Refugee Women Recount Their Harrowing Experiences During Ramadan

“You are being punished by God, that is why you are a widow. Your Papa is being punished so that is why God took him from you.” I was 8 years old when my Papa passed away and I heard this being said to my family way too often. Loss and grief show up in so many different ways in our ummah, or Muslim community-at-large.

I left everything in Los Angeles last year, sold my furniture, and traveled to the heart of the refugee crisis to support families experiencing the largest Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) epidemic in modern time. For the past eight years, specializing in trauma has helped me gain a unique perspective into how loss shows up differently for different people, especially among Muslims. I began in the Greek Islands pulling in refugee boats, then headed into the refugee camps, abandoned buildings, outdoor squats, and local organizations to provide art materials, mindfulness, and yoga as supportive safe ways to step away from the hardships of housing, family displacement, asylum and deportation.

My travels continued into Europe and the hills of Serbia, Bosnia, and Bulgaria, and now into the Middle East for the first days of Ramadan. When creating this window of safety, the stories came pouring out from the women of Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, and Syria. My heart broke for all the pain they experienced as widows in a new land with their children, but their resilience and calm for the future made me pause for words.

Everywhere I go, the women say their faith in Allah (SWT) helped them survive to keep from giving up. One young mother shared a traumatic experience that gave her a reason and a new purpose to forgive and stay strong  in this new journey in her life:

“I was in the boat when my husband died. He jumped under it to fix the hole. He did it when no one else did. It was 4 AM and it was raining so hard. Everyone was screaming. He did it for the sake of God and it was already written. I am not mad at God for taking him — I was mad at the world, the politicians and the greed of militants for putting us in that situation. On that same boat ride, my daughter survived, while the other 11 children on the boat were not as fortunate.”

Everywhere I go, the women say their faith in Allah (SWT) helped them survive to keep from giving up.

On the second day of Ramadan, I sat with women on the floor of a bug-infested apartment in the slums of Turkey. I asked them about their resilience, and their journeys as widows. They were three daughter-in-laws living together with her mother-in-law and a handful of children. Their husbands and father-in-law were all killed together in Syria by the regime, and the women all chose to be with their mother-in-law and leave their own families to come to Turkey together.

“I live for the sake of my children, I live for the sake of God, my mother-in-law is my mother; she needs me now more than ever. My mother has my Baba and my brother; my mother-in-law needs her grandchildren, needs her daughters with her especially now during Ramadan. My mother is a widow, too. I will not leave her.”

We began the healing arts workshop painting their hopes and dreams onto scarves. This was their first time ever touching paint and using a paintbrush. When we talked about whether their faith has shifted due to the hardships, the mother of three daughters began tearing up and shared how strong her daughters are to help her because she couldn’t do it without their prayers. The daughters shared, “Baba would be so proud of how strong Mama is to provide for us and still fast.”

I was in the boat when my husband died … I am not mad at God for taking him — I was mad at the world, the politicians and the greed of militants for putting us in that situation.

As they painted, we talked more about their faith as they live in a new world without their husbands and they told me about God’s test. As young children, we have been told that God is testing us, as mentioned in Surat al Inshirah: “Surely with difficulty is ease.” (94:6) Yet, what about the people who feel the tests are harder on them than on others? What about those who experience easier lives with “no hardship”?

One woman had an answer: “Allah (SWT) is the Most Merciful. If I can go through a test that is hard and still be so compassionate to my children when we are all fasting, He is blessing me. I have a mother in my life, I have sisters, and healthy children, alhamdulillah. These are His smallest blessings.”

My mother is a widow, too. I will not leave her.

After leading different workshops and hearing the heavy narratives, one thing that surprised me was that, regardless of the strong Middle Eastern heat, the stress of housing, food, depression and PTSD from warfare, they still chose to fast during the holy month of Ramadan. They still chose to come in for a two-hour workshop to be vulnerable and share the hardest parts of their lives. This brings me back to the verse in Surat al Baqarah: “God does not burden a soul beyond that it can bear.” (2:286)

When we talked about how Ramadan feels different, one woman shared that during last Ramadan, when she prayed for fajr, a bomb came down and she ducked for cover. She says the pain is still the same, but the safety is now here.

Although these women went through so much loss and trauma in the past few years, they all drew some reminder from their children to keep them going. They all incorporated the sun and trees into their art in some way, signifying hope and growth for the future.  When the workshop began, the room was filled with alhamdulillah — gratitude for the space and the time to create. As they ended with women wiping their tears, they lovingly consoled each other in this new ummah they created around them.