The Amazing Story of a Syrian Mother – How we meet
Remember my friend IchikoOpens in a new window? For today’s post I asked Razan to share her story with us. Razan is the mom of one of my son’s friends and classmates in kindergarten. We meet several times a week when we both bring our kids to school. She isn’t the ordinary mom though, as I only found out a few weeks ago. And because of her story and courage and background, I believe what I’m about to tell you will truly inspire you in your own life.
Razan and I meet in a local French café close to the school, in what is a residential and affluent Dresden neighborhood. As I’ve always seen her, she’s impeccably dressed, perfect make-up and broad smile on her face and in her eyes, and in a hurry.
Because she is the director of an International development association, registered in the United States, Turkey, and Germany, whose mission is “supporting civilians and organizations with the knowledge, skills, and tools needed to actively shape and participate in a peaceful and democratic future.”
The Amazing Story of a Syrian Mother – Razan and I
So you can picture my naive self, coming from the comfortable world, with my messy hair and basic make-up (although my daughter insists in watching me putting it on, so that she can learn from me.. !!), my worn-out-from-bike-riding pants; and her, with a silky shirt, all colors matching, elegant and so strong.
(But don’t worry, I’m not going into the comparison game, each one of us has is own story and style; I just want you to picture us, sitting outside of this cozy café, enjoying an unlikely spring air in the midst of an end of a cold October week.
I asked her to tell me her story, how she got here in Europe, how it was to become a mother in such a different context.. And her words came out with urgency and precision, as an important message needing to be spread.
The Amazing Story of a Syrian Mother – Back to the beginning
Razan grew up in Homs, and I believe this was a determinant factor in shaping her life. Homs was the 3rd largest city in Syria, located in its western part, not far from the Mediterranean, right between Damascus and Aleppo. Its population was very diverse and represented several religious and minorities, including Sunni, Alawite and Christians.
The city became Christian under the Byzantine Empire, and was later conquered by the Muslims during the 7th century; it was later contended by the different Islamic dynasties because of its strategic position between the sea and the interior. Economically speaking, the city also was an important industrial center from the 19th century onward; and historically, a center of insurrection and resistance*.
*source : Wikipedia
Razan’s father was a successful business man. He owned an iron factory in Saudi Arabia, and then moved back to Syria where he built many of its infrastructures and roads. He married Razan’s mother when she was only 14 years-old, and they had 4 girls and 3 boys. His company was very successful, and they enjoyed a comfortable and wealthy life. The city offered everything they needed, with its lively, active life.
The Amazing Story of a Syrian Mother – the protests begin
Razan was majoring in English Literature when the wave of Arab uprising arose in 2011. Following what had happened in Tunisia, people started gathering peacefully, and raising awareness through Facebook and social media, to protest against the dictatorship.
“Syria was a country rich of natural resources, but all the wealth was under the control of one family and its allies. Whoever dared saying anything against the government was gotten rid of. I think I have always had the revolution in my heart”.
Razan started joining these protests. The first time, her father allowed her to go only if she was wearing something that would cover her face. And when they got there, they saw that many other people decided to do the same thing. Nonetheless, she was able to recognize many friends and neighbors, people from their same backgrounds : wealthy and educated families.
The Amazing Story of a Syrian Mother – finding ways to contribute
Civilians participating in the protests where completely covered and used fake names; nobody knew each other and secrecy was important. If the security system would recognize them, they ware arrested, tortured and killed – even though the protests were completely peaceful. With the Syrian regime, If you don’t obey, you get killed. One of Razan’s neighbor, a 12-year-old boy, got killed in front of her during one of those demonstrations. But this only led her to keep going and take actions.
In April the Syrian government started not only to physically assaulting demonstrators, but also shutting off water and electricity while security forces began confiscating flour and food in some areas.* Razan wanted to contribute supporting associations that were sending medical aid in conflicting areas. She went to the protests every day.
*Source : http://guides.library.cornell.edu/c.php?g=31688&p=200753
The Amazing Story of a Syrian Mother – Farewell Home
One day during 2012, a friend working in the security system warned Razan’s father: “Your daughter has been recognized during one of her protests. You’d better get her away from here, or she’ll be arrested”.
