Mariam Abdelrahman Zakaria grew up in the city of Deir Atiyah in the Damascus countryside. The city is famous for its beauty, infrastructure and outstanding services. It is also known for the fact that a huge percentage of the city’s residents have emigrated to Latin America and Arab Gulf countries.
“The population of Deir Atiyah was mostly Sunni Muslims and Christians. Everyone came together for social occasions and weddings,” says Mariam.
“After the wheat was harvested, it was processed into bulgur by boiling it. This procedure was accompanied by a special social ritual, whereby a big stockpot was placed in the neighborhood and families took turns boiling the wheat. Neighbors and relatives met in an atmosphere of joy and fun, while young men and women transported the boiled wheat to the rooftops of the houses to be dried.”
After finishing middle school, Mariam enrolled in the Nursing School in Damascus. “One of the things that pushed me to study nursing was a visit I made to my cousin’s dormitory at the Nursing School,” she says. “I liked the independent lifestyle of the female students living there. Moreover, the duration of the program was relatively short, and job opportunities were guaranteed in the health sector after graduation.”
Mariam graduated from the Nursing School and was employed in the newly-established children’s hospital. She says, “The children’s hospital was affiliated with the Ministry of Higher Education and not the Ministry of Health. It was directly subsidized by the presidential palace, especially in its early days. The care and services provided for the children were of high quality.”
Mariam got married and moved to Lebanon with her husband, but she had to go back to Syria due to the difficult situation that Lebanon witnessed following 1982 Israeli invasion. She lost contact with her husband at this time and has not been reunited with him to this day.
Mariam went back to work in the operations department at the hospital until 1988, when she was detained for 6 months in the Palestine Branch prison for belonging to the opposing Communist Labour Party. “After being released from detention, I went back to work and felt the concealed looks of respect in my colleagues’ eyes,” she says. “In my hometown, Deir Atiyah, everyone welcomed me with love and care.”
Mariam started to work in school health services in the city of al-Nabek. The nature of her work in the medical clinic included touring around schools, checking the cleanliness of facilities and water tanks, examining students and giving them the necessary vaccines. “In reality, there was no actual work in the clinic except making a few health and awareness rounds throughout the academic year. As for the doctors, those who didn’t want to work hard looked for employment in school health services. For instance, a doctor who was our colleague studied child psychology in Russia then came back and worked at the clinic. However, there was no actual work to do, so he traveled to the United Arab Emirates.”
Mariam later worked at another clinic in Babbila in the Damascus countryside. The center was responsible for about 65 schools in the rural area, including schools in poor areas that had never been reached. “In a village called Jisr al-Ghazal, teachers had to wear plastic bags on their feet in winter because of the muddy roads. The classroom windows were covered with fabric or nylon bags instead of glass,” she says. “In fact, I couldn’t have imagined that a school like that existed in Syria after the year 2000, being only 15 kilometers away from the city center. Its principal said that he had sent several complaints about the school’s poor condition, but hadn’t received any response from the competent authorities.”
After a long career in the health sector, Mariam started to feel that the sector’s conditions had become miserable, and that health services provided were substandard. “The governmental hospitals were in poor condition. For instance, al-Mouwasat Hospital close to the children’s hospital was in a deplorable state. Some patients were treated on the floor. The hospital may have lacked adequate financial resources and staff members, or perhaps it was suffering from significant levels of corruption. In fact, an average citizen in Syria received 50% less health services than he was entitled to.”