Syrian Women Await Word From Husbands Bound For Europe

Among the families in war-ravaged Syria are many being held together by women alone, as their husbands have left to try to cross into Europe and prepare a life for their families. The wait is long, and often futile.

Overlooking Damascus
Overlooking Damascus
Alia Ahmad

DAMASCUS â€" One Syrian woman sums it up this way: "We realized that running away from death in Syria could be more dangerous than staying and facing it."

It's a sad fact that Syria's civil war has created the world's worst refugee crisis. More than half of all Syrians are either refugees within their own country or have fled the country altogether.

Most often, it's the families' husbands, fathers and brothers who risk their lives crossing borders in the night or crossing seas aboard unsafe boats operated by cutthroat people smugglers.

Their mothers, wives and sisters bear a different but no less harrowing burden: holding their families together for months or years, waiting for the money or documents that will allow them to be reunited. Sometimes those things never come at all.

The UN estimates that 1.7 million Syrian refugees are scattered around the globe, mostly in nearby countries. Nearly 150,000 of them have declared political asylum in the European Union, while thousands more have attempted to make the journey to Europe, wagering their savings and their safety for the chance to be smuggled to the continent by land or sea.

Buthayna is a 45-year-old engineer whose husband left Syria a year ago, entering Europe illegally by sea and applying for asylum in Sweden.

"As a working mother, I had always been overwhelmed with responsibilities, but the absence of my husband dramatically increased the challenges I face daily," Buthanyna says. "I had to fulfill the role of the mother and the father at the same time and take care of three kids who miss their father."

She says that there are many things that make her life more difficult now. "High prices, for example, put a lot of pressure on me," she says. "We can barely afford the very basics, such as food, utility and phone bills. We even have to buy drinking water now because of the regular water outages in the Sahnaya neighborhood, where we live."

She says her children had to quit their activities and sports because she can no longer afford them. "All of this, in addition to my constant fear for their safety â€" my fear of missiles, death, kidnapping and arrest," she says. "I have to deal with all of this by myself."

The exodus

In 2014, 220,000 people risked their lives trying to get to Europe illegally by sea. Nearly a third of them were Syrians, according to the European border agency Frontex. The Mediterranean Sea is now the world's most dangerous border between countries that are not at war with each other, according to the Migration Policy Centre.

Buthayna says she feared for her husband every day while he was traveling to Sweden. "We did not join him because we could not afford the cost," she says. "Smugglers charge €6,000 per person. Also, it's a very dangerous journey, and he didn't want us to take the risk. We were scared for his safety.

"We frantically followed the news about boats sinking in the Mediterranean. We were worried about him getting caught in one of the airports he went through. That is in addition to fear of the smugglers, whom no one trusts. We realized that running away from death in Syria could be more dangerous than staying and facing it.”

Absence isn't the worst

Buthayna's kids are teenagers and need their father, but they're in a better situation than those whose fathers are missing, detained or have been killed. "I want to go live with my father in Sweden," says Ahmad, her 15-year-old son. "It will definitely be better than living here. I will miss my friends, but living in Syria has become too scary. I don't think this war will end anytime soon, and in three years, I will have to serve in the army."

Maria is a 23-year-old mother of two whose Palestinian husband is currently in Turkey trying to figure out how to get himself into a European country. Maria's situation is worse than Buthayna's because she has no income. She relies on food aid that she receives from the Red Crescent or other charities in addition to a stipend that she receives every three months from the UNRWA because her husband is Palestinian. What she receives barely covers her children's expenses.

"I can't breastfeed anymore." she says, explaining that her breast milk dried up because of stress and malnutrition. "I work in houses and clean the stairways of big buildings. What I earn barely covers the rent for one room in Nahr Eisheh, in the countryside of Damascus. My oldest son is four years old. He is frustrated because he misses his father. At night, he wets his bed, he cries a lot and he hits me hysterically."

Uncertainty about loved ones

Maria moved away from al-Ghouta right before the area was besieged by the Syrian army, and she doesn't know what happened to her family. The situation in al-Ghouta was very bad. The lack of food, water and electricity, the violence and the random arrests, all forced many residents, including Maria, to flee for their safety. She hadn't finished her education, and she had no work experience.

She tells us about her husband, with whom she communicates daily. "He is not happy, and he is always angry," she says. "He sometimes makes me feel that I am the reason for all of our troubles. Sometimes I worry that we might divorce if things continue like this."

Souad is a 25-year-old, pregnant, newly married teacher. She lives in the al-Mazza neighborhood with her in-laws. Her husband recently applied for asylum in the Netherlands and he will apply for family reunion as soon as he becomes a resident.

Souad is a Sunni Muslim and her husband is Alawite, so she suffered greatly until her family finally agreed that she could marry him. "In addition to the high costs of the journey, I didn't travel with my husband because he didn't want me to take such a dangerous trip, especially when pregnant," she says.

Souad says there is another threat to women whose husbands are away. "We have become an easy target," she says. "Many offer to help us in exchange for sex. Or they simply sexually harass us. Unfortunately, many women yield to this pressure. Sexual and emotional needs are as crucial as other needs."

She says her husband has changed since he left. "He has been thinking and speaking in a strange manner. I understand his suffering. I understand that he is alone and that he misses me, his family and his country. So I continue to reassure him that we will be together soon, and that we will finally be able to build the family we always dreamed of."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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