“Syrian women are very strong. After the war, they will be an important part of creating a new Syria.”
Teacher, humanitarian leader. A year after the Syrian war began in 2011, Nisreen Katbi, a teacher and divorced mother of three fled Damascus with her extended family. Now based in Amman, Jordan, Nisreen is the regional manager and a board member of Souriyat Across Borders, a nonprofit humanitarian organization that provides free assistance to Syrian refugees and war-wounded, helping them reclaim their lives and their hope.
How did you come to work with Souriyat Across Borders?
When I came to Amman in 2012, I wanted to help other Syrian refugees in some way. A friend connected me with the women who had founded the group Souriyat Across Borders (translated, Souriyat means Syrian women). At first, we distributed supplies in the Zaatari refugee camp. But we learned that many of Syria’s war-wounded, who were being allowed to cross the border for treatment by Medicins Sans Frontieres, had no access to follow-up care. These were men, women and children, most of them civilians, who had suffered spinal cord injuries, head injuries and amputations. In addition to the more than 460,000 people killed in the war, 200,000 Syrians have been left disabled, with no care available at home. In 2013 we opened a rehabilitation centre, where [war survivors] could stay–often for long periods of time—to receive the physical therapy and skill building that would be the final step in their recovery.
How many people lived at the rehabilitation centre at one time?
At any one time, we had around 35 volunteers, and 20 men and 10 women and children who were recovering from their wounds. Most stayed about a year. Many were also scarred psychologically. They had seen so much suffering and death, and experienced so much loss. Over the last four years, we have helped more than 300 war-wounded. One of the most beautiful aspects of the centre was the family feeling we created. Everyone who came instantly felt as if he or she was entering a parent’s house. We ate together, sang together. Former patients who have returned to their families in Syria or moved to other cities still call us. They say “one of the best times in my life was at your centre.”
Why is Souriyat is no longer doing rehabilitation?
After a suicide attack at the border in June, 2017, Jordan changed its policies. Today, the war wounded come only through Medicins Sans Frontieres, stay for their surgery, then are sent directly back to Syria.
What is the focus of Souriyat’s work now?
We currently focus on education and vocational training. You have a full generation of young Syrians who have missed school for several years. We offer supporting classes for 200-300 high school students so they can have the high marks that will enable them to get university scholarships. We have sent students to university in Canada, Germany, France, and also here in Amman, with private donors covering their fees. We also have language courses – Spanish, German, and English—teacher training courses, a partnership with Geneva University to teach global history in coordination with Princeton University, and courses for computer skills. Some of our teachers are Jordanian; we hire them and pay them salaries. But you can’t imagine how many wonderful volunteers we have, from all over the world. We offer a program for women’s empowerment, training them in hand-made crafts that they can sell. We see women who before were struggling to be somebody gain trust in themselves, and become business people. Syrian women are very strong. After the war, they will be an important part of creating a new Syria.
What’s been the hardest part of this work for you? The most gratifying?
The hardest was seeing wounded children who arrived alone because their families were not allowed to cross the border with them. I cannot imagine my kids away from me, especially if they were hurt. But I also have seen miracles. One of our worst cases was a 16-year-old boy with a head injury who came unable to walk, talk, or eat, with tubes everywhere, screaming and crying. We were told he wouldn’t survive. Other war wounded began spending time with him and he slowly got better. He stayed with us for two years, and when he left, he was walking on his own, talking – laughing. When I remember this, I begin to cry.
When the war ends?
Of course I want to go back to Syria. Syria is my home. We will need a lot of people working together to rebuild our society.