He didn’t say anything to her. At that time, they were organizing the transfer of one of her sisters to Turkey. So he pretended they were all accompanying her to the border. But once there, he pushed her to go, her passport got stamped. She didn’t understand what was going on, and looked at him with a puzzled, anguished look. He told her “Go and enjoy your life now. I don’t think you’re gonna be back.”
That was her first time out of her own town, let alone out of the country! But that decision probably saved her life. Turkey was filled with associations and activists, so her activity continued, while her whole family had to also leave Syria and join them. Her father had to leave his company, everything he’d worked for in his life, but he wouldn’t have survived otherwise.
The Amazing Story of a Syrian Mother – Political Awareness
It was the first time for Razan to be in contact with other activists from other cultures and countries. She started to illegally come back to Syria to help provide emergency relief and services when the very first village was liberated from Assad’s government. Her inner mission became clearer then : she wanted to bring political awareness to women, train them to take action and empowerment for their lives – as well as to help minorities to raise their voices.
At the end of 2012, she was chosen by the International Republican Institute (IRI), an organization led by former Senator John McCain. IRI’s mission is to “share its expertise in democratic governance development, to make sure good governance exists and thrives. ” She was invited to participate in an international training in Bosnia, where they shared how Bosnia was able to bring its dictatorship to an end.
Razan was working for the Syrian Emergency Task Force at the time. HereOpens in a new window you can read one of the articles recalling her incredible passion and effort. While she was telling me about her life back then, Razan was a flood of words, I hardly kept up with her with my notes. It felt to me like she did more courageous and incredible things in just a few years than what I’ll probably have the opportunity to do in my whole life..
The Amazing Story of a Syrian Mother – the right of Education
She didn’t tell me they made a film, a documentary out of her story (you can watch the trailer hereOpens in a new window), nor that she ‘d been interviewedOpens in a new window many timesOpens in a new window.
She did tell me how she put her life at risk by crossing the border several times, to bring medical aid, logistical support, and training to the different local administrations to fight against extremism; when she wasn’t working from Turkey through media campaigns for raising awareness around the world.
She did explain how she especially valued her work with local Syrian teachers. Many schools had been bombed and destroyed, the majority of children didn’t have any access to the school anymore, and yet she felt education was one of the most effective ways to fight against any dictatorship and violence.
But many of the classroom teachers didn’t have the proper training nor education themselves. And that was one of her key interventions, not neglecting the psychological support for those teachers who needed to face and support traumatized children.
The Amazing Story of a Syrian Mother – Life on the edge
From 2012 to 2015, Razan’s life was on the edge. On the edge of war; from meeting and helping locals in rural villages, to ambassadors and government representatives across the world. Her association was working with Dutch, French, Canadian, British, German, and American governments.
When she wasn’t riskily crossing the border to Syria, she was traveling to other countries raising funds for several projects and creating new projects for women’s and minorities’ empowerment. She dreamed of moving to the US, and continuing an political active life there.
But two major things happened, reshaping her whole life once again.
The Amazing Story of a Syrian Mother – A Switch
The first was, that her work went of course noticed. Her family was an influential one in Syria. The had owned one of the biggest medical factories in the country.
Razan’s father kept financing many of her campaigns. However, they were threatened by ISIS; so the French government offered them asylum, and were moved to a town in Northern France.
The second was, she fell in love and married a Syrian surgeon, also living in Turkey. Ayman and his family were already under an International Protection Program and moved to Dresden, Germany – just ten days after the wedding.
All of this was while Razan continued her work in Turkey. She was able to obtain a visa and join him when she was 6-months through her pregnancy.
Suddenly, she went from travelling , attending meetings and conferences, meeting Michelle Obama and working with international organizations, to the Eastern Germany cold and closeness. Her husband’s family was from a very different background and traditions, and they were all living together for the first time.
Razan didn’t speak any German, and it was hard for her to join any language course because of her advanced pregnancy. People were insulting her and her mother-in-law because of her Muslim appearance. Nobody wanted to know anything about activism, revolution or her fight for rights. But, as she told me, “Revolution was still in my heart”.
The Amazing Story of a Syrian Mother – New challenges of Pregnancy
It was a tough period of her life. I failed to ask her whether she actually found it harder to face the violence of the war, when your life’s at risk but you’re in the middle of action and you feel you’re actively contributing to something bigger, to literally save lives; or to accept the general indifference (when it’s not open contempt) among the silent tranquility of a foreign country.
