Since the beginning of the revolution in Syria in 2011, Syrian women have been facing challenges that have tested their ability to endure terrible trials while at the same time tapping into bottomless wells of strength and creativity in order to keep their families alive.
Sherald Sanchez says that she has seen the evidence of unbelievable strength and resiliency for herself in the Syrian women who are now living in Canada and wants to find ways to empower them and assist them in becoming beneficial members of the communities in which they find themselves starting their lives over again.
Sanchez is a graduate student in a global health program at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and is working on a thesis about better ways to help refugees, especially Syrian women, integrate into their Canadian communities.
In May, Sanchez will start working as a volunteer intern with Wesley Urban Ministries, one of about 30 agencies across Canada acting as regional coordinators for government-assisted refugees.
“I’ve always been interested in and passionate about feminism. But for me, in particular, with Syrian refugee women, I didn’t like the media perception of them being a burden to society,” Sanchez told Canadian journalist Nicole O’Reilly for an article recently published in the Hamilton Spectator.
“Arguably they went through the worst possible experiences a human can experience, but they’re still here, they survived. Why don’t we talk about the things that make them resilient and strong, instead of just focusing on the things that make them look weak and like they’re a burden for society?”
Sanchez’s research looks at refugee resettlement in Canada and focuses on the key aspects of programs that promote the health and well-being of Syrian refugee women.
She told O’Reilly that one reason for her interest in Syrian women in particular is that she grew up in the Middle East.
Shortly before Christmas last December she had also encountered a small Syrian refugee woman in Union Station who was desperately in need of money.
Using her limited knowledge of Arabic, Sanchez was able to speak to the woman who told her she had been a seamstress in Syria but had been unable to find a job after resettling in Canada because she did not know English.
She took the woman’s contact information and gave it to a settlement agency called Access Alliance that was able to connect her to a program where newcomers are employed in the manufacturing of winter clothes.
When her Christmas break ended in January, Sanchez began working on her thesis. She hopes to have it completed by August.
“This work is a long time coming for me,” she told O’Reilly.
When asked what challenges she believes that women refugees in particular face, Sanchez said; “International policy and legal documents on refugee and migration are unsurprisingly gender-neutral, even gender-blind.”
Learning the local language is an extremely important part of integration yet Sanchez found in her preliminary research that women have less access to language programs mainly because they carry the responsibility for taking care of the children as well as the home.
So while the men are free to roam around the city and attend language programs at their convenience, women are compelled to stay home and perform housework and child care.
Sanchez says her hope is to be able to garner more support for them through her research. She aims to be able to help tailor programs that meet their needs while at the same time taking into consideration cultural and social norms where a women’s major role is that of mother and primary caregiver.
“Syrian refugee women are diverse,” Sanchez told O’Reilly. “There is no one picture. We need to disaggregate them in order to create and execute policies that would be relevant to all.
“Studies show if you educate one woman, one mother, you’re actually educating one whole family, because in most cultures the woman is the primary caregiver,” she added.
Opportunities for women to excel outside the home were limited in Syria, yet they managed to rise above the worst that life under a brutal regime had to offer them. Given the freedom to set higher goals that living in Canada has now provided them, with a little help, the sky is now their only limit.
“They’re very determined. They’re very motivated to have a positive impact in the future… there are stories of little girls living in refugee camps and they’re saying they want to become doctors. They want to become lawyers. And they really believe if they are supported properly they can become doctors and lawyers. So that’s on us now, as the host country,” Sanchez concluded.