by Kate Nustedt, Interim Director, Women for Refugee Women

Dalida, 28, is not used to giving her opinion.  “Assad controlled my mind.  We had to be silent.  For the last 53 years in Syria, it’s only safe if you don’t speak against the regime.”  Like many Syrians, Dalida realised that she couldn’t be silent any more when the uprising started, triggered by the arrest of a group of school children for painting revolutionary slogans on a wall.

Breaking her silence meant that Dalida put her life at risk, and so she came to the UK 15 months ago and was glad to be given asylum.  She’s now studying and working for a pro-Assad family in London, giving piano lessons to their daughter.  “Sometimes we talk about what’s happening, and I respect they have a different opinion to me.”  But this respect is stretched when she gets news from home.  She was particularly reeling from the recent news that more than 100 people had been killed, and hundreds more injured, in a bombing by the regime in a suburb of Damascus.  “I could have seen this from the window of where I used to live,” she tells me.

Whilst separated from her family and friends, Dalida appreciates how fortunate she is compared to the thousands of other Syrian women who face the danger of rape and other forms of sexual violence.  Lauren Wolfe, of the organisation Women Under Siege, has documented how rape and sexual violence are being used as a method of “control, intimidation and humiliation” in the conflict.

Even when they are in the supposed safety of a refugee camp, recent reports have shown that young Syrian women may find themselves vulnerable to sexual exploitation and forced marriages.

Sharron Ward, a news reporter whose film about a Libyan refugee woman was shortlisted for our ‘Speaking Together’ media award, has made a powerful news film about this troubling issue.  Dominique Hyde, the United Nations Children’s Fund representative in Jordan, said that while no official statistics are available, UNICEF has seen an increase in marriages between Syrian girls as young as 12 and 13, and men from Jordan and the Gulf States.

Since becoming a refugee in London, Dalida has joined the weekly demonstrations infront of the Syrian and Russian embassies.  She’s met many other Syrian families and been invited to community events.  These mostly take place in school halls, with food and entertainment, with the aim of raising money for the refugees in the camps.  Dalida wants this and other humanitarian aid to go towards building awareness and protection of the vulnerable young women in the camps.  “Awareness about sexual exploitation is as important for survival as water,” she says.

Up to now, Dalida has mainly seen Syrian people at these community fundraising events, but she is keen to open them up and to connect with many people to raise wider awareness and support for the Syrian people.  She has an idea that the way to do this is to invite all Londoners to a concert by Syrian children.  A talented musician, Dalida is writing a Song for Syria, to be performed by Syrian and British children. She says hopefully, “The future for Syria is our children, and I want to raise money for the children in Syria by putting on a concert where the children perform.”

Dalida helps at a Syrian children’s group in London, providing singing and art lessons.  Six-year-old Tala, drew her hope for the future of Syrian – herself on her streets in Homs, with lots of cats. Tala’s wish was simply to “stop fighting”.

Women for Refugee Women We Had to be Silent

“Stop Fighting”. Drawing by six-year-old Tala with herself and all the cats on her street in Homs.

Dalida has also become an active member of the new London Refugee Women’s Forum, a group who are keen to ensure that women who have sought asylum can play a more active part in campaigning and community-building.  They have recently carried out research on poverty and destitution among women who have sought asylum and would like to see every woman who seeks asylum in the UK given the right to work so that they can make a contribution to society. “I know there are a lot of people in the UK who feel that there isn’t room for more immigrants,” Dalida says.  “But I am very grateful for the chance I have been given to rebuild my life here, and I will make sure that I give back to British society.”