The only people she could talk to were her husband’s relatives, who didn’t understand why she wanted to keep being part of her country’s future, of political negotiations, of diplomatic challenges – instead of resuming to a more traditional role of mother and wife. Therefore, everything she chose to do, was not right at their eyes.
Luckily, she found an English-speaking gynecologist and doctor, and was still very active online. Her challenges were now so different. Taking a new role, as a mother, inside a family that felt strange to her. What are my priorities now? What shall I give in? Who can I ask for support and help here?
After spending so many years giving others the support she’d always received from her father and family, she felt now alone. Her heart was telling her to go back to work – something that was against her husband’s family values. And her husband’s family was the only close comfort and guide she could get.
The Amazing Story of a Syrian Mother – Looking for the right Balance
As soon as she could leave her son for a few hours (or a few days), she went back to work. She’d work online, and traveling back and forth to Turkey whenever it was needed. She discovered the International School, and when her son was old enough, she signed him up.
That was also when we met for the very first time. I still remember that day : I could feel, although I didn’t know anything about her, her inner battle between wanting to be the best, present mother for her son, wanting to do the right things for him; and her urge to keep going, living her mission. Motherly guilt.
It doesn’t matter how busy or important our daily occupation, we still all have to face that profound guilt. Is it because of women’s millennial history of child bearing? or is it a biological thing? I don’t know. I do know I still haven’t met a single mother who hasn’t experienced at least once this inner conflict, no matter how high her outside responsibilities.
The Amazing Story of a Syrian Mother – Women’s strength
Or, in other words, as Razan told me this morning :
Women are the strongest enemies of women. Whenever they don’t trust and support each other; whenever they think they are not capable; they help men being presented as the strongest. And the media have a strong role : why is it so important to comment what a political or influential woman is wearing, but they hardly ever do it with men? And we women contribute to all this. Women should have the opportunity to act and to be supported.
But the more they settled into this new family routine, the more she could experiment new ways to find her own balance, the more secure I’ve found her son when he’s in school. The more sparkling her eyes are.
The Amazing Story of a Syrian Mother – New Challenges
Razan was then able to open a German seat to her international association, whose name was then changed into ARDI (homeland in Arabic, standing for Atlas Relief and Development International). ARDI’s core mission is to build bridges between the Refugees and the Germans, finding ways for them to communicate, express their reciprocal expectations towards integration.
After all these years’ work, she’d thought she had all the keys to tackle this challenge.
Although she soon had to realize that working in an international environment of governmental organizations is very different than getting through the distrust of the local small associations, whose cooperation Razan’s still wants to obtain as part of her core professional values.
“You know, I’ve found this so strange.. When people here see a Muslim, especially a Muslim woman, they picture the word “Refugee” and associate it with tents, camels and horses in the desert..Yet, the world I grew up in was way more privileged than the average person’s here. We had better houses, with housekeepers in, we had bigger cars, newest clothes. But the people don’t know this, they see us as something different”.
The Amazing Story of a Syrian Mother – Goodbye Dad
Life for Razan’s own family in France isn’t any better from this point of view. When Razan’s father lost his job, he also lost his passion and spark for life. Learning a new language at over 60 isn’t an easy task, nor is adjusting to a new culture and environment. Especially one where you feel judged, looked at, misunderstood, and unwanted.
Razan’s dad died on December 24th, 2017, after a heart attack, stroke and ten days in coma. After all the battles he was able to win during his life, he couldn’t find the necessary strength he’d needed to start yet another life, so far away from anything he’d needed. Razan and her family decided to bring his body finally to rest in Turkey.
Her eyes were sadly wet while she was recalling “My dad was my strongest support. He trusted me, he always believed in me. Everything I’ve done in my life, was thanks to his support and his faith in me.”
The Amazing Story of a Syrian Mother – To her son, to us
Razan’s present mission is to pass this on to her son. She decided she should bring him more often with her during her travels while still negotiating with governments, because she wants him to experience her motherly empathy.
It doesn’t matter where he’ll decide to live, that’s the life lesson she’s challenged herself to teach him :
Always be brave, fight for your rights, and never hesitate to support others and share your knowledge and honesty. Be open-minded to all people. Help anyone who is in need; and mostly, respect and support women.