Dreaming and learning to overcome years of hardship

The story of Ayat, a powerful woman from Syria

a young girl
UNICEF/Syria/2021/Omar Malas
22 June 2021

“Women must complete their education, as no one knows what the future holds. A woman’s only weapon in life is her education,”

Ayat, 28

Douma, Rural Damascus, Syria, May 2021 - Like many girls in her community, Ayat got married when she was 17. As she describes it, her life was decent, happy, and somewhat predictable. Every day, she took care of the kids and did the chores while her husband, Omar, worked at his linen shop. “There is a huge difference between my life back then and now; very huge.”

In 2011, Ayat’s life took its first downturn when conflict reached her neighbourhood in Douma, East Ghouta of Rural Damascus. She and Omar had to flee with their two infants for safety, but wherever they tried to seek shelter in surrounding locations, violence followed. They were left with no choice but to go back home. “We just went back to Douma. At least, there, we had a home of our own,” recalls Ayat. “We couldn’t afford the other option of moving to the capital nearby.”

Woman fixing prosthetic leg to a girl
UNICEF/Syria/2021/Omar Malas
Ayat helps her daughter, Masa, 9, put on her prosthetic leg, at home in Douma, Rural Damascus, Syria.

In Douma, violence kept escalating, reaching a climax in 2013. One day that year, as Ayat was walking home with her family carrying her youngest, one-year-old Masa, while her eldest, Hala, 2 years, was holding her father’s hand, a shell hit a nearby building. Ayat’s body was hit with shrapnel. One of them struck the little leg of Masa before it severely injured Ayat’s arm. “I looked around to see Hala emerging from beneath her father’s body. Omar sprawled quickly on the ground to protect her. His body bore all the shrapnel.”

People took the four, who were laying on the ground bleeding, to a hospital. Ayat underwent a seven-hour surgery to reattach nerves in her arm. Her spleen and parts of her colon were removed. “Omar died, and Masa’s leg had to be amputated, but when I was still recovering my family hid the truth from me for a while to help me get through my injury,” says Ayat, who was devastated when she learned the news.

“Suddenly, I was all on my own with two infants, one of whom had become disabled. I was overwhelmed with a huge responsibility that I felt too weak to bear."

Ayat, 28

It took Ayat one month at the hospital and a whole year at her parents’ home to fully recover. “What hurt the most was how Masa wouldn’t come close to me scared from all the tubes coming out from my body,” she recalls. “My mother and sister took care of her for so long that she thought they were her mothers.”

young girl studying at home
UNICEF/Syria/2021/Omar Malas
Ayat studies for her university degree.

When Ayat was ready to leave her sickbed, her family was sinking in poverty as siege tightened across East Ghouta.

“I realized that I needed to go out there and find a job, at least to feed my two children.”

Ayat, 28

In Ayat’s community, with its strict gender roles, it was unusual for a woman to go out and work with men. “I had to break the rules to survive,” she says. Ayat started working with a humanitarian organization as a psychosocial support worker. “What I learned from that job was instrumental for my interactions with my daughters, who were clearly affected by trauma.”

With her strong will for life and despite the hardship she went through, Ayat was able to dream again. She decided to continue her education which she stopped after Grade 11, when she got married, and began to prepare to sit for Grade 12 national exams. “I needed to study hard while still working. I needed to make it to the exams.”

With siege coming to an end in 2018, ready to do her baccalaureate exams, Ayat passed them with good grades, qualifying her to enroll at the Faculty of Chemistry in Damascus. During her first year at the university, she worked as a schoolteacher besides studying. But as she started the second year, it became harder to juggle the two, so she had to quit working and focus on her degree. The financial burden, however, was made easier when she registered Masa for UNICEF’s cash transfer for children with disabilities programme, providing families with the equivalent of USD 40 a month, to help caregivers take care of their disabled children’s needs. “Often, when I come back after receiving the money, I would find my daughters waiting at the door, excited to find the food items they had asked for among my shopping bags.”

woman teaching two girls at home
UNICEF/Syria/2021/Omar Malas
Ayat teaches her daughters Masa, 9, and Hala, 10, at home in Douma, Rural Damascus, Syria.

Ayat, now 28, continues her endeavour to make a decent living for her family. She spends mornings at her university, takes care of the girls in the afternoon and studies all night after they go to bed. Her plan is to graduate, start a job as a lab technician and be fully self-reliant.

“Women must complete their education, as no one knows what the future holds. A woman’s only weapon in life is her education,” Ayat passes the lesson she learned the hard way to all young women in her community.

Thanks to generous contributions from Japan and Canada, since 2020, more than 1,700 children with severe disabilities have been benefitting from UNICEF’s cash transfer programme for children with severe disabilities in rural Damascus, supporting their families to take care of the children’s needs.