Activist speaks about plight of women in Syria

Syrian journalist and feminist activist Yasmine Merei addressed USC students and faculty about her work to improve conditions for women in Syria on Wednesday as part of the event, “Spotlight on Syria: Women Under Siege, hosted by the Dornsife Middle East Studies Program.

Merei is the managing editor of Syrian magazine Saiedet Souria, which translates to “The Lady of Syria.” Created in hopes of educating Syrian women, the magazine has introduced several campaigns in hopes of empowering and assisting struggling Syrian women.

“[We started] the magazine [after realizing] that there is no other magazine talking about women,” Merei said.

In January of 2014, Merei and her team released the 44-page first issue. Currently, each magazine has around 60 pages, and Merei’s team has grown to include writers from six other Arabic countries. Saiedet Souria has five locations in Syria, an office in Egypt and headquarters in Gaziantep, Turkey.

“We try to focus on [women’s rights] and publish essays about the positive experiences of Syrian women outside [and] inside Syria,” Merei said. “We also [reach out to] women who were arrested inside the prisons of the regime, to document the time they spent there.”

One project that the magazine heavily emphasized was called “Bawh Nesaie,” which allowed women from both sides — those on the side of the Al Assad regime and those on the side of the opposition — to anonymously tell their stories.

“We brought 17 women from Syria and Turkey [and trained] them to write,” Merei said. “We want women to know the others — that they are suffering in the same ways. We want women from the two sides to know that all of us are losing, all of us are a part of this war in one way or another.”

Merei said that she and her team distribute the magazine in the most dangerous areas of Syria: among these are the camps in northern Syria and many of the places under siege. Over the past year, they have printed and distributed more than 120,000 copies.

“We are reaching women who have no electricity, no internet access,” she said. “You could say they are ‘out of the world.’”

In addition to creating this publication, Merei, with the help of others, has led campaigns such as “Child Not Wife,” which aims to prevent families from marrying off girls under the age of 15 and to promote schooling as an alternative. The Saiedet Souria organization has also provided schooling for uneducated women between the ages of 20 and 60.

The organization has gained funding from different European groups, including the Swiss government and the European Endowment for Democracy, to promote these campaigns.

Furthermore, with funding from a Swedish Organization called “Women for Women,” Saiedet Souria has established pharmacies in areas under siege, such as a suburb of Damascus and in the city of Daraa. Merei said that because the Assad regime doesn’t allow people to go in or out of these areas, it is almost impossible to bring food or medication. These pharmacies provide medical attention to pregnant women and women with infants.

For these efforts, Merei was forced to flee her home three years ago, after being marked “wanted” by the Al Assad regime. Merei said she was targeted because Syria has banned journalists from documenting the situation. After being reported, Merei’s mother convinced her to leave Syria to avoid arrest; she traveled to As-Suwayda, a city in southern Syria, to Lebanon, where she stayed for two months, and then to Turkey, where she settled.

“I didn’t know where to go. I cannot remember [anything] specific that I was thinking about,” Merei said. “You feel you are losing everything and that you are feeling only afraid and you have to find somewhere to go.”

However, Merei continues to help from outside Syria, distributing the magazine online and promoting political participation and better living conditions among women.

“We want them to sit together and exchange ideas,” she said. “[We want to] let women know about their rights and where they need to be in the future.”

Through her work on the publication and on the many campaigns that she has spearheaded, Merei said she has realized the extent of struggling women’s strength.

“I don’t want to say [that] in Syria, we have only weak women,” Merei said. “A lot of women are [struggling] to survive, they are suffering, they have no houses, a lot of women lost their sons, their husbands. But we have a lot of women who are very strong, who are looking for peace, who [are] thinking about [re]building Syria and dreaming about Syria without Assad, without ISIS, without radical groups, without weapons.”

For this reason, she hopes to continue working with women in areas of Syria outside the regime and keeping in contact online.

After leaving Turkey, Merei became a 2015 Feuchtwanger Fellow at the Villa Aurora in the Pacific Palisades. She will return to Turkey at the end of this year to continue her work.

USC students, faculty and community members were shocked and impressed upon hearing about Merei’s work.

“This was my first actual exposure to someone who experienced the Syrian refugee crisis,” said community member Nancy Dinh. “So it was very moving to me to hear her personal encounter and [to hear] where she is today. I was really appreciative of the fact that she was brave enough to speak about her experiences.”

Correction: This article previously spelled the “Bawh Nesaie” project as “Bawn Nesaie.” The article has also been updated to reflect that the event was hosted by the USC Dornsife Middle East Studies Program.