KAFRANBEL — Eyes filled with tears, Nuha al-Suwaid left her three children and her deceased husband's family and decided to marry again to start a new life. The 28-year-old from Kafranbel, a small town in northwestern Idlib province, is one of the thousands of women who have lost their husbands to Syria's ongoing civil war. And like the others, she was left to deal with the hardships of raising her children alone in the face of poverty and strict cultural traditions.
"My husband was arrested at a military checkpoint on Oct. 10, 2013," Suwaid says. "My life, in his absence, was unbearable. I had no income and his family, as well my own, exerted full control over my life. I needed their permission to go out, and they refused to let me look for a job. All I heard was 'don't do this and don't do that.'"
Suwaid held on to the hope that her husband would one day return, but he eventually died inside the Syrian government's Adra prison in Damascus. She was heartbroken. But soon, her heartbreak turned to desperation. She simply could no longer tolerate other people controlling her life. She tried to find a job to provide for her children (Alaa, 5, Ula, 3, and 18-month-old Sarah), but that was almost impossible, especially because she had no education or experience.
After her husband's death, she and her children lived with her in-laws. Suwaid had no place of her own, and, without a job, no way of providing for her family. It was for this reason that she put up with her controlling in-laws.
"I would visit my family sometimes, but I could not move in with them," she says. "They are very poor and their place is very small. Even though they always tried to make me feel comfortable when visiting, I always knew what kind of burden I would put on them if I moved in."
A heartbreaking choice
Eventually, when a financially comfortable man proposed, Suwaid decided to end her grief and get married, even if it was at the expense of her children. "They will grow up and understand," she says, crying. "They will have their own families. But for me, I had no other options."
According to estimates from Kafranbel's local council, of the 850,000 people living in the Zawiya Mountain district — a string of about 36 towns and villages on a plateau in the Idlib governorate — one-fourth are widowed women. Suwaid is among eight known cases in which widowed women have decided to remarry.
Nour, a 25-year-old woman from the nearby village of Marrat Hurma, is one of the majority of women who have refused to remarry, choosing to remain alone and attempt to provide for her children despite the hardships.
Nour's husband, who died when the Syrian air force bombed the village in September 2013, left her with three little girls — Amal, Ahlam and Sabine. Although more than a handful of men have proposed to her, Nour refuses to remarry because she is not willing to put her daughters through the trauma of another marriage – or the possibility that any potential new husband might not accept children fathered by another man.
"It was very hard in the beginning," she says. "I had issues with both my family and my in-laws. I had to compromise until a friend of mine found me a job at a women's center downtown."
In traditional rural communities such as Nour's, women are discouraged from working. The 25-year-old mother of three was only able to gain employment after months of struggling with her family and in-laws. She was lucky. Although she never attended high school, Nour found a job that her family agreed on at the registration office in a women's center. Her family consented because Nour's interaction would be limited to the women who came to the center to register for class.
"My life has become much better," she says. "We live in the house that my husband left for us, and I work and can provide for my daughters."
But Nour's brother-in-law still isn't happy with her decision to work. "We did not support the idea," says 45-year-old Abu Omar. "What would people say about us? They would say that we did not take good care of our brother's family."
Nour's mother Sahar was the only one to support her daughter in her search for employment. "I supported her because I wanted her to be independent," her mother says. "I did not want anyone to control her or her daughters."
Learning a skill
Sumayya al-Ahmad, 33, from the neighboring village of Jbaala, was left to provide for her six children after a random shell fell in their neighborhood and killed her husband.
"I was devastated," she says. "I had no idea know how I could provide for my kids. I had no education, no experience and my children were too young to work."
For a while, Sumayya relied on charities, while she registered in a sewing class and learned how to sew. With some help from the center's manager, Sumayya bought a sewing machine and started her own small business. "I love my work," she says now. "It provides for my family, gives me happiness and reinforces my self-esteem."
Many women in Sumayya's community encouraged and supported her. "We are very happy for her and we fully support her," says Umm Abdo, Sumayya's 40-year-old neighbor. "My daughters, relatives, neighbors and myself — we all come to her to tailor our clothes.
"In times of war," Abdo argues, "women carry many heavy responsibilities and face many challenges."
As the number of widows and orphans continues to rise, Kafranbel's local council is struggling to cope. "Due to the increase in prices and lack of income, the aid we're able to provide does not cover people's needs," says Abu Hussain, a member of the council. "Widowed women comprise 25% of our population, and more than half of our population are either orphaned children or living in extreme poverty."
As Syria's bloody civil war continues into its fifth year, Hussain and Kafranbel's local council worry they may not be able to carry on for much longer.