Syrian refugee women in Darashakran Camp in Iraq. Photo by Noe Falk

Strong women of the Middle East

On International Women’s Day, March 8th, eight determined women share their stories.


Persistence, willpower, strength, and love are what Olfat, Layla, Lina, Sameera, Fida, Mariam, Asma, and Joud have in common.

These eight Middle Eastern women are fighting against all odds to achieve what they want, and each in their own way. With the protracted crises in the Middle East, vulnerable communities, and the many people on the move, women continue to fight for better lives and futures for themselves and their families.

With women making up half of the world’s refugees and half of global migrants, they remain vulnerable and in need of support. However, they remain leaders and agents of change, they are often the first responders to a crisis, and play a central role in the survival and resilience of families and communities. Read the stories of eight women who have managed to change their lives in spite of the difficult circumstances they continue to face.

Olfat: the Syrian making Turkish women even more beautiful

Olfat is a Syrian mother of four from Aleppo. She and her family moved to Turkey in search for safety four years ago after the Syrian crisis began. Back home, the 32-year-old owned a women’s hair salon called “Hiba”, however had to leave everything behind.

After arriving to Turkey, Olfat needed to support her husband in providing for the family. They needed money to pay for rent, food, and essential items for their home.

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Olfat shows a wedding dress she bought for her business. She rents it to clients who are getting married. Photo by: Dara Masri, December 2016.

With her experience, the mother began working in salons owned by Turkish women year of work and long working hours, Olfat injured her neck and arm. “Doctors told me I needed surgery, and that the recovery time was long and I had to rest for a month. This was not a solution,” says Olfat. It was not possible as she needed to take care of the children and support in generating income for the family.

Olfat later came across the Danish Refugee Council’s (DRC) livelihood project which aims to strengthen the resilience of refugees through provision of transferrable skills, vocational and professional training and through supporting potential entrepreneurship with home-based grants and small-business grants and trainings. Olfat applied for the home-based grant.

Despite her husband’s claims that her idea will not work, Olfat was determined to receive the home-based grant to open a hair salon in her home. She would be able to generate income, do something she loves, and at the same time remain close to her family.

The mother received the grant and brought Salwa – the name of her home salon – to life. She was able to buy the basic items which helped her to start her business. She hopes to keep improving her salon, attract more customers, and become the “go-to” salon in her neighbourhood. 

Layla: the single mother of two from Turkey

When Layla got married, she had to close her shop and move to another city with her new husband. However, she was not happy and wanted much more in her life.

Eight years ago, the Turkish woman divorced her husband in search for a better life for herself and her two children. She had two goals: she wanted to make clothes, and give her children what she never had; an education.

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Layla shows off a skirt she made for a children’s play taking place at a school near her workshop. Photo by: Dara Masri, December 2016.

The 49-year-old woman made a plan. She moved to Antakya, the seat of the Hatay province in southern Turkey, rented an apartment, sent her children to school using the savings she had, bought a sewing machine, and began altering and making clothes from home.

However, Layla had bigger dreams. She wanted to own a big tailoring workshop. After hearing about the Danish Refugee Council’s livelihood project, she submitted an application to receive a grant for home-based businesses.

Layla was successful and received the grant, she rented a space, bought sewing machines and cloth, and partnered with a clothes shop in the city. She now makes clothes for the shop, and takes orders for altering clothes from people in the neighbourhood.

“I was able to make my dream come true. I know I can give my children a better life”, says Layla, hoping to buy more sewing machines, mannequins to display her work, and hire someone to help her with the orders.

Lina: the lab technician from Lebanon

Lina is a 28-year-old Lebanese mother of two; a 6-year-old boy and 4-year-old girl. She has a diploma in laboratory studies and was forced to quit her job after having her first child as she was not able to balance both duties.

A few years later, Lina wanted to get back into the job market. “I did not study to stay home, I want to do what I love. I was always had an interest in biology was at the top of my class in both school and college”, says Lina.

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Lina working in the lab at the hospital in Zahleh city in Lebanon. Photo by: Mais Salman, January 2017.

After continuous search for a job at a hospital or school, and with the support of the DRC’s livelihood project which focuses on capacity building and facilitating linkages between unemployed Syrian refugees or Lebanese people and potential employers, Lina was able to train at a hospital in Zahleh city.

