Posted by Sabrin Qadi on August 21, 2015 in Blog

Najlaa.jpegThe pursuit of happiness is an existential journey for all people; its narrative consists of confusion and struggle in the face of adversities. In a war-torn country, where violence supersedes reason and people are cast into a shadow away from the light—there you find the dark horrors, injustices, and madness of war. It is difficult to do anything but feel afraid and helpless. Yet, resilient spirits find a way to be hopeful, to give their lives a purpose, and live as passionately and authentically by any means.

For the Syrian people caught in a tragic civil war, existence precedes essence. Najlaa Sheekh, an individual caught in between the conflict of armed groups in her country paved a way for herself and others to continue existing rather than submitting to the attributed essence others use to define those— stereotypes and labels of refugees by the West.

Extraordinary times shaped Najlaa’s life and what it’s become in the midst of Syria’s civil war. The first incident was in the early years of the war when her apartment in Damascus was raided by armed men. As a mother and protector, her instinct was to grab her two sons and wait in the elevator of the building until they left. Luckily, she managed to escape safely and move to Aleppo where she lived with relatives. There, she actively participated in delivering medical supplies for vulnerable families, but not for long. Najlaa and her family were uprooted once more as the regime carried out airstrikes in Aleppo. She and her family relocated to her hometown of Azaz, a small city roughly 20 miles northwest of Aleppo where she commuted back and forth determined to continue helping women and their families. In 2012, bombs were dropped on the town destroying her family's home and her injuring her nine-year-old son Amer. She was left with no choice but to move to Turkey where she could get treatment for her son’s injuries. Najlaa had to muster the courage within her to make the difficult decision of moving her entire life across the border, leaving her beloved country. Turkey was safe and there she could have peace of mind knowing that her family would no longer need to fear the possibility of injury or death they faced in Syria.

Najlaa wasted no time reconnecting in Turkey with other women who fled in search of safety for their families. She was looking for hopes and dreams among the brave and strong women she knew in Syria, but the long conflict weighed heavily on them. The war cast a psychological toll, leaving them with feelings of angst and dread, and their migration out of Syria filled their hearts and minds with nothing but despair and thoughts of never returning to what was once called home.

Najlaa remained true to herself, accepting the reality of her past experiences in the war but not allowing it to shape her present; “With every challenge, I thought that this time is the worst, but I knew I had to continue,” Najlaa says. Seeing the potential and skill of the women in her community, she developed the idea of beginning workshops of handicrafts and knitting. This was not just an entrepreneurial opportunity for her and the other Syrian women, but a chance to begin again and improve their lives emotionally and physically. The workshop began with 18 women in Najlaa’s small townhome, and has expanded to a full community center with 260 participants and workshops ranging from knitting and sewing, Turkish and Arabic, and cosmetology.

“I have taught myself not to cry and show fear, but to struggle. And I continue teaching women that they should do the same, struggle for their rights and well-being.” Najlaa lived in Syria during the war and fought to survive violence. She is so much more than a labeled refugee. Najlaa is simply an ordinary person living in extraordinary times; choosing to seize opportunities and making the most out of her situation and improving the lives of those around her. 

Sabrin Qadi is an intern with the Arab American Institute