More than 5.6 million people have been forced to flee conflict-ridden Syria since 2011. But even after arriving to refuge countries, their struggles are far from over and they find themselves forced to rebuild a life from scratch.
Arriving to Turkey in 2013, Khawla found herself a refugee and the sole provider for her two children.
“It was a struggle to build a life for my family in Turkey and even more so as a single mother,” she said.
With a determination to provide for her children and not depend on humanitarian aid, Khawla enrolled in Turkish courses to learn the language.
“I could not possibly find good work opportunities without understanding the language of the country I live in,” she said.
While Khawla had graduated with a civil engineering degree, she soon realised that finding work in the field in Turkey was a distant dream.
“Finding work as a refugee is hard. Finding work as a refugee woman is even harder,” she added.
After a short stint in the informal sector where Khawla felt exploited, she decided to help other women, who are also struggling to support their families, avoid the same situation.
“I was fully aware of the hardships women face while working in refuge in the informal sector and I wanted to help women avoid them,” she said.
Deciding to co-found a community based organisation (CBO), Khawla and a group of Turkish and Syrian women launched the “Help for All” organisation that is aimed at helping women learn about their rights and find the support they need.
Syrian refugees in Turkey struggle to access their rights as workers in the grey economy. The situation is even harder for women who head their households.
“It is hard enough to find work as a refugee. As a female refugee, even if you do find work opportunities, they are usually exploitative and unfair,” said Khawla.
Unequal wages are one of the biggest challenges facing women who work informally in the country.
“Syrian women would barely make half of what another employee would be making – even when they are all working the same hours with the same responsibilities,” said Khawla.
Not only do women have to suffer from unequal wages, but they are also often taken advantage of by employers.
“We have had hundreds of women reporting being hired for secretarial work and would soon realise they are expected to do the cleaning for instance, or else they would lose the job,” said Khawla.
“Some would also be required to clean the employers’ house or work overtime, without being paid,” she added.
As women who either fully support their families or help in supporting them, they would usually be too scared to report the exploitation in fear of losing their only source of income.
“A key to helping women stand up for themselves is educating them about their rights as workers – even in the informal sector,” said Khawla.
The Danish Refugee Council (DRC), in partnership with the ‘Help for All’ organisation, have been providing awareness and legal sessions to introduce working women to their rights.
“If they do not know their rights, they would not know how to fight for them,” she added.
While refugees can work formally, they need to obtain a work permit, however, obtaining one in Turkey is a complex, long, and expensive process. While employers should pay for the work permit, not many of them are willing to as they costly.
“Issuing a work permit costs 4,500 TL – that is more than what a Syrian refugee would make in a six months’ time,” said Khawla.
Another way of helping refugee women is by teaching them a skill which they can use to start working from the safety of their own homes.
“Many women who are the sole supporters of their children cannot leave their homes and we need to help them find a way to build better lives for themselves,” she added.
Today, around 70% of Syrian refugees in Turkey live below the poverty line, a situation that has only worsened since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The financial resources offered to refugees are depleting, but the resilience of women like Khawla, who work hard to empower other women, will definitely carry them through extreme hardships.
“We are all trying to survive and build a better future for our children – I feel obligated to help make other women’s lives easier, when I can,” she finished.