British Jews open safe space for Syrian women refugees in Turkey

In a region with half a million Syrian refugees and the predators they attract, home used to be the only safe space for Samiyeh Hilo and her infant son, Mohammed.

A teacher of English in her 30s, Hilo was smuggled out of her besieged city of Hama in 2011 and into Turkey. She has mostly stayed indoors since settling in a camp for refugees of Syria’s civil war in the Turkish town of Islahiye, 70 miles north of Aleppo.

“I didn’t go out much because it’s not a safe environment for me and for my child, anything could happen,” Hilo, a devout Sunni Muslim, told JTA during a phone interview in December about her first five years in Islahiye, a suburb of the city of Gaziantep in Anatolia.

But Hilo’s situation and that of hundreds of other Syrian women in Islahiye improved dramatically in June when the London-based World Jewish Relief group and Turkish aid workers opened a women’s-only educational and recreation centre, offering a rare safe space for female clients.

“It completely changed my life,” Hilo said of the centre, where she now works as an English teacher for other refugees while her son is being looked after at an onsite nursery.

With an annual budget of less than $200,000, the Women’s Support Center of Islahiye is operated by 18 female staffers — most of them refugees themselves — out of a three-story residential building with a pink facade on the outskirts of Islahiye.

More than 1,500 women have used the facilities, which World Jewish Relief designed and funds exclusively, with the Istanbul-based International Blue Crescent running the place on the ground as the implementing partner.

Amenities include a computer room with twenty machines; psychotherapy sessions; Turkish and English-language classes; cooking and knitting workshops; child care services, and literacy training.

Having identified the need for a women’s-only centre, the International Blue Crescent wrote a project proposal, which World Jewish Relief — an international aid agency that British Jewry founded in 1933 – last year decided to support as its only sponsor.


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