Hanaa Al-Khder

Member of the, Syrian Women's Political Movement

“I am from the city of Aleppo, currently residing in the northern suburbs. I am 26 years old and a mother of two children. I am a fourth-year student at the Faculty of Psychological Counselling at Aleppo Free University, a graduate of Business Administration and a member of the Syrian Women’s Political Movement.

I started working in the humanitarian sector in 2015 as an administrator with an interest in feminist activism. My last job was with ACTED, where I was the Assistant Director of the governance team. I was responsible for forming women’s committees, training them and evaluating their needs.

Before the earthquake, I voluntarily offered psychosocial support and emotional relief sessions to women and adolescent girls. I shared my contact information with those around me, received women in my home and even went to their homes when needed. Adolescent girls were interested in these services, based of course on the principle of psychological counselling and not treatment. For women, this seems to work best when the people you interact with are close and trust you. When you are not so familiar with the people, there is not much acceptance of psychology.

After the earthquake my house was physically damaged. Whenever I look at the traces on the walls, I say, “an earthquake passed through here.”

For the first three days, I was in shock. I allowed myself to live in fear. I did not run away from it. I returned to my home, walked around it and accepted it. I supported my children and contained their fear and shock. I resorted to psychological help from colleagues and started to feel better.

I continued to support my children by training them with simulations of safety procedures in the event of new tremors, which turned out to be essential as the aftershocks continued.

There was great need for psychological support so I returned to my volunteer work. I offered my services to my close circles on social media, and we formed women’s circles of five and six women to vent our negative feelings. I also held periodic sessions with the Syrian Women’s Political Movement.

Women here have no sense of security. They are displaced, fleeing and in fear of bombardment. The earthquake came and broke something inside them, and it will take a lot for them to recover.

Most of them feel survivor’s guilt. Everywhere we hear: “How lucky are those who died, if only we did too”, and some of them show apparent suicidal tendencies. We are not currently talking about suicides and suicidal tendencies in northern Syria, but it is a real and present problem.

We do not give the psychological impact the recognition and attention it deserves in the North. For example, women who suffer from depression are viewed negatively, under the pretext that everyone is going through difficult circumstances. Psychological care is classified as luxury or “pampering.” Even organizations do not pay enough attention to the mental health of their  workers.

The situation is exacerbated by the small number of psychologists; the number in the North is very small compared to the need. Even the College of Psychological Counselling only has 3 university doctors today, and they are all men.

I consider top priorities to be mental health programs and housing. Educational and economic empowerment is also essential for balance and the ability to continue living after this disaster. More specifically, I believe the priorities are:

  • Classifying psychological needs as a basic need in relief and recovery.
  • Giving room for women’s teams to raise awareness of the psychological impact of the earthquake. Great efforts have been made in terms of political awareness, and we need similar efforts on the issue of mental health.
  • Providing financial assistance to women’s and feminist organizations working for the advancement of mental health.
  • Funding clinics and centers that provide gender-sensitive mental health services.
  • Supporting the educational sector i.e. colleges by providing smart educational rooms to connect students with each other and with specialists from around the world who would build the capacity of specialized and trained cadres dealing with women’s needs.
  • Providing loans for women to benefit from virtual self-learning opportunities
  • Providing psychological support programs for female workers in organizations, taking into account the specific pressures they face. Developing, monitoring and evaluating effective mental health protection policies – also acting as a prerequisite to fund organizations.
  • Enhancing the presence of women in the education sector and in institutions.”