Women Without Men
In her 2000 book Women Without Men, Mennonite Refugees of the Second World War, Marlene Epp presented the story of thousands of Mennonite women in the former Soviet Union who lost their husbands to Stalinist work camps and in fighting during the Second World War.
Not knowing if their husbands were dead or alive, they made an arduous journey through war-torn Europe to safety in places like Canada, developing courageous and ingenious strategies to protect and support their families.
Epp’s book came back to me as I sat in the homes of Kadijah Abasa and Fadia Al Mhawash in Ramtha, Jordan.
Like those Mennonite women over 70 years ago, the two women have also lost their husbands—to the Syrian conflict.
Kadijah, who has three children, had a comfortable life in Syria with her husband before the war. They had a nice house and he had a good job.
After fleeing to Jordan for safety in 2013, they lived together in Jordan until late in 2015 when her husband went to Turkey for medical care. While there, he sent her a message saying he would try to find them a better place to live.
She doesn’t know where he meant, but thinks it was Europe. But that was five months ago, the last time she heard from him. She’s heard nothing since.
What does she think happened? “I don’t know,” she says quietly, her hands folded in her lap. “Maybe he is dead.”
It’s not said out loud, but we are all thinking it: Maybe he is one of the many drowned trying to get to Greece.
What will she do now? Her sister went to Canada, and she would like to go there too, she thinks.
“But now I am confused about what to do,” she says in a flat and unemotional tone. “I don’t know where my husband is, if he is dead or alive.”
In the meantime, she receives food assistance from a Lutheran World Federation (LWF) program that is very similar to one supported by Canadian Foodgrains Bank through its member, Canadian Lutheran World Relief.
Through the Foodgrains Bank project, 7,000 vulnerable people like of Kadijah and Fadia in the area receive assistance; due to sensitivities related to visiting those beneficiaries, a decision was made not to see them.
What does she think about the future? “I don’t think I will ever be able to go back to Syria,” Kadijah says quietly. “All I want now is to find a place where my children can live in peace.”
A few blocks away lives Fadia with her four children. One of them, Mohammed, 13, is mentally handicapped.
“We were living a normal life in Syria until the war,” she says, adding that her husband had a job in construction.
They fled to Jordan in 2013. In 2014 her husband went back to Syria to fight.
He stayed in contact regularly while away, calling her every two days and regularly sending money home. But now she hasn’t heard from him for four months, or received any support.
What does she think happened? “Maybe he is dead,” she says quietly, her eyes tearing up. “Now we have no money, and no word . . . I think he is dead.”
Like Kadijah, Fadia receives 20 Jordanian dinars per person per month in food assistance from LWF (about $37 Canadian), while support from other agencies helps with the rent.
As for other income, Syrian refugees aren’t allowed to work in Jordan. But even if she could, she can’t leave Mohammed alone—there are no services available to help him or provide her with respite.
“I have no hope for the future, except to be re-united with my husband and go back to Syria,” she says, although she adds “there is no possibility of doing that now.”
Would she go to Canada? “I would go anywhere that is safe,” she says.
At the end of the interview she sighs—a big, long, heavy sigh. It sounds like she is trying to expel all the worries and fears of over the last three years in a single breath.
“I worry about people like Kadijah and Fadia,” says Rachel Luce, who coordinates LWF programs in Jordan. “It is so easy for depression to set in when people have no hope for the future.”
Since 2012 the Foodgrains Bank has provided over $29 million of assistance for people affected by the war in Syria. Click here to make a donation to our Syria appeal.