We aren’t searching for more fighting, we’re in search of peace.

War doesn’t spare anyone. It destroys lives, personal connections, infrastructure, civilisation, hopes and dreams.

When people are forced to flee, it’s never as simple as packing a few things and leaving. It’s saying goodbye to memories, hard work, the future, family, and friendships.

Hiba and Balqees are two young women in their early twenties who grew up in Syria. Hiba was raised in Damascus but when her family moved to Hama, she met Balqees at school. Initially, they didn’t get along, but their feminist values brought them together.

Balqees – “We met in third grade, and we didn’t like each other at first. I remember we were always fighting.”

Hiba – “We used to fight because I was jealous of my sister’s friends and Balqees was my sister’s friend first. Balqees used to fight with all the boys, and I had to hold her back. Eventually, I was with her wherever she went.”

Balqees – “The boys used to sit in the front rows in class and I didn’t like it. They used to say they were stronger than us because we’re just girls and they thought they could do better than us. I used to say I’m stronger and I became a feminist. As I grew up this belief just grew stronger. I learnt how to fight from my brothers and Hiba had to hold me back.”

Hiba – When people started talking about the war, I shut them out. I didn’t want to think about it. My family left during the first year of the war. Hama was the site of clashes between Muslims and Christians. My twin sister was scared of the fighting in Hama, and she started having panic attacks, so we had to move to Lebanon. We thought we would eventually go back but the war continued to get worse, so we stayed in Lebanon. I didn’t get to say bye to Balqees before we left. It wasn’t until January 2012 that we met again online through Facebook for the first time since we left Syria.

Balqees and her family also had to flee but went to Turkey as the fighting continued to worsen. Even though Hiba and Balqees are in neighbouring countries, they are unable to travel to meet each other because of their refugee status. In conversation with Our World Too, Hiba and Balqees shared their experiences of being refugees in two different countries.

Balqees – In Syria, life was easy because we were very young, and we were surrounded by family. I was 12 when we left Syria because of the fighting. At first, it was easy, we didn’t have passports, but we were able to enter Turkey easily. Back then the borders were open. Now, you’re not supported in Turkey, and you’re constantly told to go back home. You have to fight to be here.

When we first arrived, I went to a school for Syrian children. When I was at school. I used to volunteer for an organisation which gave me a grant to attend college. The Turkish Government made schools for Syrians which are free, but we have to pay for college and it’s expensive. We have to pay the same price as Turkish students, but Turkish students are eligible for scholarships, we aren’t.

I’m now attending a college and studying International Law. I would like to be a peacemaker. I’ve studied a lot of things. I’m a skincare and hair professional and I’ve studied editing and media. I used to work for the Arabic section of TRT.

Hiba – We don’t live in a camp; we live in a normal house. If we go to a Syrian school, it’s free but if we go to a Lebanese school we have to pay. My sister and I went to school for a short while, but we were bullied for being Syrian. We eventually decided not to go back because we wanted to help my mom in the restaurant, she worked in. I stopped my education when I was 15. We studied at home for a while, now I’m trying to teach myself a lot of languages and help my mom. The restaurant had to close for a little while because of COVID-19 so we started our own business.

Regardless of where people choose to seek sanctuary, there is an element of racism and discrimination against those who have fled war and persecution. This can include, restricting the area within which they can move, not recognising their achievements in favour of nationals, access to a limited number of schools and countless professions they cannot pursue because of their status.

Balqees – In Turkey, it’s not a Muslim or a Christian issue, they just have a hatred for Syrians. Our lives in Turkey are better because we’re safe but there are issues because people hate others and there is a lot of racism. My sister is very smart but when she graduated school her teacher said she couldn’t receive a medal because she’s Syrian. It had to go to a Turkish child. Another teacher tried to speak to her, but she refused to give it to a Syrian.

When I go for job interviews, they don’t ask about my CV or work experience. They say if you’re pretty we’ll give you the work but if you’re ugly we won’t. They say we can’t give you work if you’re ugly or Syrian. I work as a video editor and it doesn’t matter if you’re good at the work or if your CV is full of good things, they never ask for it. They gave me work because I’m pretty, not because of my experience or skills. My personality and skills are more than my face, it is very offensive.

When Syrian women first arrived in Turkey they didn’t fight for their rights and people believed they could do whatever they wanted because Syrian women have no rights. No one respects you. When we started fighting for our rights, the men are afraid. They believe we are less than Turkish women.

