Najah Ahmad grew up in one of the villages in Suweida province. Her father worked in Kuwait and Libya, then as an art therapist in the National Hospital in Suweida city. He suffered a home injury, however, that led to him becoming blind, and the family was left without a provider and without any compensation from the government either.
Najah was in middle school at the time, and she was forced to drop out and help her mother, who worked from home doing embroidery and needlework. As time went on, the family began to feel embarrassed about the girls of the village coming in and out of their house to drop off and pick up their fabrics and clothes, and there was also a lot of social pressure on them as the village watched Najah and her sisters coming and going from Damascus to buy the necessary materials for their work. Najah’s mother decided they would move to work in Damascus and leave Najah’s father behind with her brothers in the village.
“It was hard to have the family split up like that between Suweida and Damascus,” says Najah. “We found ourselves in a new social environment, with habits and traditions completely different from those of the village where we had grown up.”
But the social pressure didn’t let up. Relatives interfered in their affairs and tried to stop the women from moving about freely, keeping an eye on them. This made them feel incredibly confined and was the main reason why Najah’s sister married so early. Najah knew that everything would have been different had they been men.
At first, Najah and her mother worked in garment workshops; they worked for nine hours a day, and on Fridays, their weekend; they would travel back to the village to check on the family and care for her father and her brother, who had Down’s Syndrome. It was a grueling schedule, and Najah worked without rest and no real days off. The family finally moved altogether to Damascus and were reunited once more under the same roof.
The move to Damascus was a difficult one for Najah, going from the small community of the village to a large city completely different from the environment she had known before. She met people from different religions and sects, and this broadened her horizons, her understanding and her entire experience of the world. She felt stronger; previously she had been marginalized and shunted aside like all the other girls in her closed community. The move also taught her how to be more open to learning from other people’s experiences, now that they lived in the Jaramana neighborhood, which was a mix of different religions and sects. As Najah got to know people from different sects, she lost her fear of them, and her neighbors in the city began to feel like family to her, as she shared in their celebrations and learned their customs.
When her younger sister got her secondary school diploma, Najah was encouraged to go back to school and earn her own diploma. Though she failed the first time, she remained undeterred, and finally received her secondary school certification.
“I was so happy to go back to my studies,” says Najah, “to meet new peers and friends. I felt like I had been reborn.”
After finishing secondary school, Najah switched jobs and took up some simple administrative work that nevertheless earned her a good salary. Her mother, too, found a new job that earned a better salary than before. Najah took courses at the Tourism Institute, intending to work as a tour guide in her province, according to promises made to her before graduation. This, however, did not come to pass, and Najah found work at the Four Seasons Hotel instead, getting hired just before its grand opening in Damascus. She received excellent professional training, and because she was having so much contact with foreigners, her English improved. She was so popular at her new job she received offers to go to the Arab Gulf. One of those offers was in Qatar, but Najah’s mother refused. She felt that Najah was firing on all cylinders, in too much of a rush to advance on every level, socially, educationally and professionally. She forbade Najah from going and tore up her plane ticket. But as soon as her mother had calmed down a little, Najah, with the intervention of one of her relatives, managed to convince her mother to let her travel abroad, and she accepted a position in the United Arab Emirates.
Najah embarked on a new phase in her life, working for twelve hours a day and sending her entire salary back to her family. When she switched jobs, moving to another company, she also managed to advance her skill set and make herself an even stronger candidate, despite all the obstacles in her path. These included both the working conditions she had to deal with and the social environment in which she lived. People couldn’t quite understand her situation as an unmarried woman who had traveled abroad alone to work. But there were also so many positives: she gained new experiences, she became responsible for herself, depending on no one for help, and she learned many new things, earning new certifications and skills.
“My entire time abroad, I didn’t lose contact with my girl friends back home in Syria,” says Najah. “I dreamed of returning someday, and this is still what I dream of now.
“That first experience of moving to Damascus,” she continues, “gave me the strength and courage to move to an even bigger place like the Gulf, and then after that to try and travel to Europe.”