The powerful story of two women from Syria and Turkey

Her name is Rawda.

But the world knows her as Rawdanur. Nur means ‘holy light’. The name ‘Nur’ was given to her by the Governor of the Kilis Öncüpınar Accommodation Facility, the refugee camp in Turkey for refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War. Rawda dazzled the governor and her fellow refugees with her brilliance of not only learning the Turkish language very quickly, but also writing awe inspiring poetry in Turkish.

This is her story.

Rawda  was born in 1997 as one of nine children in the city of Idlib in northwestern Syria. Her father was a landowner and her mother a teacher. She used to be a happy child living close to the nature with her brothers and sisters and her faithful dog who never left her side. She aspired to grow up to become a medical doctor to help people in need.

About five years ago, Rawda had to flee her country after numerous rockets left her house, school and neighbourhood in ruins. Everything happened so quickly that she could not even bury her dog who died in the shelling.

Rawdan and her family crossed the border into neighboring Turkey into an unknown future, and they were placed in containers with 14,000 other refugees. From one day to other, life became very difficult. Rawdar could not understand why her family had to lose everything. She could not go to school at first, but this did not take her passion for education away from her heart. She learned Turkish in a matter of months and got a chance to go to school although sporadically.

Selin has become Rawda’s mentor and friend.

Selin was born in Ankara, Turkey, and both her parents worked for the US State Department. She lived in a big city and had a busy life. Selin’s family moved to the USA when she finished high school. This was an exciting move that brought many opportunities. Selin graduated from one of the top schools in the world, UC Berkeley, and went on to get her PhD in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. She has a passion for education especially within an international context. She worked with refugees in Iowa before taking on an assistant professor position in the city of Gaziantep in the western part of Turkey, at the time when the Syrian conflict had just started.

With her educational background and experience working with refugees, Selin was curious about the Syrian refugee camps. However nobody were allowed to enter. She managed to find a way to get in and started to analyze the education provided in the camps. She witnessed that nearly everyone, especially the women and children in the camp, were severely traumatized. That was one of the reasons why the school attendance was sporadic and ineffective. Selin put together workshops on trauma management for groups of volunteer teachers in four camps.

Selin saw that the teachers were as traumatized as the children. Some male teachers would go out to fight in the weekends, witnessing killings and destruction and come back to teach during the week. And some did not return at all. Even in the school there was violence everywhere: among the children, and between teachers and the children. The education system was broken. Selin invited professor Dr. Mark Grey from University of Northern Iowa specialized in trauma training. She provided funds and begun training the teachers on trauma management with the authorization of the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD).

One day when Selin was touring the educational facilities in the Kilis camp with the directors of camp management and education programmes, she noticed that a young refugee girl was following her. Rawda, then 15 years old, approached Selin to ask for her phone number. Selin gave her number and this started a very powerful and deep friendship. Rawda called her every night practicing her Turkish, and in these conversations, they shared their life stories, interests, dreams and fears.

Over time it become evident that Rawda is a very skilled community organizer. One time she solved the dilemma of the camp’s education director. He wanted to survey the camp residents to better understand their trauma level, but for weeks he had not managed to get one single form completed due to a range of factors, such as language and, most of all, trust issues. By the following day Rawda had mobilized 1,000 completed surveys. From that day onwards, Rawda begun working with the camp managers.

When the Governor of Kilis organized a poetry competition, Rawda won the first prize with her poem on fraternity. She even got the chance to read it to the President of Turkey. This is when she earned the very name ‘Nur’, making her name Rawdanur.

Selin and Rawdanur worked on several youth projects together in the camps. As Rawdanur was very open to sharing her story, Selin provided media platforms to raise awareness around the situation of Syrian refugees. Even after Selin moved back to the USA, they stayed in touch, as Selin became her Godmother.

After two years, Rawdanur started to feel frustrated that nobody heard the voices of the Syrian refugees. Often, the reality was distorted and no institution could be of help. At this point, Rawdanur, Selin and her friend and refugee advocate Sherry MacKey decided to establish the organization “Glocally Connected”. Their mission was to share the real stories of refugees. This mission would help youth in the US better understand and connect with the Syrian refugees but also help influence US asylum policies. Rawdanur connected university students in the camps with students at universities in the US. They were in fact amazed to find more similarities than differences between them.

These two powerful women want to advance women’s empowerment and believe the initial step towards empowerment is through education of young girls. Rawdanur believes the war will end one day and all those empowered girls will be the engine within their families. With this in mind, Rawdanur will begin working for the Malala Fund as a campaigner on the ‘Education Cannot Wait’ project. It helps displaced children all over the world to have a chance to education. Rawdanur was also invited to give a welcoming speech during the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul on 23 May 2016 where she shared a panel with UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon and UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake.

What I will remember from this afternoon I spent with these two women is Rawdanur’s dedication to everything she does, from playing videogames with my son, to explaining her education dream to young girls. I am also impressed by the trust, support, mentorship and most of all, care Selin shows towards Rawdanur from preparing her outfit for World Humanitarian Summit to rehearsing her speech and paving the way for her protégé.

Powerful women come from all backgrounds. Whether it be from a crowded city, or the countryside; great schools or a refugee camp; a war torn country, or the one opening its borders… The nationality, background or language does not matter when powerful women decide to unite. It is about time they do.  #EmpowerWomen

Photographer & Videographer Credit: Meral Guzel

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Migration Mentorship Education
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