By Maya Milani, a journalist, filmmaker and trainer who has been working with Syrian media for the past 15 years.
Her focus is on human interest stories, legislative and legal processes as well as media development and monitoring.

Dalal, or Um Nour, is the founder of the Zumurudah women centre in the village of Marayan, Idlib province. She is a member of the “Change” youth community organising network. Zumurudah centre provides educational and vocational training courses to women and children in the area.

Speaking of her own education, Dalal told me:

I was raised an orphan. My father died when I was very young and my mother a few years later. My grandmother took care of me and my five siblings. She was poor and could not afford to send us to school. I never made it to my 6th grade diploma.

An entrepreneur at heart, Dalal trained herself to be a hairdresser and opened her own salon to help support her young family back when they lived in Damascus. But after the revolution started, her husband, who was a police officer defected from the force. It was dangerous to stay so they left their home with everything they owned, and moved to his family village in Idlib.

Finding work is tough and the family struggles to afford their own home. They had been living with relatives in a house under construction, without windows or doors.

My husband’s choices here during war are limited, he either joins a militia or ends up in need of help from others. So I decided to resort to my profession. I started a hair salon again and offered wedding dress rentals as well. But it was barely enough.”

“In 2014, my eldest daughter wanted to enroll in a first aid course. You know in a state of war every house should have someone that knows first aid. But the closest centre, in Ihsem, is an hour away and there were no cars. I knew some nursing from before, so I enrolled with her so we’d go together. This encouraged other mothers in the village to send their daughters with me. They ended up being 15 more girls that I was taking to the Mazaya women centre there. It got me thinking. We also have a need for a centre like that, we have the will to work, why don’t we make one here?”

Dalal decided to start working on her idea. She signed up to all the courses she could attend in women centres in nearby villages, 14 in total. She did courses on project management, but also advocacy and lobbying, monitoring and assessment, research management, as well community organising and social responsibility. She said she felt the courses gave her more confidence in her work, and made up for her lack of formal education:

“I had a goal and I was doing the courses to really learn from them. They helped me a lot. I was determined to work even though I don’t have a primary education degree. Everyone said I’d never make it without even a sixth grade diploma, but I needed to work. I need the work and I had to find a way to work. It was not easy attending the courses in other villages, away from my children for days while airforce was shelling our village. My health started to suffer from all the stress and anxiety.”

She first founded the Zumuruda centre in a room in their make-shift house in 2015. She formed a small group of about a dozen women working the odd hours, and started the centre from there. 

“I had to learn how the other women centres work. With my salary I could cover the expenses of the materials we needed for Zumuruda. I could support my family and the centre. I started to contact organisations and some influential women who were very supportive. They taught me how to work step by step.”

The centre started with vocational courses in areas she already had experience in — hairdressing, tailoring, cooking and first aid. From day one having a daycare for small children was essential to enable mothers to attend the courses. After two years of hard work under shelling, the centre finally got its first grant from the Euromed Feminist Initiative, and we were able to move out into a real building. We now have about 60 young children in the nursery regularly and  approximately 25 students per class.

“My husband had a hard time when we were working from home, he wouldn’t be allowed to stay in the house during classes, so he would have to go visiting relatives, from one house to the other, till we finished. Now that we can rent a building, we’ve expanded our courses to whatever people need,. We have computer courses, English language courses, Turkish language courses, life skill courses, everything.”

For four years, between 2013 and 2017, the children of the village were denied education due to the regime and its allies targeting school buildings with shelling. It reached a peak in Marayan in the summer of 2016 when Dalal’s daughter was sitting her ninth-grade degree exams. Barrel bomb attacks were doing 12-hour rounds per day and people had to flee to nearby farms. Dalal and her family lived in a tent beneath trees for three months. Her daughter had to sit the exam again the next year to get her degree. She was married soon after, and this year she sat her high school exams while in her eighth month of pregnancy.

As a result of the four-year educational gap, children in the village needed extra courses to catch up with the curriculum and continue their schooling, so Zumuruda centre also offers curriculum recuperation courses and educational support for children between the ages of 10 and 15. The centre now has 18 mainly female employees.

Dalal’s time as head of the centre has been filled with tragedies of her own. She lost her son when he was just six months old and experienced a difficult birth with her baby girl. 

Health centres are few and far between  and since it was unlikely she’d reach the hospital in time, she had a planned cesarean. Due to complications, she now feels numbness in her leg. But she explains how she survives through it all:

“I see life and love through the eyes of my little one, looking into her face eases up all my exhaustion.”

“I’m a coward when it comes to shelling. Bombs scare me so much. I fear for my children, I’m living at the edge of my nerves every day. I was orphaned as a child, and I’m very scared for them.”

Dalal finally managed to get a house of their own, in a three-flat finished building this time, which she proudly referred to as her “palace”. She only lived in her palace for three months before her town was bombed during the recent escalation on Idlib by the regime and Russia. The family were forced to move once again, fleeing to live in Salqeen, a town by the Turkish borders, where she had to move her centre. The rents are too high for Dalal to afford a home for her family.