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Networking for motherhood: The experiences of young Syrian refugee mothers

SARA ELTOKHY  |  14 FEBRUARY 2020

A Syrian woman carrying her child. Picture by Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

In Syria, there are people to help you in everything, if I wanted to buy some stuff, I would leave my children with my mother, just my daughter as my son wasn’t born yet. But here, there is no one, you have to take your son and daughter with you. You feel that life is harder. It’s every detail is harder.*

Here Lamia, a Syrian refugee, was explaining the disadvantage that many refugee women encounter in receiving countries due to the lack of social networks they normally rely on for support. She was talking more specifically about difficulties related to childcare responsibilities for mothers in the early years of motherhood. 

 

After leaving Syria six years ago in a journey that took her first to Egypt for one year then to Italy, Lamia arrived in Milan with her two children to reunite with her husband. She faced the reality of being alone and with no help from her family and usual social networks. When she started to search for Italian language courses, she discovered her limited options as she had to choose from courses that allowed her to bring her son, who was too young to go to a kindergarten.

He wouldn’t accept to stay with others, he would scream ‘I want to stay with mama,’ and I couldn’t take him to the classroom with me, so many times, I had attended the class by the door. I would put toys for him on the floor or the table outside and attend the class standing by the door.

 

This lack of support became a part of Lamia’s life that she learned to accept most of time, yet as she says, ‘in crises, like sickness or financial distress, these crises, the big ones are the ones that bring to the surface the problems of expatriation’. A year after arrival, her son was diagnosed with autism. His condition requires a specific kind of care, and it all falls on her shoulders as the main caregiver.

 

In contrast to Lamia’s situation and the absence of childcare support, Kinda, a 30-year-old Syrian woman, came to Italy with her husband, two children and her mother-in-law. They are all living together in the same apartment. For Kinda the positive side of what she considers an ‘inconvenient arrangement’ is that her mother-in-law helps her take care of the children: ‘I know if I leave the house there will be someone with them and they will be safe one million percent, as she worries about them more than me.’

 

Salwa, another Syrian mother who has been living in Milan for two years, talked about the childcare support available for her through a different channel. Salwa stated that although her son is five months old, she is actively searching for a job due to financial hardship. She goes on to explain that she maintained a good relationship with her Egyptian neighbour that developed into a close friendship to the extent that her neighbour offered to take care of her baby in case she found a job. Salwa’s friend practiced the role usually associated with family members in providing support and care.

 

Salwa’s story coincides with the idea that in the case of migration and the absence of family ties, friends become ‘families of choice’ and may replace the traditional family network in offering the same kind of needed support.

 

Social networks are considered a valuable resource for refugees in their new society, especially during the first years. These networks give access to resources and information which are essential for building a life in new and unfamiliar settings. As Louise Ryan highlighted in her study, networks provide ‘a counter‐balance to the disadvantages that the migrants may encounter in the destination society’. 

 

The everyday reality of refugee mothers provides opportunities to engage in different kinds of networks related to the responsibilities for their children. Kinda and Lamia are both part of social networks through their children’s activities, mostly school-related. They both talked about their lack of knowledge of the school system when they first arrived, which could have led to their children missing a year at school had it not been for the help they received from other mothers they met there.

 

Lamia had the opportunity to meet a Syrian woman from her daughter’s school who offered help in admitting her own daughter to school and gave recommendations about different ones in the area: 

 

I remember when I first came, I went to the school for the registration, they told me to come next year. She saw me, and my daughter was with me. She asked me, ‘how old is your daughter?’ I answered, then she said, ‘did you register her in the school?’, I told her that I don’t know where and how. She said, ‘OK, tomorrow we can meet, and I’ll do the registration for you’… She told me also about a good school, which is the best school here.

 

Kinda had a similar experience meeting a Palestinian friend through her son’s school who helped her to register him. Later on, when Kinda and her husband started their own business, that same friend used her already established social networks to help them in marketing.

 

The narratives of the three Syrian women illustrate how newly formed social networks helped them carrying out their motherhood responsibilities by offering instrumental and informational support. However, the lack of emotional support was evident in their accounts. They all agreed that this support can only be offered by their own families and that they are having a hard time navigating transnational relationships with families and friends back home. As Lamia stated, there is a positive side: ‘Thank god there is calling apps now, I think if I had to live abroad ten years ago, I would have died. Thank god!’; while Kinda said sadly, ‘my mother is sick, and I can’t go to see her, my brother is on one side and my sister is on another side, our family relationships are now over the phone’.

* The interviews were conducted between February and March 2019. To guarantee confidentiality, pseudonyms were used for all the participants in this article.

Sara Eltokhy

Sara is an urban planner and a researcher. She completed a M.Sc. in Urban Planning and Policy design at Politecnico di Milano University. Through her research she tries to integrate her interest in migration and gender studies within urban planning discourses and practice.

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