The importance of dreaming big
Syrian human rights activist Ravda Nur Cuma believes that education can save lives. She supports sending refugee girls back to school, preventing early marriages.
When Ravda Nur Cuma was a child, she dreamt of becoming a doctor. Being good at school and brave enough not to be scared by blood, she imagined she would perform operations that save peoples’ lives. That was before the war that destroyed her home and changed the trajectory of her future. Ten years later, at 23, the young Syrian woman wants to be a doctor of peace. She is indeed saving lives, preventing refugee girls from the trap of child marriage.
While still studying International Relations at Hasan Kalyoncu University, Ravda is running her own foundation, helping families living in refugee camps provide a better future for their daughters through education. So far, the Ravda Nur Foundation has supported more than 40,000 children in the Euphrates Shield area and 3,000 in Gaziantep to go back to school.
She also tries to support Syrians beyond the border, working with the International Blue Crescent to supply the area controlled by Turkey with drinking water and basic healthcare.
Her work and devotion won her the ‘Peacebuilder’ award in 2020 from the HasNa organization, based in Washington DC.
Ravda is а tireless defender of human and migrant rights, and she has already spoken up about these issues at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, and at the European Parliament. Helping people is the main driver of her advocacy, her humanitarian work, and her personal life.
The barefoot walk
Ravda Nur Cuma grew up in Idlib, the middle child in a family of nine siblings. Her father was a businessman. Her mother was a homemaker, tending to their family and garden where each child had their own tree, planted by their father.
Education was the first priority for her family and Ravda’s father made sure that she and her sister went to a good private school.
When the war started, Ravda was 13 years old. One evening at the end of 2011, her father came downstairs and urged his family to get ready to leave. They packed some warm clothes, fetched their passports and IDs, and left in the middle of the night, walking towards the mountains. Ravda remembers the chaos on the streets, the sound of a tank approaching, women crying, kids running around barefoot, and people fleeing their houses. Her family walked for four hours to the border with Turkey, where the Turkish army directed them towards a tent camp. “When we left, my father was thinking that in a few months, the crisis would end and we would come back. But we haven’t seen our home since”, Ravda says.
Slowly and unwillingly adjusting to her new tent life, Ravda took her father’s advice to learn Turkish while they were there. It will be of use, he said, even if the war ended and they could come back to Syria. He also wanted to distract his kids from the hardships of refugee life by keeping their minds busy. Ravda was a fast learner and in two months, she was the Turkish language course’s top student, winning the appreciation of the refugee camp’s director. Soon after, her family was moved to a container camp near Kilis, where they had better living conditions and the children could continue their education.
By that time, she was in high school and Ravda noticed that her female peers had stopped coming to class. She realized they were either getting married or being sent to work.
“Because of the economic situation and because they didn’t know what will happen in the future, many Syrian families thought they needed to marry their daughters young to keep them safe”, Ravda explains. “I didn’t want to have that kind of life. The idea of getting married at 14 years-old and having a child while I was still a child – it was destroying my dreams. But my father always told me: “Don't worry, I will do my best to educate you. Even if we are now refugees, I will do my best”.
Her family was peer-pressured to marry her as well, but Ravda's father didn't succumb to this. He gave his daughter the freedom to choose for herself.
But instead of feeling discouraged and disheartened, Ravda decided to speak with these families to convince them of the importance of education. Some of them closed doors in her face, some listened but said they weren’t brave enough, but others she managed to persuade that school was a safe place to send their daughters to and that education was the only way forward.
Speak up and tell your story
Her own hard work at school was recognized and Ravda obtained Turkish citizenship and a scholarship to Hasan Kalyoncu University. “So many people asked my father if he really was sending his daughter to another city alone and he would answer: Yes, I am proud of my daughter and I trust her”, Ravda recalls.
In 2016 she registered her foundation that supports refugee girls’ education. She also started working to support herself through her studies.
With her first salary, she rented an apartment in Hatay (a Turkish province on the Syrian border) to get her parents out of the camp. “When I told them, my mom said: “You are our mother. We are not your family; you are our family.” And then my father said: “I never dreamt that after four years of living in the camp, I will be between four walls”, Ravda fondly remembers.