Lina has been training at the hospital for four months now, working hard to learn and prove that she can work with the team as a full time lab technician. “It is difficult to find a job in laboratory science because hospitals need a limited number of people to work in labs”, she says, “but I will continue my training and show them that they need an extra pair of hands and they will be mine”.

Miriam: the dressmaker from Iraq

Miriam is a 43-year-old woman from Iraq. She was a dressmaker in her village south of Mosul for many years before her family was displaced to the Qayyarah Airstrip Emergency Site in late 2016 as a result of military operations against the Islamic State.

She admits it has been a few years since she sat at a sewing machine as it became too expensive to buy materials like fabric, needles, and thread that she needed to make her colourful dresses.

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Miriam working on her sewing machine at home. Photo by: Delawit Mesfin, February 2017.

“Life was really tough and things became very expensive. Any money we had was for food and other essentials,” she said. “Then when we arrived [in Qayyarah], we were so tired and we had nothing. We came with just the clothes on our backs.”

With the help of a UNDP livelihoods business grant, Miriam was able to buy a sewing machine and is now a budding entrepreneur, supporting her family of 17. “I have lots of customers and some have even had to make appointments up to a month in advance,” she said smiling.

“This is my favourite style to make because it’s a modern version of our traditional clothes,” Miriam said, showing off a few of her pieces. “I feel good at my machine, I feel more confident and doing something to help my family makes me proud.”

Asma: bringing Syrian dishes to Iraq

Asma’s story of displacement spans ten years and two countries. She and her family were displaced from their home in Ramadi, Iraq, to neighbouring Syria in 2006 as a result of violence stemming from the 2003 Iraq war. Due to the outbreak of civil war in Syria, she and her family returned to Anbar, where they once again were forced to flee to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI).

After displacement, Asma needed to support her family of seven and began searching for employment opportunities when she came across a brochure for the UNDP – DRC Job Seeker Support Centre in Kaz Nazan city.

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Asma shows a Syrian dish she made in her new established restaurant in KRI. Photo by: Delawit Mesfin, December 2016.

Asma enrolled in the business incubation model programme which identifies potential entrepreneurs in the community, helps them draft business proposals, provides matching grants to establish small enterprises, and promotes social cohesion by partnering internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, and host communities to capitalize on their talents.

In the KRI, some 78 percent of IDPs require livelihoods support to meet their basic needs. Female-headed households are also one of the most vulnerable segments of the displaced population.

Once she completed the centre’s mentorship programme, Asma established a business partnership with a member of her host community and received a grant run a restaurant where she prepares Iraqi and Syrian specialty dishes and earns an income that supports her family.

“I am the only person to support my family, and I knew I needed to do something about it”, says Asma, “it was difficult going through the programme in the beginning, but I was successful in the end”.

Sameera: the Syrian refugee in Jordan

Sameera is a Syrian mother of two and the sole supporter of her family. Similar to the more than 650,000 Syrian people, she escaped her hometown in Syria in search for safety in Jordan. She now lives in the Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan, a camp located in Azraq city in north-east Jordan and is now home to almost 54,000 refugees from Syria.

The mother wants decent life for her children in the camp, and was determined to do something and provide them with what they need.

Watch how Sameera found Sanad Centre, changed her life, and learned a new skill that not only benefits her now, but in the future too.

Watch video of Sameera here (on Facebook)

Fida: the fashion designer in Jordan

Fida is a 26 year-old Jordanian woman who dreams of becoming a fashion designed one day. She wants to support her family and one day receive a formal education in fashion design and open her own business.

Watch Fida’s story (video on Facebook)

Joud: a young architect in Syria

22-year-old Joud is an architect and interpretation student in Damascus, Syria. After the conflict began and similar to the more than 6.3 million people in Syria, Joud was forced to flee her hometown. She moved from her home in Dir Al Zour and moved to Damascus.

Her moving did not stop the young girl from pursuing her education nor stop her from achieving what she wants. With the support of the DRC in Syria, she enrolled in trainings and learned to cope with the radical change in her life.

Watch her story here (video on Facebook)