The Real Housewives of the Syrian Revolution

Behind the lines of the war against Bashar al-Assad.

Tanya Habjouqa
Tanya Habjouqa

For more photos of Aysha and other Syrian housewives, click here. 

RAMTHA, Jordan — For Aysha, a 28-year-old Syrian refugee in Jordan, her small Nokia cell phone is a lifeline to a loved one on the front lines of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

It’s the only way she can contact her husband, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Layla. They talk almost every day. He has joined the ranks of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), leaving her with their three children and making her one of many "rebel wives" keeping the faith on the other side of the border. It has been two weeks since she last saw him.

Aysha often rode on the back of her husband’s motorcycle before he went off to war, her black niqab flowing behind her as he drove. Now her world is a lot less glamorous. She spends most of her day at home — a box-like three-bedroom rented apartment, dotted with mattresses and featuring only one small window — taking care of her three daughters, mopping floors, and hand-washing the laundry. The apartment was paid for with money scrounged together from local charities, sympathizers, and their Jordanian neighbors, and their daily survival is dependent on this private aid.

The stresses of refugee life, which include hosting her in-laws, have taken their toll on Aysha. She has lost weight since her husband rejoined the front lines — partly due to worry, partly because she doesn’t have enough money to buy food. Sitting on a mattress in her sparsely furnished apartment in this dusty Jordanian border town, she admits she doesn’t know when she’ll see her husband again.

"My fate is with the Free Syrian Army," she says with resignation.

Aysha is the eldest of her five sisters — one of three who fled to Jordan due to their husbands’ revolutionary activities, while the other two reside in Syria and send money when they can. She lived in the southern Syrian city of Daraa and arrived in Jordan in May 2011, a month after her husband escaped from Syria. Abu Layla, who was a leader of an anti-Assad group in Daraa and distributed machine guns to the rebels, was arrested for two weeks last year for his involvement in the revolt. He bribed an official at the Syrian border to ensure his wife and daughters safe passage into Jordan.

It’s a painful story, shared by thousands of other Syrian women who fled the violence. The escalating violence in Syria — opposition groups place the death toll at over 17,000 — has resulted in a swelling wave of refugees to Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, estimates that it has assisted almost 100,000 Syrian refugees in these countries since the revolution kicked off in March 2011 — more than double the number it had assisted just three months ago. In Syria itself, at least 500,000 people have been internally displaced, according to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. Many of these refugees inside and outside Syria live in dire conditions, and aid organizations have struggled to bring in badly needed relief.

Jordan may have opened its doors to Syrians — accommodating 140,000 since the revolt broke out, by its own figures — but that doesn’t mean life is easy for the refugees there.��In recent months, hundreds have crossed the border illegally on a daily basis. Once they arrive, they are taken to an overcrowded, run-down shelter in Ramtha known as the "Bashabsheh" — named after the family that owns it — before they are sent onward to three other transit facilities. Security and military defectors stay at a different shelter in the northern city of Mafraq, for their own safety. They are only allowed a few days’ freedom to see their families.

But there are some upsides to this difficult life. As Aysha coyly admits, the romance with her husband has never been stronger.

"Your cheeks are like honey, and I cannot wait to taste them again," reads a text message from Abu Layla.

When the phone rings — a call from her husband — Aysha shifts her cranky 2-year-old off her lap and runs giddily to the back of the room to answer. Alternating between giggles and whispers, she eventually passes the phone to her daughters for a quick chat.

"One day we will sleep on the same pillow and fall asleep looking at each other," she tells her husband as they end the call.

The flirtation is a useful respite from the dull grind of everyday life. Nearby, Aysha’s younger sister, Nadia, 25, shares a rented apartment with her parents-in-law, their sons, their daughters-in-law, and their grandchildren. Seventeen people live in the two-bedroom apartment. Sitting with Aysha, along with her mother-in law and sister-in-law, Ruba, Nadia doesn’t hide her frustration.

"I haven’t adjusted to life here," the mother of three says. "The only reason we came here is because my husband was so worried about us. But I want to return, and I want to be with him even if I get killed."

With tempers and nerves fraying, one thing that keeps Nadia going is the thought of seeing her husband. She is a quiet woman but emphatic when the conversation turns to the hoped-for reunion. "I can’t wait to see him," she says. "I want to lose weight, and I want him to see me pretty when he returns."

In the seemingly interminable time away from their husbands, dreams of reunions and thoughts on how best to prepare for them fill the conversations of the rebels’ wives. They swap weight-loss tips, discuss whether to highlight their hair, and even compare notes on the best lingerie.

