Syrian grandmothers overcome distance and longing with online storytelling to grandchildren 

A Syrian woman sits on the ruins of her house in al-Bab Street in the city of Aleppo (AFP)

A Syrian woman sits on the ruins of her house in al-Bab Street in the city of Aleppo (AFP)


Enab Baladi – Mamoun al-Bustani

Thousands of Syrian mothers and grandmothers, especially those who remain in their homes in Syrian villages and cities, remember their children and grandchildren forced by war and difficult economic conditions to take refuge or migrate out of Syria on the occasion of Mother’s Day on 21 March of each year.

This separation between the grandchildren and their grandparents has caused tremendous suffering to Syrian women, especially grandmothers.

The number of Syrian refugees registered with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was about 5 million and 700,000, most of them living in States neighboring Syria, according to the most recent UNHCR statistics.

“Once upon a time” tales

In a video call with her grandchildren, Amna, nicknamed Umm Ahmad, 64, begins telling stories that she did not try to tell realistically as a grandmother because of her grandchildren’s distance from her: “Once upon a time, there was a woman, She has three children (two boys and a girl), who was waiting for the day they would marry to be happy for them and see their grandchildren, but the war kept them away from her, so she would be left alone, waiting for their return one day.”

After she got tears in her eyes and a lump in her throat, Amna quickly finished her story, which she wove from a bitter reality she lives in, despite her skill in telling even fictional stories.

Umm Ahmad lives with her elderly husband in Idlib, northwest Syria, in the family home that was once full of life and movement before her children fled to Turkey due to the 11-year war in Syria.

While telling the story, Amna forgot to include the phrase “we talk, or we sleep?” She seemed confused, repeating her sentences, unlike her usual self, as she would not have imagined having to tell stories to her grandchildren through video calls, according to Ahmad, Amna’s eldest son, during his talk with Enab Baladi.

Praying for family reunion

“All I wish from Allah is to live longer until I meet with my grandchildren and children. This is all I wish for. I want to wake up one day and see my grandchildren around me so that that life can return to our house.”

With these words, Amna expressed to Enab Baladi her longing for her family to be reunited, especially since she had not met her four grandchildren before, as her eldest son had two children, while her other son and daughter had one child each.

She said: “I pray to Allah every day that this war ends so that my children and grandchildren can return to Syria, live the rest of my life with them, and tell them those stories that I learned from my mother and grandmother.”

Umm Ahmad added that her insistence on constant communication with her children and grandchildren prompted her to learn the simple basics of using the “WhatsApp” application.

She stated that she only knows how to send a written and audio message through the application, in addition to making a video call with one of her children and then letting him and her other children and grandchildren join the call.

Grandmothers and bitter tears

Safwan Moushli, a social researcher, said that “grandmothers acquire a great status in traditional big families, which is enshrined in a strict and comprehensive moral system centered on kinship, which translates the process through mutual care, i.e., caring for young people in their long upbringing and spending on them in exchange for caring for parents and grandparents in old age.”

Moushli added to Enab Baladi that this care takes many forms according to the prevailing production pattern. In agricultural societies, the ownership of the land is for the grandparents. Therefore, they usually assume that “the son and what his hands possess belong to his parents, and the grandfather is a father in the absence or presence of the father.”

As for urban societies that depend on trade and crafts, grandfathers and grandmothers have a privileged position because they are the source of relationships, according to Moushli.

The sociologist pointed out that all this is in traditional societies, while modern societies, where the modern state plans for the future of its members by directing education and controlling social and health guarantees, considers itself to be more worthy of obedience than traditional structures.

He explained that “the modern state, after providing guarantees to the weakest parties of the family, children, and grandparents, in case they were abandoned by their families by the misuse of the bond of kinship, finds itself a solution away from wasting more resources to bring them together for emotional or moral reasons. Therefore, it does not find anything wrong with separating the two parties to the family, the husband, and the wife, according to the conditions of work available.”

“Thus, we find many researchers in family problems in modern societies, who see that the modern state, the guardian of modernity in liberal societies, is hostile to the family. It considers it an authoritative institution, and given that the modern state is acquisitive, it cannot tolerate the authorities outside it. So, we see it as diametrically opposed to all civil society institutions, including the family, as the oldest civil institution,” according to what Moushli said.

