Syrian women living in Turkey have been forced to put dreams and social expectations aside in order to survive, going from homemakers to couriers of goods, educators to salon workers and aspiring artists to drug dealers.

Thirty-year-old Hala*, an arts graduate from Damascus, struggled to pay the rent for a room in a shared apartment following her move to Turkey. 

“Life was hard,” she told Asia Times. “I first started taking jobs as a saleswoman or a waitress, but as a Syrian, I was subjected to a lot of harassment, which led me to quit and look for other sources of income.”

After struggling for a year and a half, she decided to cater to her vast network of Syrians in Istanbul and started the risky profession of selling marijuana.

“There was a nice Turkish guy living in the same house with me. He smoked a lot of weed so I asked him about the price and discovered that he gets it cheaper than my [Syrian] friends. I decided to buy some from him and distribute it to my friends, hoping to make a small profit to be able to pay my rent, and that’s how it started,” she recounted.

Hala hides the marijuana in her underwear to make the deliveries. At first, she walked to the drop-off locations. Now she owns a motorcycle.

“I don’t make a big profit as most of my customers are my friends. I don’t sell to people I don’t know,” she said.

Even greater than her fear of being arrested by the Turkish police and thrown in jail, Hala is mortified by the possibility that her parents could find out that – after finishing college, she now sells drugs.

“At the start of every day, I’m overcome by sadness for my future and my life. I never expected to be a drug dealer in Istanbul. My goal was to be a Syrian painter that everyone knows,” she said.

“When I leave the house with weed in my underwear, I feel that the whole world is chasing me and I pray every day that I can get out of this business and go back to painting and my normal life. I don’t know If I will ever tell my kids that I worked as a drug dealer.”

No provider

The more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey include large numbers of women whose husbands were killed, detained, or disappeared during the war. Most live in Istanbul and the border cities of Gaziantep, Urfa and Reyhanli. 

Syrians are eligible for work permits under their temporary protection status in Turkey.

Refugee women have taken a wide range of jobs, whether in factories, laboratories, shops, or restaurants to provide for their children. Others work in agriculture and provided services like house cleaning, engage in e-commerce, or make home-cooked meals for people’s special occasions. 

Om Ibrahim*, a Syrian woman in her fifties, has lived with her daughter in Istanbul since 2015. After gaining residency, she began traveling regularly to Damascus via Beirut with two large suitcases filled with Turkish goods.

“I get paid $10 for every kilogram of merchandise that I transport,” she told Asia Times.

With her reading glasses on, Om Ibrahim plasters small labels on each piece of clothing with the name of the customer so she can deliver them with no glitches later.

The profit she makes allows her to buy the tickets to visit her son, who lives in the Syrian capital where he studies law.

“People here in Istanbul love me and trust me a lot, so many of them send clothes and gifts to their families and loved ones in Damascus with me,” she said.

Om Ibrahim does not transport money out of fear that trouble with customs agents could put visits to her son in jeopardy. When she gets such a request, however, she refers it to another woman who offers the service.

Teacher to masseuse

Nour*, a 34-year old Syrian, found that her degree and previous experience as a teacher did not help her in her new life as a refugee after she arrived in Turkey in 2015.

When she was unable to find a teaching job, she accepted a job as a masseuse at a major salon.

“I won’t deny that it upsets me. Sometimes I feel inferior because of the way some customers treat me. They don’t know that I have more education than most of them, but circumstances have placed me there.”

Nour had to flee Syria after a member of the military harassed her and threatened to arrest her if she did not accept his advances.

“I decided to flee and live alone in Turkey without my parents. They don’t know that I’m a masseuse,” she said.

“I told them that I would become the best English teacher in Turkey.”


Translated from Arabic by Heba Afify. 

* All names have been changed to protect the identity of those interviewed