Inspirational, Courageous and Never Losing Hope…The Story of Maimouna al-Aammar from Eastern Ghouta – Damascus
After a long day’s work following up on the work of the Child Protection Network offices in Eastern Ghouta and Daraa, Maimouna al-Aammar gcomes back to her modest home in Douma city to look after her two young dauighters and do her domestic chores.
Each day she hopes that the next morning will bring a better future for her family and for the other families in Ghouta and Syria who have endured the hardships of war year after year.
Al-Aammar, 31, has worked in child protection in Ghouta, Damascus since 2013. She describes herself as an avid reader and hard worker who has loved working as part of a team ever since her schooldays. All of those skills stood her in good stead when the Syrian uprising began and she began establishing and managing protection centres for children in Rif Damascus and Daraa.
Al-Aammar, who was born in Nimr village in Western Rif Daraa, inherited her passion for reading from her father Mohammad al-Aammar, an intellectual and devotee of non-violent resistance. From early childhood she would read tens of different books at the same time, on topics such as Islamic thought, philosophy, history, science and education, all of which had a deep impact on her way of thinking. When she became a university student, she chose to move to Damascus and enroll in the computer engineer department of the faculty of mechanical and electrical engineering.
“I filled my student life with social work in different fields,” she said. “During that period, together with my classmates I was able to create a body that followed up on student affairs to help solve their problems. We organised activities at the faculty which continued even after we graduated, such as a summer club and alumni collective.”
Al-Aammar obtained her bachelor’s degree in the summer of 2009 and went on to study for a masters’ in networking. That same year, she married Ousama Nassar who she had met at a weekly debating club. They lived together in his city of Darayya in western Rif Damascus.
When the Arab Spring erupted in Tunisia towards the end of 2010, al-Aammar followed events unfolding in the region with great interest. Although she realised even then that the conditions were not in place for a peaceful transition in Syria, she still took part in a sit-in organised by the families of political detainees at the interior ministry on March 16, 2011.
“My husband and I were arrested during that sit-in – I was pregnant with my first daughter Eimar – and released a few days later,” she recalls. “A few weeks later, Ousama was arrested again for participating in a peaceful demonstration in Darayya. He was released two months later when he held his daughter for the first time, as he had missed her birth. During that same period, my father was also arrested for his political and social activism, and then released, only to be arrested again four more times.”
Al-Aammar said that the way she could contribute and participate became clear to her in the first few months of the uprising. She was one of the first to join the peaceful uprising protests and got involved in many awareness raising campaigns. She also briefly worked on women’s activities in Darayya city, in what later became known as the Darayya Free Women Union.
In parallel, al-Aammar founded Darayya city’s documentation office in May 2011 together with activist Nabil Sharbaji. She worked as the director of that office in collaboration with Darayya’s and other local coordination committees, and then with the city council.
“I used to work on documenting the names of martyrs, detainees and missing people from the city, in order to raise their cases internationally,” she said. “I used to spend my day collecting fragments of information about them to offer some consolation to their families and loved ones, and at the same time, I needed someone to console my mother for the loss of my two brothers who disappeared in November 2012. But I could not find such consolation.”
Al-Aammar’s ordeal with the security apparatuses began the same way it did for most Syrian activists.
“My house was invaded, my life was threatened, my daughter was kidnapped to force my husband to turn himself in, and then my brother was detained for two months by the air force intelligence apparatus,” she continued. “As a result, I had no room for maneuver and activism in Darayya, so I was forced to move to other regions inside Damascus and then finally arrived in Eastern Ghouta in July 2013.”
Two months after her arrival in Eastern Ghouta, she founded and directed the first field office of the uprising in Rif Damascus. Then she launched the child protection programme in Ghouta, focused on preventing violence or the abuse of children.
After receiving training in basic child protection and communication skills, al-Aammar founded the first field office of the Guardians network.
“I started training the first batch of people working with children in Ghouta in basic child protection,” she said. “Then this group was entrusted with administrating a school providing formal elementary education to children, supporting their needs and developing their skills.”
She also worked on integrating children with special needs into these schools.
Al-Aammar also managed media initiatives to advocate for child victims of war, including the Speak Up For Syrian Children campaign (#SpeakUpForSyrianChildren) launched in 2013, which documented the stories of thousands of fatalities. This campaign tried to show inform public opinion with real human stories rather than just reducing the deaths to statistics of war.
Ahmad Hazifa, an activist and journalist who worked with al-Aammar on this campaign, said that she had been a source of inspiration throughout.
“Despite the siege, she was so active she gave us the motivation to keep working every time we felt weak, frustrated and powerless. Because of her continuous motivation, the way she successfully handed out and implemented tasks, she was able to reach a larger audience,” he said. “Maimouna is the kind of person with whom you like to work and befriend, not only because she makes you stronger, but also because you can learn from her every day. People like her who are compassionate, believers in freedom, justice and the defence of peoples’ rights – including those who are different from us – give our lives meaning.”
Al-Aammar continued to work with training centres and field workers to raise awareness about concepts of child protection. In 2014, she began managing cases of children at risk, in addition to hosting children suffering from serious physical and psychological harm as a result of the constant shelling.
The number of workers involved with the Guardians network in Ghouta rose to around 115, and in August 2016 an office was inaugurated in Daraa province. Al-Aammar became the regional director of both offices.
She explained that the network provided various activities from psycho-social support to formal and informal schooling including a literacy programme and a library scheme.
In addition to awareness-raising campaigns for children and their carers, the Guardians also worked on capacity building for partner institutions and a case management system so as to respond to cases of children at risk across Ghouta.
Samah, a beneficiary of the Guardians programmes, said she saw Maimouna as her “second mother”.
She “encourages children to continue their education despite all the challenges they face in Ghouta, she appreciates their talents and works on further developing them. She also trains parents on best practices of dealing with children during times of war,” Samah continued.
Despite the importance of her work, al-Aammar has been subjected to harassment by many members of groups affiliated with the armed factions and Ghouta’s de-facto.
“Tackling topics related to children’s rights, and seeing a woman managing this large team of [both] women and men, and an institution that has significant impact on the community, bothered them,” she said. “One of the campaigns of harassment coincided with my second pregnancy and it was difficult to deal with, as they tried to twist the facts and incite the community against us by advancing false accusations and spreading them on a large scale.”
However, the network’s commitment and the solidarity of parents and activists inside and outside Syria helped derail the campaign of harassment.
Al-Amar said she had been left stronger by the experience, adding, “This resulted in increasing our power and faith in the work we do to free humankind.”