him, make him realize that he is a young fool bothering an older woman.

Apparently the fool did not get it, and responded with a sardonic, “No.”

“So you know what I said to him?” And in the same roaring voice we heard moments ago, her face transformed entirely and her voice amplified as though she yelled into a microphone, “Then I will teach you and teach the ones who couldn’t teach you!” Harabeek. I will raise you! Bam. Silence. With her wrath or mercy, Umm Janat is on a roll. And she has no intention of stopping.

These are snippets of Umm Janat. It is impossible to capture all her stories or to try to describe her wisdom and force and influence. I’ll end with this quote that expresses much of what I’m feeling right now (shout out to Annie Q for sharing with me):

“The fact that I am writing to you in English already falsifies what I wanted to tell you. My subject: how to explain to you that I don’t belong to English though I belong nowhere else” – Gustavo Pérez Firmat
graffiti in aksaray that reads 'mafeesh' (Arabic for 'nothing')

graffiti in esenler that reads ‘mafeesh’ (Arabic for ‘nothing’)

with quwa,

Homelands & Strangers

photo (62)

“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. 


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.