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Compulsory strength: Maternal love in circumstances of exile and displacement

Marie Fally et. al Path B_W_photo credit

‘I wanted my kids to run before my eyes’. Picture by Roxane Caron

Since its outset in 2011 and with more than half the country’s population displaced within and beyond its borders, the Syrian conflict sadly ranks as one of the worst humanitarian disasters of modern times. As a result of such exile and displacement, a tremendous number of families have seen their members dispersed across the world. In this article, we are concerned with the experiences of ‘women as mothers’ as they navigate exile and displacement. In particular, we aim to bring to light the impossible choices and burdens placed on mothers in contexts of forced migration. To do so we provide a snapshot of the life of Soumaya*, a thirty-something year old refugee woman from Syria, who fled her homeland in 2013 to arrive in Montreal, Canada in 2015. With direct reference to Soumaya’s words and experiences of exile, we reveal how motherhood shapes women’s lives as they seek safety and security from circumstances of conflict. 

‘I wanted my kids to run before my eyes’ – Soumaya’s story


Soumaya’s story is an incredibly poignant example of a mother’s love through exile and displacement. Equally poignant in her story, however, is the fear, pain, uncertainty, isolation, and incredible effort involved in loving her children through her perilous journey.  

Born and raised in Syria, Soumaya arrived in Montreal after fleeing the conflict in her homeland and living for over two years with no secure home for herself or her children. With no knowledge of her husband’s whereabouts or even whether he was alive or dead, Soumaya was solely responsible for the care and security of her five children. Our snapshot begins in Syria in 2012. Soumaya’s hometown was heavily bombarded throughout the last trimestre of her pregnancy with her youngest child. At the time, her other four children were all under 12 years old. Soumaya described it as an unbearably tense period. Nevertheless, while the rhythm of her daily life was measured by the bombing, she never considered leaving her home: ‘We didn’t think about leaving. No, no, no! This is our life, this is our country, and this is what we have here, we will not leave.’ But while still her home, Syria was no longer a safe place in which to raise her children. Surrounded by bombing, Soumaya lived in constant fear for herself and her children: ‘I was worried about my family all the days.’ Echoing sentiments heard in the voices of other women interviewed in the course of the research, Soumaya expressed ever-present concerns for prioritising the needs and well-being of her children, even those of her yet unborn child. 

With the threat of having to flee the increasingly violent conflict, Soumaya worried about how and where she might give birth: ‘I was disappointed, I started to think, “everybody’s running out, where should I deliver my kid, my baby? What should I do if I deliver, if I had the baby now, today?!”’ Given the urgency of the situation, her doctor encouraged her to allow him to induce her labour. Far from being an easy choice, Soumaya agreed as it seemed to be the only way of having even a small amount of control over assuring her baby’s safe delivery: ‘I decided to deliver, and I decided to enter the hospital on my own responsibility.’ But even that decision proved fraught with challenges. After nearly 30 hours of labour, the doctor ordered a Caesarean. With the knowledge that upon leaving the hospital her situation remained precarious and she may need to uproot her family and flee at any moment, Soumaya fought against the doctor’s recommendation: ‘I told myself “I can’t deliver with Caesarean and run away?”… if something happens, I’ll have to run away … I can’t!’ Persevering through hours more of labour, Soumaya gave birth and brought her baby home. But ‘home’ very soon became intolerable as the violence surrounding the family continued to escalate. Leaving was no longer an option; it was a necessity. 


With only her children and her brother, Soumaya left her home for the last time. She recounted the harrowing experience of traversing the besieged city, ever vigilant for snipers hidden on rooftops or in bombed out buildings. She watched powerless as her children, one by one, stepped into the open to cross deserted streets: 


I wanted my kids to run before my eyes, to be safe. But at the same time, you feel like ‘he might be killed in the middle of this!’ I was still weak from the delivery… so I told my brother, ‘take [the baby] Nour, I can’t hold her.’

I wanted to save my children… I was pushing the first one… and the second one… and the third one…  I didn’t feel safe… for me and my kids. 


Finally reaching the apparent safety of a refugee camp in a neighbouring country, Soumaya discovered her hope of a new life for her children could not be fulfilled as they could not attend school. Her only solution was to continue her journey, this time to another camp: ‘but [the camp] was far from my [brother and his family]. 7 hours, just to register my kids at school.’ Leaving the camp meant leaving her brother, her last connection with the only life she’d ever known. After some time in the second camp, Soumaya was given the opportunity to move her family to Canada through the UNHCR. Despite recognising the opportunity as being the best option for her children’s future, Soumaya acknowledged being wrought by feelings of ambivalence and guilt: ‘I felt bad, like I saved myself, and they [my family] are there.’ More than two years after leaving her home, Soumaya arrived in Montreal. A new journey for her and her children opened in front of her.


Hearing Soumaya speak of her experiences, it is impossible not to be amazed by her strength and resilience. Her brave and seemingly self-less efforts to protect her children in the face of extreme circumstances of danger and uncertainty are no doubt a testimony of her love for her children. While particular to Soumaya, her story is not unlike that of many other women who have fought and suffered through various hardships and losses in order to secure a safe future for their children. But what of those refugee mothers who choose or are forced due to circumstance to follow other trajectories? Do they love their children any less? Are they any less than Soumaya as a mother? 


