The tormenting scent of Rosa Damascena
A Syrian refugee woman recounts her journey through the horrors of war to a squalid refugee camp in Lebanon.
Four years ago, Fatma’s garden was the envy of her neighbours in Qusair, Syria. Her husband, a popular florist, assured their courtyard was washed in the scent of jasmine, spicy carnations and Rosa Damascena, the legendary “Damascus roses” known for producing rose water.
The couple’s home, which took a decade to finance and build, was on a sleepy, narrow street near the banks of the Orantos river as it winds through wheat fields, bursts of wildflowers, and ancient olive groves.
It is hard to picture this now, but Qusair was famous for its idyllic nature and pure water before it became a bloody battleground between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and rebel militias – fighting that reached a climax in 2013.
“The windows in Qusair overlook the springs of magic,” said Fatma, quoting a line from local poet Walid al-Masri.
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Back then, before the war, all the 36-year-old English literature graduate wanted was a calm, pious life with her husband and three children. Her dream was to be a schoolteacher for the children of Qusair.
“In the morning, sunshine would enter through the large windows of our house and fall on the faces of my husband and children,” she told Al Jazeera. “When I look back, I realise I was living in a dream.
“Now, I live in a nightmare.”
Today, her once-cozy home has been reduced to rubble by the incessant shelling. Her husband suffered a horrible death. Even the poet she cited was killed, after reciting too many mourning poems over the graves of his countrymen.
Fatma, who declined to give her family name, now lives in Lebanon, in a four-square-metre concrete room with a dirt floor and mud-thatched roof. Her dwelling is one of 113 cubicles in a complex called “The Mothers of Martyrs”, a site occupied solely by widows and children who lost their husbands and fathers in Syria.
She is one of more than 145,000 Syrian refugee women who, according to UN figures, are the only breadwinners for their families, struggling to provide food and shelter for their children and often facing harassment, humiliation and isolation.
Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has called the situation “shameful”.
“[Widows] have run out of money, face daily threats to their safety and are being treated as outcasts for no other crime than losing their men to a vicious war. It’s shameful. They are being humiliated for losing everything,” he said.
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When the Syrian uprising erupted on March 15, 2011, Fatma had high hopes. Qusair, like many of Syria’s suburban areas, was largely neglected by the government in Damascus and she wanted change and reform.
“We wanted to have the same access to opportunities as residents of the cities and we wanted more freedom of speech,” she said.
“I knew that the uprising was about to bring some change to our lives. I just thought it would be positive.”
Just weeks into the mass protests, however, Fatma found herself trying to cope with the transformation of her husband from a tranquil florist into an enraged man who took the cause of the revolution upon himself. He deserted his shop to film the violence and disseminate reports about what was happening.
Every time I voice my opinion on how to improve the aid distribution in the camp, the Syrian men in the village shut me up. Because I am a woman, I am being told my opinions are worthless even though I am more educated than most of them.
“Every time he left the house, I felt it could be the last time I would see him,” said Fatma, who was pregnant at the time. “So I studied his features closely – the shape of his eyes, his mouth – to memorise them so I could see his face with my eyes closed.”
When government forces did catch him, they cut out his eyes before they killed him while in custody. The government wanted to make an example for those who use their eyes to bear witness, she said. “I miss him badly. I miss him bringing back a few long stems of Rosa Damascena.”
By mid-2013, the violence had worsened in Qusair. Both sides fought hard for the town, owing to its position near the Lebanese border and along the highway connecting Damascus with northern Syria.
Finally, Fatma and her three sons hopped into the back of a truck with whatever belongings they could salvage, and joined thousands of horrified families in crossing the border into Lebanon.
Once she disembarked in the Lebanese village of Arsal, a journey through humiliation and poverty began.
Life for Fatma soon revolved around protecting her children from the increasing tensions in the camp. She waited endlessly for the roaring sound of the next aid convoy to arrive along the mud-caked roads.
She started teaching at a school for Syrian refugees and earned a modest income. Still, the more she tried to make the ravaged camp a fit home for her children, the more she found herself in conflict with her new community.
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The thick black veil that covers Fatma’s body from head to toe did little to stop the accusations that she is too open, too audacious, too much like a man. “Every time I voice my opinion on how to improve the aid distribution in the camp, the Syrian men in the village shut me up. Because I am a woman, I am being told my opinions are worthless even though I am more educated than most of them,” Fatma said.
In November, clashes erupted in Arsal between Syrian gunmen who stormed the village and the Lebanese army. Syrian refugees like Fatma and her family were caught in the middle. Her nephews were shot in front of her.
“This was yet another horrible day in my life. I remember it. But the situation has calmed down.”
Fatma now dreams of moving on with her life. She may seek asylum in a European country and hopes to visit embassies in Beirut soon. “I am hoping that my languages will support my application. But I am worried that my face veil will be off-putting,” she said.
Fatma started to wear a veil 13 years ago. None of her family members supported the decision because she was not yet married. She never felt the face veil stood in the way of her dreams, until recently.
With the rise of the of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Fatma said she feels stigmatised by her clothing. “When I walk in the streets, kids sometimes follow me and start calling me Daoussheh [a female nickname for Daesh, the Arabic acronym for ISIL],” she said.
Fatma said she no longer feels strongly about wearing the face veil and is willing to make a slight change to her attire if it helps her in her quest for a better future for her children and herself.
There are some things she simply will not do. She feels strongly about never wearing perfume with rose undertones or going near certain flowers.
“I hate flowers, especially Rosa Damascena. Flowers remind me of a past that will never come back. I need to forget about it and move forward.”