(Latakia, Syria) The 34-year-old Suʿad stands black-clad in her humble kiosk, along the 7 April Street in Latakia. She holds in her hand a small cup filled to the brim with coffee as she busies herself with selling a packet of cigarettes to a passer-by. This blonde lady has long since caught my eye whenever I walked past her kiosk and I finally approached her, one day, to buy myself a packet of cigarettes.
When I requested my accustomed brand, she exclaimed: “Damn them, they double the prices of everything, except for our lives, those still come cheap for them.” I was intrigued by Suʿad and began talking to her. I felt like this woman was in need of a stranger, perhaps one whose name she did not even know, but it seemed like she wanted to talk about herself and her life, and let out the overwhelming sadness that was reflected in her eyes.
She told me that she was an economy and commerce graduate, an alumni of the Tishrin University. She told me about her two sons and her girl, and that she was the widow of an officer in the Syrian army. Her husband was killed in Rif Dimashq over two years ago, during a clash with the opposition forces. After he was killed, his parents refused to allow the death gratuity given by the ministry of defence to the fallen members of the army, to pass to their son’s widow and their three children. The Syrian ministry of defence offers 300,000 Syrian Pounds (SYP) (around … USD on the black market) to the families of fallen militiamen who fought alongside the regime. The gratuity reaches 1 million SYP (around … USD) if they are regular soldiers and exceeds it in the case of an officer.
While she is saying this, Suʿad applies herself to reorganizing the coffee cups and cleaning the espresso machine, in an attempt to hide her tears. She goes on saying that her father-in-law refused to grant her custody of her three children, all of them being under-age. The Syrian law stipulates that in the event of the father passing away, the deceased’s property as well as custody of the children is passed to the grandfather, followed by the eldest uncle, which is why the grandfather is legally the children’s guardian and responsible for their needs and expenses. In Suʿad’s case, the grandfather has forgotten that these are his grandkids, focusing instead on the sole idea of seizing his son’s money and property.
“Many widows of those who have fallen in the war got governmental jobs, and I tried to get one. I went to the Martyrs Office in Latakia, and this is what they told me: ‘Half the country’s a martyr now and there aren’t enough jobs for everyone.”
“The pretext is that I am a stranger who may well go and marry someone else, and pass everything to him, despite the fact that he [the father-in-law] knows that I will not get married and abandon my children,” explains Suʿad. This has deprived the widow of her husband’s house and car, so she had to move out of the house with her three children and rent a small house that’s made up of two rooms only in the poor neighbourhood of Al Daʿtour.
She gestures at a picture of her husband with their three children, in a pretty wooden frame propped on the table. “Our Hasan, she says, has just passed sixth grade. Arij is in the fourth grade and she loves writing short stories. The youngest, Mohammad, is still in the first grade and he’s quite the trouble-maker.” She stops for a moment, and says in a strangled voice: “My children need to go to school. I need money to send them to school and raise them and that’s something I could not do [after my husband died].”
I could not hide my surprise at the fact that she made a living, working in a kiosk, so I asked her: “Why did you choose this line of work?” To which, she answered: “Many widows of those who have fallen in the war got governmental jobs, and I tried to get one. I went to the Martyrs Office in Latakia, and this is what they told me: ‘Half the country’s a martyr now and there aren’t enough jobs for everyone.”
“After that, I heard, by accident, that I can get authorization to operate a kiosk in my husband’s name. It took me some time to warm up the idea as it goes against our customs and women are not usually found to hold such jobs, but in the end my need for money was greater than customs and beliefs.”
According to UN figures, Suʿad is one of the 17,000 widows of the Syrian war that were left without work or money, forced to shoulder the responsibility of their children and their education. Nor was she the only one to be shunned by her husband’s family; many Syrian women were driven out of their homes and their children robbed of the gratuity that is due to their late-fathers only to be forced into “unorthodox” methods of making a living, without any support from the government or the organisations that handle the cases of wounded and fallen soldiers.
“How’s it like, working in this kiosk?” She took another sip of coffee and answered, in a still-strangled voice: “If it wasn’t for the ministry of supply [i.e.: the ministry of economy and trade] and the National Defence Forces [NDF], it would be fine.” Perplexed, I asked: “Why would they bother you, the widow of a war martyr?” Suʿad explained that she has to pay the employees of the ministry of supply 15,000 SYP (roughly…USD) per month, as bribe. The ministry of economy and trade is in charge of checking shops’ bills and supplies, but it is common to offer its workers a bribe in order to keep them from unearthing supplies bought without receipts, or even smuggled cigarette packs, and closing down the shops.As for the NDF, four of its members have already asked to marry her. She throws back her head and laughs: “My husband died in the war. I must be crazy to marry another military man!”
Suʿad holds a fierce grudge against this war that has turned her into a widow and thrust the responsibility of providing for her children all on her. She is also resentful of a government which has not even shouldered the responsibility of the men who died fighting for it, and refuses to take care of their families after they have gone, despite its praise of the “martyrs”‘ sacrifices in the media.
As Suʿad goes back to work, heating pots of coffee, Milo and cappuccino, organizing cigarette packs and wiping her shelves clean, I take my leave; my mind buzzing with unanswered questions.