The young woman took her sisters to live with her and continue their education. The younger one dreams of becoming a volleyball player, while the older one is studying to be an airplane engineer. “My sisters inspire me”, Ravda says. “They are strong and successful girls, who can fight for their lives and don’t need any help from men.”
As for her own future, Ravda hopes she will one day be able to help in the restoration of Syria and its society. After graduating in International Relations, she would like to get a master’s degree in Middle Eastern politics.
Now, she’s also working as a North East Syria Relief Coordinator with the International Blue Crescent Relief and Development Foundation, an NGO working on sustainability and development projects in the area of Syria controlled by Turkey. “I'm really thankful for this foundation for their trust in me and now I'm taking care of a project inside Syria. I have started to improve and develop myself, and I also get to see my country again. I feel hope now that I can go to my country and do something for the people there. And one day, I hope my country will have peace”, Ravda wishes.
Though still in university, she uses every opportunity to speak publicly about how every refugee deserves access to education. When Ravda went on an exchange program in the US to study English, she used this time to advocate and even got to speak at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.
“I was always dreaming big. I was always telling my father that I want to be a strong woman and make a change. So, informing world leaders about the problems millions of girls face every day was a big success and I need to keep doing this. I cannot stop because on social media, I get a lot of messages from girls who want me to speak up and tell their stories”, Ravda adds.
The human rights activist believes it is very important for refugees to represent themselves, to question publicly why the war happened, to speak up, and to come up with solutions themselves, even when they are met with ignorance or distrust.
“One day I opened Instagram and I saw somebody asking: do you really believe that you, a Syrian woman, will do something?”, Ravda recalls. “I was really upset because girls are growing up with these hateful words, with the idea that a man is stronger than a woman, that the woman should stay in the other room and wait for the man to finish with his food so that she can eat. My family was different, but we faced this anyway because we lived in a society that believes in this. We need to make a change as women. Waiting for somebody to help us and save us will do nothing.”
Ravda adds that she has always considered herself a feminist. One of the role models that inspires her is the actress and humanitarian Angelina Jolie. She even laughingly shares the story of how she missed an opportunity to meet Jolie in person, while the actress was visiting her former refugee camp. Ravda was in another city at the time and was so disappointed that she couldn’t see Jolie. “I really admire her. She always gives me power. When I look at her face, I feel hopeful for the future”, Ravda admits.
A safe space for every woman
Even if Ravda is living a good life in Turkey and making a difference through her work, she still faces a lot of discrimination and even hatred as a refugee living in a foreign country. After a TV appearance, she was verbally attacked by a female member of a political party in Turkey, which as a consequence, triggered many hateful social media messages and even threats directed at her.
Ravda’s response was to speak up against discrimination, to try to explain the complexity of the Syrian war and how refugees didn’t choose this life for themselves. “Many platforms share false information about refugees to create the wrong perception. They say that Syrian students go to universities without exams and get good scholarships really quickly. I tell the truth – how hard it is for Syrians to go to school, that every Syrian refugee’s life is destroyed”, Ravda says.
What helps her through these dark moments and gives her hope is meeting children from the refugee camps. They are always smiling and full of hope despite their hardships.
“Whenever I have hard times in my life, I remember when I was feeling cold in the winter in the refugee camp. Sometimes we didn't have any food to eat, but now I'm supporting my family, I'm taking care of my sisters so they can go to school and have a good life. I'm trying to be a good role model for every girl”, she adds.
Her goal is to continue to support the effort to educate a large number of girls and children. She also hopes to extend her work to help women in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere.
“Every woman needs a safe space and has the right to be a part of society. We need to make a space for those women in Afghanistan so they can be a part of society”, Ravda exclaims and then concludes: “My aim is to really fight for human rights. We weren’t born as refugees and the war in our country is not our fault. I just want us to be seen as human beings because we are not just numbers. Everybody has a different story. Every refugee needs an opportunity in life.”
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Discover more about Ravda Nur Cuma from the documentary film “Life flourishes again...Hope has the power to transcend all disasters” by Coşkun Aral.
A product of the “European Cities Network on Migration” project was the documentary directed by the famous producer Coşkun Aral. Four immigrants from four countries (Turkey, Greece, Spain and Germany) share their journeys starting from the first day when they left their homes, the difficulties they have experienced, the opportunities they have seen, their transformations and their aspirations. The project was organised by the European Liberal Forum with the support of the Turkish Office of Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.