Dominant discourses of motherhood, wherein mothers are idealised as self-sacrificing ‘carers and nurturers, … strong in the face of adversity … emotionally resilient’ and able to draw on their natural instincts to provide care and protection for their children (Ramvi & Davies 2010: 448), have long been the subject of debate in feminist scholarship. Such scholars have noted that obscured in these discourses are the work entailed in mothering as well as the emotional, material and social conditions in which mothering occurs. Feminists have also critiqued homogeneous, ethnocentric and idealised notions of mothering as being devoid of attention to socio-political and cultural contexts, arguing that mothering always takes place within ‘specific historical contexts framed by interlocking structures of race, class, and gender’ (Collins 1994: 56). We are thus reminded to be wary of assuming such idealised notions of motherhood as instinctive or accessible to all mothers. We are reminded that mothering is particular to each woman and is shaped by her specific context and opportunities. We are reminded that mothering carries various consequences for individual women. And we are reminded that there is no singular or ideal way for a mother to love her child. 


While Soumaya’s story is unquestionably one of a mother’s love, it is also one of intense labour, loss, fear and often loneliness. Her story provides some insight into the complex circumstances, the emotional and concrete labour, as well as the potential consequences associated with mothering through exile and displacement. But hers was not the only story we heard. Corresponding with a feminist denial of women’s shared experience of an idealised notion of motherhood, our research revealed a multitude of stories of mothering and mother’s love through exile and displacement. In reflecting on these stories we are challenged to resist classifying refugee mothers according to dichotomous visions of ‘heroine’ versus ‘victim’ (Caron 2012; Richard 2019) or protective, good mother versus failing to protect, bad mother (Chbat 2018; Krane & Carlton 2012). Is it compulsory for a woman to demonstrate extraordinary strength and resilience in circumstances of exile and displacement for her to be deemed as loving? What do strength and resilience really look like for each individual woman as a loving mother? 

* The name and other details of the participant have been modified for confidentiality purposes.

** Research directed by Roxane Caron, Lourdes Rodriguez del Barrio and Marie-Jeanne Blain (SSHRC 2017-2019): Parcours migratoires et repères identitaires de personnes réfugiées syriennes: perspective transnationale du Liban au Québec. Thanks to our research assistants, Vicken Kayayan and Marilena Liguori, and to the different essential partners, Table de Concertation des organismes au service des personnes Réfugiées et Immigrantes (TCRI), as well as our interpreters. 


Caron, Roxane. 2012. Entre refuge et exil. L’expérience de femmes palestiniennes du camp de Bourj el Barajneh (Thèse de doctorat). Montréal: Université de Montréal. 

Chbat, Marianne. 2018. Récits en mosaïque : Analyse intersectionnelle des discours identitaires de femmes qui exercent de la violence (Thèse de doctorat). Montréal: Université de Montréal.


Collins, Patricia Hill. 1994. ’Shifting the center: Race, class and feminist theorizing about motherhood.’ In D. Bassin, M. Honer, and M. M. Kaplan (eds.), Representations of motherhood (pp. 56-74). New Haven: Yale University Press.


Krane, Julia, and Carlton, Rosemary. 2012. Une pratique à la croisée des chemins: comprendre les femmes en tant que mères en maison d’hébergement. In Lapierre, Simon, and Damant, Dominique (eds.), Regards critiques sur la maternité dans divers contextes sociaux (pp. 185-204). Québec: Presses de l'Université du Québec.

Ramvi, Ellen, and Davies, Linda. 2010. ‘Gender, mothering and relational work.’ Journal of Social Work Practice 24(4), 445-460.

Richard, M. 2019. Au-delà du sens commun : Reconsidérer la vulnérabilité de femmes réfugiées en provenance de Syrie détenant la responsabilité principale du soutien de leur famille au Québec et au Liban (Mémoire de maitrise en travail social). Montréal: Université de Montréal.

About the authors

Marie Fally is a postgraduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the Université de Montréal. Her PhD focuses on single-mother refugees’ experiences of migration and integration in Montreal. She has over ten years of professional experience in the humanitarian and community sector, specialising in practice with female migrants in Europe and in Québec. 

Roxane Caron is an associate professor at the School of Social Work of Université de Montréal. Her work focuses on the fields of refuge, life in refugee camps, and transnationalism. Her research interests centre on the experiences of refugees and displaced persons as well as the transformations engendered by processes of migration and displacement on the identities, strengths and values of refugees. Dr. Caron’s research is part of a decolonial and transnational framework. Her recent work focuses on the realities of Syrian refugees and the issues, challenges and intervention needs of Syrian refugees as they navigate integration processes in Canada (Quebec) and Lebanon. 

Rosemary R. Carlton is an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at the Université de Montréal. Her teaching and research interests, which are shaped by her extensive experience as a social work practitioner, lie in the areas of motherhood and child protection, child sexual abuse, gender-based violence, and social work with indigenous populations. She approaches research through an intersectional, feminist lens and has a particular interest in Girls Studies Scholarship and theory.

Marie-Jeanne Blain, PhD anthropology, is a researcher at the Centre de recherche et de partage des savoirs at the CIUSSS du Nord-de-l’île-de-Montréal and associate professor at the School of Social Work, Université de Montréal. For over fifteen years, she has been interested in the professional integration of immigrants and refugees. Through a qualitative approach, her research foci include professional identity, integration strategies and broader institutional dynamics. Adhering to a vision of integration that includes all members of society, she prioritises taking into account both the perspectives of immigrants and those of labour market actors, institutions and community services.

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