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.
DAMASCUS — 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 — my fear of missiles, death, kidnapping and arrest," she says. "I have to deal with all of this by myself."
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 â‚¬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."