Hiba – In Lebanon, they believe Syrian women are less than Lebanese women. Some Syrian women had to work in nightclubs, bars, clubs and as prostitutes so men got the wrong impression of Syrian women. They started to stereotype all Syrian women. The men who come to the restaurant where we work started to look at me like I was available for anyone. I told them I am my own person, and they had no right to assume anything. It’s not safe for us to go out at night in Lebanon. My mom and I were followed one day when we were returning from shopping.

We are also paid less. Lebanese women are paid more, if I worked more than them, I would still be paid less. Refugees also can’t get good jobs like being a doctor or a teacher. They can own their own businesses, but Syrian doctors aren’t accepted by Lebanese doctors.

When people are forced to flee, it’s not just their physical belongings that are left behind. Childhood dreams and hopes for the future are lost along the way when seeking asylum. Even when individuals are recognised as refugees, they are often not given the same rights or opportunities as nationals and are forced to choose between necessities such as making a living or education.

The future is often difficult to imagine because much of the refugee experience is centred around getting through today.

Balqees – I have a lot of work to do and it’s hard because my family isn’t very supportive. It’s very hard to live in Turkey and they only give me work because I’m pretty, not based on my merit. Hiba and my fiancé are my support system. My fiancé went to the same school as us and we got engaged in Turkey because he came here first but then his family moved to Canada. It’s hard to live so far away from him. I want to get married and move to Canada to be with him but it’s hard because of Covid. It’s difficult for Syrians in general but it’s worse because of Covid.

Hiba – I want to be a director. Right now, I’m studying cinematic makeup and my sister paints. She’s an artist on paper and I’m an artist on the face. I’ve taught myself all of this and languages like Korean at home because I don’t have time to learn anything while I’m at the restaurant. I’m not officially studying anymore. I self-learn through reading and social media.

Sometimes it’s easier to not think about the future and just live day to day. My family believes women should just get married and have kids, but I want to be strong enough to be by myself and travel. I used to dream of completing my education and I want to believe women can do anything but it’s so hard to do because of everything happening in Arab countries.

It’s hard for the dreams we had when we were younger to come true because we’re refugees in Lebanon. I want to concentrate on our small business, we’ve been running it over the last year and we’re getting better at it but when the Lebanese look at our products, they say Syrian products aren’t good. I have to lie and tell them the products are Lebanese. When I speak to them with a Syrian accent, they won’t buy anything from me, so I had to teach myself how to speak with a Lebanese accent.

Even when some measure of safety is found in a host country, the longing for home and the memories it holds are never forgotten.

Balqees – My own room and my things. I miss my friends and playing with them on our street.

Hiba – I miss my house, where we’re living right now is so small. We need a bigger house where the sun can enter. I want a dog or a cat, but we can’t have one because our house is so small. We run our business from our house. I want my own space and my own room back. I miss my friends.

There is no all-encompassing refugee experience and statistics do not represent or portray the stories of individuals who find themselves seeking asylum.

Balqees – There is a lot of racism against Syrian people in Turkey. All countries hate Syrian refugees. Some Syrians even hate other Syrians. In Canada, I feel you aren’t a refugee, you’re a new Canadian citizen. I know all countries have some degree of racism, but I believe it’s better in other countries.

We are human, we only had to leave because of the war. We aren’t searching for more fighting, we’re in search of peace. We left because we were forced to, we didn’t leave to steal your work or make your life harder. We are educated and have personalities’ we can contribute to the community. We don’t want to live in camps anymore. We want to live life as a human, like everyone else.

Hiba – I believe it’s better in Europe because we wouldn’t be in an Arab country, It’s hard for us in Lebanon. People are poor here and there is no income to buy anything. The community around me supported our business and my sister, mom and I fought hard for rights during the first year we arrived in Lebanon.

I first realised I was a refugee when people started saying we’re Syrian women, not just women and when I had to give up on school. We are human and when people talk badly about us, we feel it. My home was special to me too. I had my own garden and pet dog but now I have nothing. I didn’t come to steal your work, life, or your men, it’s hard for us to be away from our homes. You don’t know what refugees have lived through. My cousin died on the border area; he was trying to flee across the border after it closed. We had to leave school and start working at a young age. Kids need a normal life and women, and children should have rights. Refugees have suffered through a lot of traumas, and we need help with this.

~Hiba and Balqees~