Field notes from Turkey: Women, faith and trauma amidst horrors of war and hardships in refuge
HAD and Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW) are currently implementing a one-year research project on the role of faith in trauma responses to Muslim women refugees in Tunisia, Turkey, Syria and Iraq. In this blog post, HAD Fellow Sandra Iman Pertek, reflects on her field trip to Turkey, following a short research visit to Tunisia earlier this year.
My PhD research project explores how religion influences the experiences of abuse and discrimination against refugee and migrant women in Turkey and Tunisia, especially the impact of religion on resilience and vulnerability. My first day in the field in Ankara was the first day of Ramadan and fasting, I trusted that I will find the right people on my way who will willingly aid the ambitious aims of this research. The further I immersed in the community, the more women refugees invited me to their homes and wanted to share their stories voluntary. I felt privileged to listen to the first accounts of these stories.
Suffering and horrors, but also kindness and charitable giving
What came out strongly is the volume of suffering and horrors witnessed by women refugees in their countries of origin, contrasted with kindness and charitable giving of Turkish people. I uncovered that dependency on donations in the long-term seriously increases refugee women’s vulnerability. Yet, hope is still there, and many of the people I spoke with have faith and expect that with God’s help, they will be able to change their situations, for example through finding a job or a better accommodation.
“What kept them going was their faith”
In my mission I interviewed in total 21 Syrian and 2 Iraqi women refugees, who all sought protection and temporary residence in Turkey after fleeing their countries. All women showed an incredible resilience to manage change and crisis, and most resorted to religious coping methods, which brought them comfort and strength to carry on. Most women I spoke with were mothers. Each and every one of them witnessed conflict, feared for her and her family’s life, lost relatives, lived in camps and at the borders. During refugee journeys of variant length (from a few weeks to many lengthy months), they were forced to hide, run, roll over valleys, climb walls and mountains, feeling that their live was at risk. What kept them going was mentioning God, invoking and talking to God, whilst surviving this crisis of humanity. Most women refugees trusted God in relieving their conditions, taking action to meet their basic survival needs and other active means of coping.
Prayer as a means of comfort and inner peace
The women I spoke with told me that God is their only hope and rescue. Despite great sensitivity around discussing religion, often considered as a personal matter with the potential to endanger people back in Syria and Iraq, faith was central in their lives and empowered women to overcome their limitations, whilst mobilising strength beyond their comprehension. Daily prayers, additional prayers and night prayers were means of comfort and finding inner peace in the chaos of their lives. Reading the Qur’an was nourishing and a protective factor in women’s lives, who suffered from daily destitution of economic resources, inadequate housing, the psychological pain of losing relatives and war trauma. The prophetic stories brought to them respite and motivated them to continue their living in dignified ways, no matter in what circumstances.
Daily struggles and vulnerability
The daily struggles were a major source of distress and exposed women, most often living alone with children after losing their husbands and male relatives in conflict zones, to greater vulnerability to exploitation, abuse and discrimination by non-family members and sometimes family members too. All women refugees I met were at a risk of sexual exploitation and transactional sex, for food and other necessities, yet they resisted this risk, preferring to eat little or nothing, but maintaining their dignity. Some women, I was told about, were left without choice and had to sometimes resort to harmful coping strategies for them and their children to survive.
Major strain on the women’s mental health
In result of the war and resettlement experience, most women I met have been lonely, cautious and not trusting others. The strain on their mental health is major. Many women I spoke with face trauma, are stressed and anxious, because of the war and displacement. Some of them carried with them memories of abuse from childhood and adolescence, which now coupled with new experiences, compound the intensity of trauma suffered. In context of their limited economic opportunities, they use their intrinsic resources and rely on ways of coping that are relatively available to them. Coping methods often rest around available spiritual, faith and religious resources such as prayers, contemplation, recitation of religious scripts and talking to God.
Context matters: Syrian women refugees living in Turkey
The level of trauma and well-being seems to predetermine trends in utilising faith beliefs and practices in drawing strength and coping with new life situations, such as destitution, poverty and exclusion. Through the faith lens, women find meaning of, and solutions to, their experiences of violence and abuse. Sometimes mental health disorders decrease women’s ability to utilise some of these relatively available resources. Refugee women living now in Turkey find that religious identity, especially sectarian belonging, seems to play a lesser role than it did in Syria, where it could lead to one’s life being at danger. Where they reside now, they choose to keep religion as a private domain, and they seek closeness and direct relations with God through reading religious text alone.
Stories of pain and sadness, but also little seeds of hope
I returned to Birmingham equipped with the unheard stories of pain and sadness but also carrying with me little seeds of hope. Working with committed translators, visiting Bilkent University as a researcher and finally meeting friendly personnel of the Red Crescent Turkey (Kızılay), whom I established collaboration with, were additions which made my mission more secure and possible. My next step is analysis and further continuation of my enquiry – yet before that, my next stop is Medinine in Tunisia, to unfold further stories of forced migration, SGBV and religion in my second field research site.