For the first five years of her life, Joumana Khamousie lived in Beirut. Her mother is Palestinian-Lebanese and her father Syrian, from Hama. Her father was working in Beirut when he met her mother, and they got married shortly afterward.
After Joumana turned five, the family moved to Syria for a while before traveling to Libya, where they lived for about one year because of her father’s work. After that, they returned to Syria and settled down to live in Hama.
Joumana says that these frequent moves during childhood affected her negatively, because she never felt settled anywhere. She also felt she couldn’t depend on her father, because he was the one making all these sudden decisions to move, without taking into consideration any negative consequences this might have on the rest of his family members.
Joumana lived in Hama until the age of nineteen, and earned a secondary school degree in arts. She applied to the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus and was accepted there, but she never enrolled because it was too expensive, and her family’s financial situation couldn’t support it.
Joumana took on a job to be able to pay for her university courses, and completed the exam to receive another secondary school certificate, this time in literature. Afterwards, she applied to the Faculty of Business Management in Aleppo and was accepted there, but again couldn’t enroll because of an unexpected move to Beirut.
“I worked hard and kept trying to advance myself even though circumstances were difficult,” says Joumana. “My father never gave a thought to our future or to the details of our lives, while my mother tried her best to help and support us to better ourselves.”
The social conservatism in Hama was at odds with how Joumana was raised by her mother, who had come from the far more liberal city of Beirut.
“It was a closed society in Hama,” says Joumana, “and quite conservative. Girls who didn’t wear the hijab were considered ill behaved. Girls in general weren’t allowed to leave their homes unaccompanied by others, and weren’t encouraged to continue their studies or go on to universities. It was preferred that a girl get married early and start a family of her own.
“My father’s family saw us as different,” continues Joumana, “as not like them, because we had been raised in a way they didn’t approve of. It’s true, we weren’t like them in the way we thought or the way we lived our life, and we didn’t have a close relationship with them either. As opposed to my mother’s family, who always tried to encourage and support us.”
Joumana recalls how she had male friends who would come visit her at home. Her mother knew them all and welcomed them warmly, and this was considered both strange and improper by the conservative community of Hama.
When Joumana turned nineteen, her parents separated. Her father had taken another wife, one of Joumana’s close friends, and Joumana saw this as a deep betrayal of not only her mother, but of her as well. She implored her mother to leave the house and move back to her grandfather’s house in Beirut.
The events affected Joumana deeply, and she stopped talking to her father for several years. At one point, she even visited a therapist to help deal with her depression, which overcame her every time she thought about what had happened.
“When we arrived to Beirut,” says Joumana, “things were very, very hard for us. We didn’t have enough money to live, and we had left Hama in such a rush we hadn’t even brought much of what we needed with us.”
A young Lebanese man asked for Joumana’s hand in marriage during that time, and she agreed in order to ease the financial burden on her mother. Joumana remained with her husband in Beirut for two years and had a daughter there before the family moved to Saudi Arabia where her husband had found work.
Joumana lived in Saudi Arabia for a number of years, without study or work or any other sort of activity to occupy her.
“Saudi Arabia is such a closed country,” says Joumana, “and so conservative, especially when it comes to women. Our time there had such a negative effect on me psychologically, to the point where I lost interest in everything, even drawing, something I’d loved to do since childhood. My life had no meaning, no value.”
After eight years in Saudi Arabia and after her third child was born, Joumana realized that she had to change the way she was living. She felt like the only thing she was good for was bearing and raising children, and she so she decided to move back to Beirut along with her kids and live in the house her husband had purchased there.
“When we arrived in Beirut,” says Joumana, “I began by putting everything in the house in order, ensuring we had everything we needed. I enrolled the kids in schools and then, through some friends, I found out about this NGO and began working there. Only then did I feel like I was a person of value. For the first time in ten years it was like my existence had some meaning. I started making friends and new social relationships, and I finally fulfilled my old dream by enrolling at university.”
Joumana says that one of the most important decisions she ever made was to leave Saudi Arabia and to begin rebuilding her future by engaging herself on all fronts; educational, professional and social. She grew stronger and more sure of herself, confident in her own ability to face whatever obstacles life threw in her path without having to depend on anyone.
“Moving so much from country to country gave me a new understanding of life,” says Joumana, “and taught me how to get along with all sorts of people and adapt to all sorts of different communities.”