Despite the niqab she wears, Aysha is not a rigid Muslim and loves to tease her more conservative sisters. "No, a sexy bra and panties is better than a negligee when he comes home. Highlight your hair and wear a red dress," she advises the three other women in the same room.

Nadia takes a sideways glance in the mirror and shares her tips with the other women. "I skip meals and no Coca-Cola. I want to lose weight. I want him to return to me looking pretty," she says.

Some of the wives proudly display the cheeky texts their husbands send them from over the border — a way to keep alive love and perhaps even a little lust in the most uncertain of times. Nadia peels into laughter and starts to share her mobile with the three women, before shyly changing her mind.

But hanging over the lighthearted gossip and girl talk is constant fear. Aysha’s husband, who joined the rebel fight after being tortured in a regime prison, promised her he wouldn’t seek "martyrdom." But she knows it might find him anyway.

And for those women whose husbands survive, the trauma of the battlefield, imprisonment, and torture can mean the reunion is far from what they imagined. Nadia’s sister-in-law Ruba, 25, is happy that her husband is now safe with her in Jordan. But he returned to her a different person, she says, after being taken hostage by the Assad regime in hopes that his brother, considered a major player in the FSA, would hand himself in.

"He was arrested last year for two months and a half in Mezzeh prison in Damascus. He was tortured and insulted," she says, nursing her youngest daughter. "I do not recognize him. He doesn’t want to return to Syria."

Ruba’s husband comes from a family of rebels. His father helped supply rebels with bullets before fleeing to Jordan last month. His brother — the same one for whom he was arrested — is still actively involved in the rebel movement.

"My husband now likes to keep to himself. He doesn’t speak much. When he left the prison there were lice all over his body, and it was marked with bruises," Ruba says. "He saw prisoners whose fingers were cut off and others with their nails removed."

Life is hard for their wives, too, many of whom admit they cry themselves to sleep, fearing for their husbands and frustrated at their desperate attempts to fend for themselves and their children alone. As new refugees in a host country that is ailing economically, they have little in the way of options or opportunities. And if their husbands don’t make it back, their primary support system will die with them. Most live on private aid donated by Christian and Islamic charities, Jordanian sympathizers, and wealthy Syrian expats from the Persian Gulf. Basics like shampoo and toilet paper have become a luxury. Aysha and her daughters often miss meals.

This state of affairs has, sadly, become the norm. UNHCR’s regional coordinator for Syrian refugees noted that roughly three-quarters of Syrian refugees were women and children, most of whom are "entirely dependent" on humanitarian aid. UNHCR’s appeal for assistance for these refugees is so far only 26 percent funded.

"We are patient about our husbands’ absence, we help them, we raise the children, and we don’t tell them how hard life is. We are living on God’s mercy," Ruba says.

For other wives, romance is not the only reason they wish to be back with their husbands in Syria. Left far from the front lines, they say they want a chance to contribute to the rebellion directly. "I want to return.… I am waiting for the day of Assad’s doom, when we take the squares and palaces," says Yasmine. The youngest of the sisters, Yasmine is tall with wide hazel eyes. Although she was initially welcoming, her frustration spills over quickly — she slaps one of her children for spilling a cup of coffee and furiously cleans before circling the room and sitting down.

Yasmine’s husband has also returned to Syria to fight against the Assad regime, leaving his wife in Jordan. Before fleeing the besieged city of Homs, Yasmine would spend her mornings cooking for rebel fighters. In the afternoons she sat down with her husband and father-in-law to dismantle rebel guns, swabbing them with diesel fuel for cleaning.

These days, Yasmine’s hours are filled with the struggle to feed her children. Hummus sandwiches are considered a rare treat, and the monotony of the struggle to make ends meet leaves her cold. "Life is so hard here; I wish my husband can find a job even as a garbage collector. We do not have any money. My son is wearing the same diaper since the morning," she said during an earlier conversation in June, breaking into tears.

At times, the wives’ zest for revolution exceeds that of their spouses. Yasmine’s neighbor, a 17-year-old refugee named Jamila, relishes the day her husband can go fight the Syrian regime. "He is waiting for a call from the FSA, but he is reluctant … but I am not afraid of death — it is so commonplace in our home now."

In Syria, Jamila helped shelter rebels and gave them medicine and bullets. Now, watching the conflict from afar, she feels only frustration.

"I am begging him to let me return, even ahead of him."

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