While living in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, Asmaa Rashed filmed The Neighborhood Storyteller which documents her work with girls in the camp. As part of the organisation, We Love Reading, Asmaa had been reading aloud to children as a way of sharing challenges they faced within the refugee community.
Born in a village in Daraa Governorate in southern Syria, Asmaa grew up in a large family with five brothers and three sisters. She remembers the village where she lived with her siblings and parents as being full of natural beauty and teeming with people.
Unspoken rule for girls’ education
“But in the village a teenaged girl could not go to school,” she recalls. “This was not the law. But when a girl stopped coming to school, none of the school teachers or staff asked why she’d left. It was as if there was a hidden rule.”
“In the village it was normal for girls to get married at the age of 14 or 15,” Asmaa explained. “Like all girls I had many dreams and aspirations. But because I got married young, I could not complete my education. At that time all I dreamt about was education. I wanted to become a lawyer.”
No rights for young mothers
After giving birth to a beautiful girl, Asmaa says, “All my attention became devoted to her and I aspired to achieve my dreams by seeing her achieve what I wished for. But in that village we had no rights as young mothers, even to raise our children the way we wanted, as we and our children belonged to a large family.”
Their village was bombed for the first time in 2011 and Asmaa says, “Villagers were treated as if we did not deserve to live.” Asmaa gave birth to her second child as the bombing intensified and the brutality of the regime increased, driving her family out of the country in 2012. “Arrest campaigns had begun around me. Buildings were destroyed by bombs and people were being killed as if they were nothing,” she laments.
Harsh conditions for refugees
Thus began her life as a refugee in Zaatari camp. “Life conditions were harsh,” says Asmaa. “We lived in a tent. My daughter and I had to wait in long queues to be able to use the communal bathroom. There was never enough food and we relied on two small meals each day. In addition to the fear, getting food was a constant concern.”
Then Asmaa fell pregnant a third time and in the very bad conditions of the camp, she miscarried. Leaving no doubt that she blames the loss of her baby to her circumstances as a women, Asmaa says, “It happened because I am a refugee mother, because I am a weak mother, because I am a mother who cannot defend her right to seek treatment.”
This experience left her feeling desolate about the future of children in the camps. “I had no opportunities as a mother who did not have a degree and adhered to customs and traditions that prevented females from engaging in social life and searching for opportunities,” she explains.
We Love Reading
An opportunity to change the trajectory of her life appeared when Asmaa was given a chance to train with Dr Rana Dajani and her organisation We Love Reading. “I started reading aloud to children in my small community.” With the help of her husband who was supporting her, and her mother who helped raise her children, Asmaa started reading sessions for children. This led to opportunities to work in a kindergarten and then with international humanitarian organisations in the camp, like UNICEF, The Sword, The Golden Globe, Camp Magazine, We Platform and the Korean Academy.
Asmaa became involved in many community initiatives, such as securing and distributing winter clothes and holding Iftars during Ramadan. She went on to create her own project, Let’s Read, in 2016 and is currently working to build partnerships that will help me strengthen Girls Lead.
Integrating into new societies
Now resident in France, Asmaa continues as an ambassador for We Love Reading and she says, “I will continue to work with the camps. But after obtaining support to establish an institution that operates with an official shell, I am conducting awareness sessions that help refugee women to integrate into the new society.” She is also establishing partnerships with French institutions to show the film The Story of the Neighborhood, in order to share her work and create awareness of the lives of refugee girls.
“My priority now is to learn the French language in order to communicate with all immigrant women of all nationalities,” she continues. Asmaa has also set herself the task of learning about French law and what is permitted or prohibited in relation to her being a refugee.
As Asma related in a recent discussion on Catalyst 2030 International Women’s Day event on women social entrepreneurs and equity, “As a women coming from a community where women barely get any support, I think I play a role as showing up as an example for other women.”
Social entrepreneurs are known for finding solutions for society’s problems. What is the problem that you are addressing and what is your solution?
Girls in vulnerable situations around the world are growing up feeling voiceless, worthless and without power to take decisions over their lives. Traditions, wars and child marriage are preventing them from continuing their education and pursuing their dreams. The project Girls Lead focuses on empowering refugee girls to feel capable of bringing about change and having a positive impact for themselves and their communities. Through this project we help them discover their strengths while providing them with appropriate opportunities to enable them to work in society.
What do you see as the benefit of your Catalyst 2030 membership?
The experience I gain from all members is beneficial. It allows me to Identify similar problems in other regions of the world and benefit from the available solutions. I value cooperating with members and exchanging ideas, as well as obtaining support for projects.
Are you collaborating with any other Catalyst 2030 members?
If so, can you tell me about some of the collaborations that you are most excited about?
I have been able to consult on some matters, receive translation assistance and identify new opportunities through member publications