Elham Farhat grew up in a modest family living in the Rashidieh camp for Palestinian refugees, just outside of Saida in southern Lebanon. Her parents divorced when she was twelve years old. Her father soon remarried and Elham moved to live with her father and stepmother.
“I got married when I was nineteen,” says Elham, “trying to escape our stepmother’s abuse and the horrible situation in which I was living. My husband was Palestinian-Jordanian, and was thirty-five years older than me. The first two years of our married life were good, but then everything went downhill from there.”
During the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Elham moved to Syria along with her husband and five sons. They settled in the Yarmouk Palestinian camp south of Damascus.
“I got into the cab with my three young children,” recalls Elham. “My husband stayed behind in Beirut, he was supposed to follow us later. There was an Egyptian woman in the cab as well, married to a Palestinian man. She also had young children with her, and she was so afraid for them. At the time I had very long hair, it was the most valuable thing in my possession. I made a vow to cut it off if we made it all the way to Damascus safely. And I did exactly that after we made it in one piece, arriving at the house of an acquaintance in Yarmouk.”
Getting used to life in Syria was not difficult for Elham. “There was no difference between my old life and my new one in Syria,” she says. “I felt I was still living among my kin and people. I built good, warm relationships with my neighbors and made many new friends.”
Elham switched jobs a number of times to be able to support her family after her husband fell ill and could no longer provide for them. She worked as a teacher in a daycare center for about five years, during which time she also attended special courses to learn how to read and write. She then worked in a workshop producing traditional Palestinian crafts, such as embroidery and wool work. After that, she worked as a secretary at a youth vocational institute, and after that, at a women’s health clinic, where she learned how to be a midwife. She took a course in emergency care and nursing and received a diploma of certification.
Elham recalls how she had dreamed of continuing her education and becoming a doctor since she was a child. Despite the circumstances that stood in her way, she was able to fulfill her old dream by becoming a nurse, a position she maintained for about ten years.
Things became very difficult for Elham after her husband passed away, as she struggled to secure education for her children. The eldest was eighteen at the time, and the youngest only eight. She tried to make contact with her husband’s family in Jordan, and went to visit them along with her children, hoping she might move there and receive some support, as her children were Jordanian citizens. Her husband’s siblings, however, refused to welcome them because of an old conflict with her husband, and she returned to Syria determined to continue her life dependent on no one but herself.
“I worked three jobs at the same time, in one single day,” she says. “I was at work from seven am until midnight daily. During any free time at the clinic, I would be embroidering so I could make some additional income. I wanted my children to have a good life and to be able to finish their schooling. With the grace of God, I was able to buy a home on an installment plan, receiving help from the doctor at whose clinic I worked. All my children graduated from school and were married and went on to live normal lives.”
Elham received several offers of marriage after the death of her husband, but she refused the idea outright. She preferred to turn all her attention to raising her children, and feared a strange man entering their lives and perhaps treating them harshly or inappropriately.
“Facing difficult situations and moving from job to job helped me become a stronger person,” says Elham. “When I lived with my parents, I wasn’t even allowed to leave the house alone, nor was I allowed to continue my schooling. I was confined to housework and to caring for my younger siblings. It was really tough for me, but I was able to overcome all the obstacles in my way.”