A private, nonprofit organization founded by 11 women in Syria and focused on women, youth and education illustrates the possibility that private efforts and Syrian-led philanthropy and volunteerism may play a growing role in that country.
The women founded the organization, Hayat, a little over two years ago in the midst of Syria’s ongoing war and the economic and social repercussions of that war on the Syrians.
Those repercussions still exist. Although in Damascus, the direct effects of the conflict and the number of checkpoints are decreasing, the electricity supply is inconsistent and shortages of fuel are affecting people’s ability to cook, heat their homes, and drive their cars.
The women chose the name Hayat, which means “life” in Arabic, in the hope that their nongovernmental organization would reflect their desire to live responsibly and to challenge the death the war brought to their country.
“We believe in the role of women as a key partner in building societies,” said Alia Omran, one of the association’s founders, during a visit to the United Kingdom. “Syrian women have always been active in their families and societies. During the war, they took on new responsibilities and many have become the main breadwinners and often the only one for their families. We wanted to help women through psychological support and legal empowerment.”
Omran recently visited six universities in the United Kingdom and spoke at the British Council offices in a tour sponsored by the British Council and organized by Al-Fanar Media and the British Council.
In Syria, the proportion of women in the population rose from 49 percent in 2010 to 60 percent in 2016, according to Hassan al-Nuri, the minister of administrative development.
Many men have died in the conflict or have fled the country to avoid military service. The high proportion of women in the current population “necessitates an increased attention to rehabilitation and developing their [women’s] abilities and skills and their working in various sectors,” al-Nuri said.
A report published by UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, in June 2014 warned that “tens of thousands of Syrian women are in the midst of hardship, isolation and anxiety and left to struggle to survive in a deadly war.”
Hayat’s diverse programs seek to develop the skills of Syrian women so they can become “leading, influential, and able to get significant material and moral opportunities” in Syrian society, said Omran. The organization is trying to this by, for example, raising women’s awareness of their rights under Syrian law, including the knowledge that sexual assault is illegal and that girls have the right to refuse early marriage.
To date, the organization has been able to train and secure job opportunities for 30 Syrian women in Damascus and its countryside. The organization relies primarily on social media networks as well as on its own network of relationships and volunteers of both sexes for promoting their efforts.
“These strategies may seem limited in reaching out, but they are in fact very effective and useful,” said Omran, who is a pharmacist and lecturer at Qasyoun Private University, in Damascus.
Hayat also works with universities to set up workshops for all students on topics such as the risks of cybercrime and drugs. On more positive topics, Hayat has organized workshops on entrepreneurship, project management methods and team organization. It serves as a kind of umbrella organization, helping students with their own activities, such as assisting pharmacy students interested in public health education and other students interested in interactive theater.
The organization also seeks to assist students to apply for scholarships, prepare for interviews, understand how foreign universities select students, and score well on the IELTS test of English-language proficiency, a prerequisite for studying at many international universities.
“Unfortunately, the majority of international scholarship programs go to Syrian students outside Syria, which adds to the isolation of young people at home,” said Omran. “Many have great potential and ambition but lack access to such opportunities.” (See a related article “The Frustrating Lives of Syria’s Future Leaders“.)
The foundation’s activities have influenced the social concepts of some young people.
“My involvement in Hayat activities has changed my view of women’s abilities and potential in serving the society. I have become more aware of the importance of legal literacy to promote women’s rights and their participation in society,” said George Marrash, a Syrian student studying for a master’s degree at King’s College in London who became a volunteer with Hayat.
The association, like others working inside Syria, faces many difficulties.
“Our work is basically voluntary. Amid economic difficulties and the harsh living conditions we have been living with for more than seven years, the commitment to volunteering is not easy at all,” said Omran. “We work hard and hope that our volunteer work will motivate others who have lost hope and desire to work because of war.”
She said the most prominent obstacle lies in the isolation imposed by international sanctions, which often eliminates the possibility exchanging experiences and knowledge.
“We need to communicate our voice to the world and explain our reality and needs,” she said.
Also on the tour of U.K. universities with Omran was Sulaiman Mouselli, the dean of the faculty of business administration at Arab International University, a private university which is currently based in Damascus.
Mouselli outlined his efforts to successfully arrange study-abroad experiences for Syrian university students and visits for Syrian academic staff at eight European universities. He has also won capacity building grants for his university and its partners in areas such as digital skills in health education, modernization of curricula, and the empowerment of female academics.
“We are not just sitting in Syria waiting for help,” he stressed.