The first episode in my Illustrated Women Who Can blog series is about the female Syrian refugee who inspired this series, Um Fouad. Frankly speaking, there’s no one like Um Fouad. She is a bubbly, strong-willed, optimistic lady who doesn’t let anything drag her down, not even a civil war in her home country or the fact that she lives in a pre-fab caravan in Zaatari camp.
I wanted to create an illustration celebrating Um Fouad’s resilience, because she can teach women everywhere to take charge of the one thing they can take responsibility for, and that is their reaction to adversity as well as the workings of their inner worlds.
I met Um Fouad a couple of years ago while working as an Oxfam GB media officer. My job involved helping journalists from around the world find interviews with refugees who were willing to share their stories at the Zaatari camp, as well as other host communities in Jordan.
While the morale of female Syrian refugees was understandably very low because of the horrors of the war and the loss of their homes and normal lives, Um Fouad had a completely different mind-set.
Every morning, she greeted her “new neighbourhood” in Zaatari camp with the strong aroma of Turkish coffee coming from her pre-fab caravan. She then invited her female neighbours over for a cup of coffee and a light chat, with music bustling from a small radio in the background.
“I enjoy this coffee ritual so much and live for it. It’s the reason I wake up every morning, and it gives me and my female neighbours the emotional and mental energy to go on with the rest of the day. We talk about beautiful things; no politics, no heartache, just beautiful things,” she once told me as I was prepping her for a photoshoot she had agreed to with a celebrity actress visiting the camp.
Um Fouad’s genius coping mechanisms and high spirits may have to do with her life before the war, which she thought was pretty limiting for her ambitions as a rural woman.
Like most of the Syrian refugees in Zaatari camp, she came from a small Syrian village across the border from Jordan. But what was different from the other villages there is that this one was completely isolated. She told me that in order to reach the village you had to go through a very dangerous and very steep road to reach her community. This meant no one from the outside world ever went there. It also meant most people stayed in and only bothered to leave the village for extreme emergencies or life necessities.
“We once had an archaeological excavation mission nearby our village and it was like a breeze of fresh air for all of us there. We had the chance to help them with things like food and accommodation and it was the most fun I ever had in my life,” Um Fouad told me.
Um Fouad is clearly very intelligent and ambitious, but who had to live a life constrained by tradition and very low expectations from women. She didn’t have an education past middle school like most of the women in her village, but was very keen on learning. Her dream was always to meet new people and to broaden her horizons.
In Um Fouad’s words, moving to Zaatari camp was more of a blessing in disguise because she now gets to meet people from all over the world.
“I love meeting people. My life was pretty mundane back in my village. Now I get to meet people from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, America… This is really exciting for me. I don’t say this to other refugees here, because they won’t like my ideas and my ambition, but I am happier here than I ever was in my village!”
Um Fouad explains that what is expected of her in the Zaatari camp as a “female Syrian refugee” is far more liberating then the glass ceiling that was once her village. Here, she gets to volunteer with international NGOs, attend seminars, and contribute to newsletters. Because of her leadership skills she now leads a couple of women’s groups in areas like water and health. She gets to rub shoulders with aid workers from all sorts of countries and enjoys learning from them about things like time management, planning, and meeting goals and deadlines.
All of this is very exciting to Um Fouad, whose way of spreading her cheer, sense of achievement and strong work ethic, is by creating a female Syrian refugee community around a toasty cup of Turkish coffee, every morning, while in diaspora.
P.S. This illustration is not an accurate depiction of Um Fouad’s features, but rather an image of the inner life of a female Syrian refugee as a resilient and beauty-making woman | #WithSyria #RefugeesWelcome #WithRefugees
People illustration + illustrated woman by illustrator and artist Yaansoon