ISTANBUL — The dusty, late afternoon light pools into the hallway of Sarah’s small one bedroom Ferikoy apartment in Istanbul.
Sarah* sits on a clean, worn out cream sofa in the hallway, occasionally padding across to check on her infant daughter sleeping in the other room. Before Sarah had Leena* three months ago, that used to be her bedroom, she says as she places some simmering hot shai or black Syrian tea on a tiny coffee table. Now Sarah and her husband Ali* sleep on a double bed which takes up most of the hallway.
The 25-year-old woman escaped Syria in 2015 in the midst of a hellish war to reunite with her fiance Ali in Istanbul, Turkey and marry him.
Sarah and Ali had been engaged for two years and planning a festive Syrian wedding when war erupted in the March of 2011. Ali fled the country the same year and enrolled in a university in Istanbul to continue his education.
“We sacrificed a lot during our wedding. The war did not allow the basics to take place — all tradition was lost,” Sarah says. “Ali was supposed to come and meet my father, my parents, but none of that could take place,” she tells TRT World.
Like many young women in Syria, Sarah dreamt of a white wedding dress since she was a little girl. Before the war, Sarah imagined she would marry Ali on a perfect day, one in which she would be surrounded by loved ones celebrating the start of her new life. In Syrian society, wedding planning kicks off the moment a groom sends a proposal through mutual acquaintances to the girl’s family and then meets her parents to request her hand in marriage.
But Sarah’s plans were interrupted, her story transformed into an unfortunate account inked by the Syrian war, which has displaced 5.6 million abroad. Just over 44 percent of these refugees are women, 1.11 million between 18 to 59.
Women who fled Syria to reunite with their partners after being separated by war faced many threats along the way: isolation, sexual abuse, violent attacks, financial exploitation, and intimidation or coercion by security officials. These women experience the conflict differently than their male counterparts. They might flee the arches of bombs and chemical weapons for a new life, but stumble onto more suffering though they are mostly non-combatants.
A reunion away from family
She stares at the floor as she stitches together the memory of her journey to Istanbul to meet Ali after a three-year separation, smiles and dark shadows darting across her face reflect the emotional rollercoaster she experienced.
On the flight — which had a layover in Antakya — she remembers feeling goosebumps and a stillness descend on her as she thought about seeing him in merely a few hours. “I couldn’t comprehend that Ali was waiting for me. I felt so stiff and numb as the plane landed in Istanbul. It was crazy that I would see him again and we would make a life together.”
Sarah giggles as she admits she left Syria just so she could get married.
“If I wasn’t getting married to Ali, I wouldn’t come [here]. If I came without any support, I would be lost. I heard about some girls coming alone, without any support or a groom, and life had been tough for them, very tough!”
Sarah did get her reunion with Ali in Istanbul, but the wedding they dreamt of was suddenly far away, left behind in the relics of pre-war Syria.
The only people they knew in Istanbul were Ali’s three male friends and his mother Fatima*. Sarah on the other hand had no one — her family is still in Damascus.
The custom of the bride having her immediate and extended family fuss over her was also left behind.
Sarah had none of the female archetypes associated with a happy bride — the stressed but doting mother, the girlfriend confidante or aunts and cousins to help her find the perfect white dress or be with her during the ceremony. No one except her mother-in-law.
The grievance of a wedding dress
The white wedding dress was the fantasy; the reality was a financial mess. “I remember going to a store and the dress was for 1,000 Turkish liras [$200],” she says. “I was really short on money since I was unemployed. Even Ali was unemployed, so we mostly relied on his father for all expenses.”
Just like Sarah, her mother-in-law had also imagined the young couple’s special day would be an occasion steeped in joy and tradition. Before the war, Fatima had plans for her son’s wedding.
“I always thought I would celebrate Ali’s wedding with everyone and also throw a separate party for women, with my son’s bride in a beautiful white wedding dress. But there were no women or celebrations. It was just Sarah and I,” Fatima says, tearing up.
With the knowledge that there wouldn’t be many people there on her big day, Sarah set about to plan a simple ceremony at Yildiz Park in Istanbul’s vibrant neighbourhood of Besiktas for August 8, 2015.
She hadn’t given up on the perfect dress though. Sarah kept looking for affordable boutiques. Ali’s friend recommended Istanbul Laleleri (Istanbul Tulips), a Facebook group where Syrian women donate and rent wedding dresses to other Syrian women in need. But once again luck was not in Sarah’s corner.
“When I posted on the group, some girls did write back to me, but the dresses were mostly revealing and I was not comfortable with that,” Sarah says. “I felt very confused and upset.”
Sarah did find a wedding dress in the end. Her saviour? The imam who officiated her wedding.
The imam was a friend of one of Ali’s friends and when he realised Sarah’s predicament, he donated his wife’s dress to Sarah before the big day. This was a wedding dress which Sarah could feel comfortable wearing with her hijab.
“The dress was not in its best state, so I tried my best to clean it and make it presentable for Sarah,” Fatima says.
“I remember I plucked out dry grass which was stuck to the bottom of the dress, got it altered by the tailor and then laundered.
The language barrier I faced in the city was a big challenge to get the best of what you want,” she recalls.
Chronicles of the travelling dress
Sarah realised after her wedding that women in similar circumstances probably hit the same walls in pursuit of something to wear on their special day, especially refugees who often leave everything behind.
The imam had asked her to pass it on after her ceremony to some other woman who might need a wedding dress. But that dress remained in Sarah’s closet for a year after the wedding day. “After I got married, I remember thinking that I know no one here, how could I trust anyone?” Sarah says.
Even though Sarah remained on the Istanbul Tulips Facebook group, she was uneasy about trusting anyone on social media. “Someone did me a huge favour; these dresses are expensive and I didn’t want to give it to someone who may misuse it by selling it or renting it to gain money.”
Eventually after she settled down and started working, she found a social support enterprise run by women in Istanbul to help refugee women.
“I remember I gave them the dress and told them to keep it [for someone who may need it]. Recently I found out that one of the women in the organisation got married and she wore that dress. They altered it and oh my, it looks so beautiful now!”
But Sarah also knows of women who tied the knot without something borrowed or something blue. She shares the story of her friend who could not manage even what Sarah did at the time.
“One of my friends in Ferikoy did not have a special dress or any celebrations for her wedding. She also came here as a refugee, just like me,” Sarah shared.
“But now she has a child and is settled, so she threw a party and wore a white wedding dress” she explains. “She was like, look I’m a bride now even after a child!”
Often the experiences women refugees go through are out of reach — almost undervalued if lacking violence — perhaps because what they experience is incomprehensible to some and are not widely shared. The personal losses that encapsulate life amid war are lost in the headlines, which are better at articulating menacing bombs and pieces of bullets.
Yet the impact of displacement comes back full circle and colours the things others take for granted — such as celebrations and festivities — which victims of war, like Sarah and Ali, do not anymore.
For Sarah, escaping a war meant a new life but one where dreams and hopes were whittled down to the most basic details. In the case of her wedding, she had the man she loved and the few people she could call her own; she hasn’t seen her family since she left Syria and worries about them every day.
The absence of and hunt for a white wedding dress perhaps is the salve for the absence of everyone Sarah and Ali wanted to be surrounded by.
“We sacrificed a lot for the wedding, from imagining myself as a bride in certain way to the presence of our family and friends; we sacrificed a lot.”
* Names have been changed to protect identities