He believes that “all of the above shows us the extent of alienation experienced by grandmothers in modern societies, or those planning to move to modernity, a structural alienation that has begun to constitute ethics that is stamped with this alienation as an inevitable tax.”

“We face great alienation in traditional societies or modern societies that still include traditional structures for many economic, social, or even moral reasons, at times when these societies are subjected to a shock that strikes social structures (wars, disasters),” Moushli said.

“Then, only structures that identify with modernity will survive because the moral system of globalized modernity will not extend a helping hand except to these modern structures, and then the grandmothers will have nothing but bitter weeping,” he added.

Strong bond between children, grandparents

Ahmad, Amna’s eldest son, residing in the Turkish city of Istanbul, said that he sought refuge in Turkey in 2014, and since then, he has not been able to visit Syria due to his financial circumstances, and he shares the same situation with his brother and sister.

Ahmad added to Enab Baladi, “I notice her confusion every time after she agrees with her grandchildren to tell them one of those stories she used to tell us when we were young. At the time, she was good, but now she appears confused.” He said this was due to the distance between his mother and her grandchildren and to her poor ability to use cell phone applications.

Ahmad explained that he pays great attention to continuous communication between his two sons and their grandmothers and grandfathers, as this has a positive impact on the development of the behavior of a child who constantly needs tenderness, love, understanding, and a sense of safety, which grandparents are able to give to grandchildren in a greater proportion than parents who are usually occupied by life circumstances.

According to what Ahmad told Enab Baladi, he and his wife make sure their two children spend adequate time with their grandfathers and grandmothers, and they reinforce this connection by allowing them to choose gifts to send to their grandparents, while his mother’s response is always “you are all the gifts of the world.”

Emotion binds grandmothers to grandchildren

In a study published on The Royal Society’s website in November 2021, James Rilling, an anthropologist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and colleagues recruited 50 women with at least one biological grandchild between the ages of 3 and 12. They used functional MRI to scan the grandmothers’ brain activity as they looked at pictures of their grandchildren, children, and pictures of an unrelated child and adult.

“What is striking is the activation in areas of the brain associated with emotional empathy,” Rilling said. This indicates that grandmothers tend to feel what their grandchildren feel when they interact with them, if their grandchild smiles, they feel the child’s joy, and if he cries, they feel the child’s pain and distress.

Rilling previously performed a similar exercise with fathers looking at pictures of their children, and the result was that the activation seen in grandmothers’ processing areas and in those associated with reward and motivation was on average stronger than that of fathers.

In contrast, when the grandmothers looked at pictures of their adult children, slightly different brain regions, those associated with cognitive empathy, were activated.

According to the study, this suggests that parents were trying to understand their adult child cognitively rather than experiencing this direct emotional connection.

“Emotional empathy is when you are able to feel what another person is feeling, but cognitive empathy is when you understand at a cognitive level what another person is feeling and why,” Rilling said.

Overall, the study findings suggest that emotional empathy may be a key component of grandmothers’ responses to their grandchildren.

“Umm Ahmad,” told Enab Baladi at the end of her speech: “Nothing is more precious than a child, except the grandchild.” She added, “Thank Allah there is WhatsApp, it is enough for me to see pictures of my children and grandchildren and talk to them when I miss them, in the hope that they will come back so I can hug them and spend the rest of my life with them.”

The ongoing war in Syria for 11 years has left its effects on different age groups of children, women, and men. Syrian women have been subjected to various forms of violations by all actors, leaving them to become victims, detainees, forcibly disappeared, displaced, refugees, and bereaved mothers.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) documented in a report issued on 8 March 2022, entitled “On International Women’s Day… Multiple Violations by Various Parties to the Conflict in Syria,” at least 9,774 adult women are still in detention or enforced disappearance in Syria, more than 16,000 women have been killed, in addition to the killing of 93 women due to torture, from March 2011 until this month.

The report also documented during the same period about 115,000 incidents of sexual violence against females, most of them at the hands of the Syrian regime and the Islamic State, noting that both the regime and the radical group practiced sexual violence as a strategic weapon of war and a tool of torture and revenge against the Syrian society.


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