A Chance Meeting that Changed Everything

How positive change can come about as a result of a mere chance encounter.

I first met Areej by complete chance. It was 2015, we were both waiting around for our delayed luggage in an airport in Turkey. At the time I didn’t realise we would end up at the same Syrian mental health conference, let alone be working together for the same cause today.

We jokingly reminisced together about Damascus airport (before the war); how frequently luggage went missing, the stark white neon lights and the countless nervous-looking boys dreading their name being called at passport control on the off-chance they were to be enlisted in military duty. We laughed at the comforting memory, but then we paused in sadness. I remembered the common Syrian saying, “often what makes us laugh, can make us cry”. Now, the reality is that people are living in unimaginable circumstances but still we wished to have a chance to fly back ‘home’ regardless of circumstances.

She told me she was a psychotherapist, a Syrian expat, she had set-up her own Syrian organisation called Insan (meaning ‘human’ in Arabic) to provide mental health support to Syrians still inside Syria. She explained that she and a small group of volunteers were the first to respond to the young rape victims that came out in 2011, providing them direct mental health support online. I remember I was shocked hearing that, because my 14-year old cousin was amongst those survivors, she fell pregnant after the Syrian regime brutally raped her and to this day, she has been denied any justice for this crime. At that moment, I felt a deep connection with Areej, stood in front of me was a strong Syrian women, working in my field helping other Syrian women. It was destiny that we would meet, I knew it then and I know it now.

I am also a Syrian expat who specialises in Syrian mental health but prior to that airport encounter I’d never heard of Areej or Insan. I asked her why that is. She said for two reasons. Firstly discretion; the nature of the work is very sensitive and required the organisation to be discrete. They were helping rape survivors, women who have been abused in or out of Assad prison’s and ones suffering in silence. And secondly, Insan have no direct funding! They operate as volunteers, and unfortunately they have struggled to receive funding for the heroic work they do. This lack of resources means they do not promote themselves publicly, they simply do not have the money to do so. She said no matter what, we thank God, we are blessed to be where we are!

Over the course of that trip she explained that Insan are in contact with these survivors 24-hours a day, 7-days a week. Insan rely on the internet to reach out to women in the most affected areas in Syria. Using WhatsApp or Webex they counsel them to recovery and often talking them out of suicide attempts. She showed me a glimpse of these messages. I was shocked, in awe, and frustrated that I had never heard of her before now!

She said she was having a bad day, a new wave of rape survivors had come forward late last night. She hadn’t slept before she boarded her flight and was feeling exhausted. She said that she had never come across this kind of abuse before. She wondered if I could offer any advice. She explained that women fighting with the regime in Syria had drugged and raped these women a few days ago, and this type of abuse was trending. For obvious reasons I will spare you the details. But what she told me was unimaginable, it was gruesome and unfathomable. She was so strong, everything she said to me she said with care, compassion yet iron-strength. I applauded her strength, and urged her to look after herself.

I asked her how she was able to do this kind of work day-in and day-out. And that’s when her eyes changed, filled with tears. Tears of happiness. She said because “I have witnessed women survive with our interventions. With our support they are resilient, it is our duty to never give up on them”. That moment still gives me chills down my spine. The next day I watched Areej present to an auditorium full of Syrian mental health professionals. The crowd applauded her work but I couldn’t stop thinking about those survivors, and how I can help them.

Eighteen months ago CanDo was born and Insan was one of the first local humanitarian organisations we partnered with. They ran their first successful campaign on our CanDo platform, training a team of psychosocial workers inside besieged rural Damascus in Syria. Sadly the situation on the ground has now worsened in this area. These extreme conditions mean people there are suffering physical and mental trauma. Now they are providing intensive psychosocial care to their female field team and their personal networks.

To have courage, strength and hope in the face of this extreme adversity is rare but possible. Insan demonstrate this and we have a duty to help them. So like they never gave up on these women, we shall too not give up and we ask you, our community, to help us support the heroic work of Insan, so they can help save more women.

Article by: Dr Masa AlKurdi (Former Partnerships Manager )

Article first published on 18th December 2017

About Masa Alkurdi