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06 May 2015

Syria: Creating stability, training Syrian activists and enabling support

The civil war in Syria started in 2011 and has not ended, President Bashar al-Assad’s government troops are still involved in serious clashes with various Syrian opposition groups. Having started as an attempt to gain democracy as part of the "Arab Spring", the struggles now seem to have become a battle between religions and ethnic groups. According to UN figures, some 12.2 million people are displaced in and around Syria, including hundreds of thousands of women who have suffered or are threatened by sexualised violence. Even in the refugee camps, women and girls are not safe from this violence. In this interview, Monika Hauser reports on the offers of assistance for refugee women and also on the many activists involved.

How can medica mondiale help the women in and around Syria?

Hauser: Firstly, it is important to state that we primarily consider direct assistance on-site to be the most meaningful way of supporting the women. This is contrary to the suggestion of some German politicians, who proposed bringing them to Germany for a two- or three-month course of therapy. Especially since it is not even clear whether there are enough therapists, hospital beds or other accommodation offers where a trauma-sensitive approach to survivors of sexualised violence is possible. It is much more sensible to invest the money locally. The Kurdish government in northern Iraq for example, where many people have fled, seems to have a good awareness of the issue of gender-based violence and to be sympathetic to the needs of the women. There are many well-trained specialists there and these have the advantage of being familiar with the cultural context, too. So we can connect with them and offer them our expertise and the benefits of our many years of experience.

What does this mean in practice?

Together with local partner organisations, we plan training courses for doctors, care staff and psychologists. This training imparts the standards medica mondiale has developed for trauma-sensitive treatment of survivors, as well as psychosocial first aid and counselling. At a conference in Istanbul in January, we were represented by our trauma expert Karin Griese and she was able to make contact with possible partners. Additionally, we also have an international expert currently working for us in northern Iraq. She is using her contacts to the state healthcare sector and to non-governmental organisations to identify further possible partners. We have already received a very tangible project proposal which we are currently evaluating.

Nonetheless, the activists and helpers there have a significant need for training, especially regarding the issue of self-care. They are the people working every day in the crisis areas, often putting their life in very real danger. Many of them are refugees themselves and have also experienced sexualised violence. They need to receive a selection of ‘tools’ which they can use to protect and strengthen themselves, enabling them to continue performing this important work with refugee women who are often suffering from multiple trauma.

What assistance is possible at all for the refugee women during the ongoing crisis?

First of all it is important to know that in an acute situation there are certain elements of psychosocial work which cannot be carried out. The primary aim has to be establishing stability and providing an opportunity for the women to speak. They need a protected space in order to be able to talk about their painful experiences. This is true for the displaced women, but for the activists, too.

Our Turkish partner organisation The Association of Legal Aid Against Sexual Violence is setting a good example here – we have been supporting them since the end of last year. The counsellors also make it clear to the displaced Syrian women that each woman can decide for herself which sort of assistance she wants to accept. The women need this feeling that they alone determine what happens to them, giving them back a little control over their own lives and counteracting the feeling of helplessness which often accompanies a trauma. It is also important for us to act in solidarity with the women affected as we offer to help them in whatever way is feasible. They need to know we have not forgotten them and that there are people in Germany, too, who are interested in their fate and offering them support.


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Report: “It is our duty to behead you”

Samira* was 13 years old when the IS militia attacked the village where she lived with her family in northern Iraq. They destroyed houses and threatened the inhabitants with the words, “You are infidels, it is our duty to behead you.” Samira’s father, mother, one brother and one sister were taken prisoner. Their deaf grandmother and some of the neighbours, including children, were killed. Samira, who had to witness all of this, fled with her remaining brothers and sisters together with other villagers into the surrounding mountains. After twelve days they reached the Syrian border. Here they encountered PKK fighters, who brought them to the Turkish refugee camp in Şengal.

Staff from our Turkish partner organisation observing Samira noticed typical trauma symptoms. She had convulsive sobbing fits, attacks of shivering and spells of weakness. She was very anxious and at times shook with fear. Support staff visited her regularly, trying to maintain close contact. Gradually, she was able to regain a little confidence, slowly open up and start talking about her terrible experiences. She also appeared to become less anxious and more trusting.

* Name changed for her protection