Working for a Brighter Future
How one irrepressible woman is working to revitalise life in Idlib.
By Thanaa Jabi
Striding down the road at her usual breakneck speed, Iman reaches her car, jumps behind the wheel, only to screech, “Like always, I have to forget something. I forgot my mobile and one day I’m even going to forget myself!”
She laughs so hard she makes everyone around her laugh too. This is the start of a daily round-trip that takes her from the offices of the charity she founded, to an orphanage and on to psychological support centres, ending at a sewing workshop for vulnerable women. The weather, the shelling and ongoing fighting have no effect on her.
Iman Mohammed Nafe Shamia is a well-known name around Idlib and someone, as her sister Bushra puts it, who is always “able to see the glass half full”.
Iman was born in the city of Idlib in 1964, the daughter of Sheikh Mohammed Nafe Shamia, one of the city’s leading religious authorities who founded the city’s first private school, al-Fateh, in 1942.
Iman’s father also encouraged her to enter the field of education. As soon as she completed secondary school, she began teaching at al-Fateh as a volunteer. She said that this experience had a profound impact on the formation of her strong, self-confident personality.
After graduating from the faculty of sciences at the university of Aleppo in 1989, Iman went on to obtain a teaching diploma and became a biology teacher.
When the Syrian revolution broke out in 2011, Iman founded the Merciful charity association to provide relief and financial support for the growing number of families whose breadwinners had been killed or detained. After the regime army took control of the city in March 2012, the association took its work underground for fear of arrest.
Iman’s courage also drove her to work moving aid from the city to the rebels in the countryside. The most dangerous thing she undertook was personally smuggling young men wanted by the regime from inside Idlib to the countryside where the regime had no control.
Recalling how she had driven, heart thumping, through checkpoint after checkpoint to take the young men to safety, she laughed, “We needed someone who wasn’t afraid of dying to do this crazy thing. I didn’t have time to die, I had too much work!”
After Idlib was returned to rebel control in March 2015, the Merciful association began working under the name Rakeen, with Iman on its board of directors.
Rakeen developed its work in a number of areas, including caring for the growing number of orphans in the governorate.
“I had to fight many battles to overcome the security difficulties and collect the financial support we needed to open an orphanage,” Iman said.
Just a few months after it opened, the orphanage was bombed by regime airplanes. It was hit again and again, until in July 2016 it was forced to close.
Undeterred, Iman refused to give up on the youngsters and is now finalising plans to open a new orphanage near the Turkish border with room for 100 children.
Iman is also the director of a series of gender-based violence services.
“These programmes include psychosocial support centres for female survivors of violence of all forms in three areas – Idlib, Maarrat al-Nu’man and Harnabush – as well as sewing workshops to empower women economically,” she explained.
A number of mentors offer support and services to clients but they say that Iman is always ready to help.
“When all our energy is exhausted, Iman gives us support and optimism and helps us solve any problems we have. She is simply my role model in work and in life,” said Nayla, a psychologist at the Maarrat al-Nu’man centre.
As if that were not enough, Iman now also runs her father’s school, having rebuilt and reopened it after it was badly damaged in a bombing.
Iman is there for anyone who faces financial, emotional or marital problems. She provides positive energy to all those she works with, anticipating a future she always describes as bright.
“I didn’t get married myself to avoid problems, but if you don’t have any, God will send you some,” she joked.
Iman says she dreams of a Syria free from regime control and all oppression and of the return of the displaced to their land. She also dreams of a taking a holiday, something she has been postponing for the last six years.
Thanaa Jabi, 32, is a mathematics graduate who teaches at the faculty of sciences in Idlib university and also works on local civil education and gender-based violence programmes.