Though I am only 23, I have lost everything I love to war.
I was born in northwest Syria in the Aleppo countryside where I lived with my parents and eight siblings. Growing up, my dream was to become an architect and I applied to study the scientific baccalaureate at high school, a qualification needed to study the degree. But my dream faded away before I could achieve it. In 2011, when I was just 15, the Syrian revolution began. Our hometown was liberated by the opposition but the shelling, conflict and insecurity forced us to flee to east Aleppo. There, I had to study literature because it was easier than the baccalaureate and didn’t require full school attendance.
In 2014, realising that I would never be an architect, I enrolled in an Arabic literature degree at Aleppo university. Not long into my studies, I received a phone call that my brother had been arrested by the regime while he was taking a law school exam. The regime had arrested him for participating in peaceful protests, something they did to so many innocent people. My sister and I knew that the regime would likely come for us too so I dropped out of college and headed back with her to our family. That day, I lost both my brother and my education.
After I moved back home, I knew I wanted to do something and help other people. I started volunteering with local groups providing education and psychological support to those in need. But, at the age of 19, my parents arranged a marriage for me and I lost all that I had accomplished when my husband moved us to Turkey in 2015.
There, I enrolled in college, again to study literature, and tried to rebuild my life. But, normality proved impossible. One year into my new life in Turkey, my family were told that my brother had died in regime detention. Two months later, my father, who was the head of the Syrian Red Crescent in Aleppo countryside, died when an aid convoy he was leading was targeted by Russian airstrikes. For two hours the planes had targeted the convoy, killing 20 civilians and aid workers.
By 2017, I felt like I had fallen apart. I was struggling with losing my brother and my father and was dealing with my husband’s overwhelming attempts to control me, to tell me what I should and shouldn’t do. Eventually I decided to get a divorce, to leave college again and go back to my family in Syria, feeling, deep inside, that I had lost every reason to live.
Despite all the shocks I had endured, I was blessed to have the most wonderful mother, who kept encouraging and empowering me. I realised that I needed to embody her strength and not give up, although that’s all I wanted to do. I challenged myself to pursue a career in journalism as well as to follow my passion for photography. After I went back to Syria, I resumed my former work volunteering and providing psychological support and I began working as a freelance journalist.
I published around 35 articles in different newspapers and blogs and, a year later, I enrolled in a photography workshop, learning how to make filmed news reports. I love to capture human stories with my camera, to show my community and reflect their suffering.
Though I am now making a living as a journalist, my life has been forever altered by the horror of the Syrian conflict. Many Syrian girls have faced what I have faced or worse.
I have a friend who used to live in Raqqa under the control of the Islamic State (ISIS). She got married and had a little girl, but then tragedy struck when her husband and father were killed in a car bombing and her daughter died from an illness. She lived in the utmost misery but she refused to be beaten. When a relative of hers, who had joined ISIS, tried to force her to remarry, she refused, despite witnessing the horrors the group inflicted on people who disobeyed it.She fled Raqqa with her brother and arrived in Turkey to start a new life. It didn’t last long, she found herself in the middle of the war again when her new husband moved them back to Syria for work.
Another woman I know from a nearby village fled the conflict more than four years ago, moving to Lebanon with her husband and two girls. Lebanese authorities arrested her husband, suspecting that he had ties to an extremist group. She waited a year for his release, until her family in Syria begged her to come home because they were worried that she couldn’t take care of herself independently.
Since her return, she has lost three brothers, one to ISIS and two to the regime. She’s now started her own small business in our village to support herself, her mother and her little girls, waiting for her husband to show up one day.
Another woman I know had lost her husband long before the 2011 revolution. Following the revolution, she lived with her four children in a village outside regime control, but she’d often go to visit her relatives in regime-controlled areas. When militias loyal to the regime learned that she was visiting from the opposition side, they reported her to intelligence officials. Days later, she was arrested by regime forces and accused of smuggling weapons to rebel fighters. She remained in prison for almost four years, during which two of her teenage boys, left with no one to take care of them, joined an armed group.
Her 13-year-old son was killed during a battle. When his mother received the news in prison, she had a breakdown. A while later, her 20-year-old son, married and expecting a newborn, was killed while fighting, too. Two months later, she was released with a pardon and returned to her broken home. Her community rejected her for being an ex-prisoner. Now, she has to look after her remaining children, her daughter-in-law, and her grandchild alone.
There are so many painful stories about young girls and women in Syria, that I’d need a book to tell them all. The stories of Syrian women’s struggles are of the forced marriages as a result of war, loneliness, and displacement, having to leave school, abandon their dreams. This war is a curse that women have suffered from the most. It made some of us stronger, but also broke many of us. I worry especially about the girls growing up now in northwest Syria, which is under heavy bombardment from the regime and Russia. How can they continue their education under such conditions? Already, 300,000 people have been displaced, their lives in limbo.
I want to tell them and every girl who’s been through the pain of abandoning her dreams or losing someone she loves to try and turn the pain into your inner strength. Despite the tragedy, there is hope and you can overcome your sorrow. Though I am also living through the regime and Russia’s attacks, I refuse to give up on my hopes and ambitions, I will continue down the road I chose for myself and do the job that I love, no matter what comes my way.
Hiba Barakat is a Syrian journalist and photographer