Hiba found out through her family.
“[My daughter] still can’t believe that he is married,” Hiba told me, glancing over at the little girl running circles around us. “He tried to tell her a couple of days ago, but she cried and cried and cried.”
When Hiba first escaped to Germany from Syria in 2016, she was alone with her daughter and pregnant with her son. She was excited to finally reunite with her husband, who had moved to Berlin four months earlier.
She said she could never have imagined the life she’s living now, six years hence — divorced, in her own apartment, sharing custody of her children and studying German to find a job.
“At least for my kids, I have to be here,” she explained. “I cannot go back to my country.”
Hiba sat across from me at a coffee shop in Kreuzberg, six minutes away from where she lives with her children. She insisted on meeting there because she was worried about unexpected visitors interrupting this conversation at the house. She was a little nervous — her hands twitched in her lap and she gently chastised her energetic children before turning back to smile sheepishly, as if to apologize for them.
I asked how long she had been married to her husband.
“Since 2012,” she said. “But it wasn’t so bad in Syria. In Syria, we had fights like normal. Here, it became really, really bad.”
Divorce in hopes of finding alternatives
Her story is one of many contributing to rising numbers of divorced Syrian refugees in Germany.
While the actual number is unavailable, Najat Abokal, a family lawyer from Morocco practicing in Berlin, told me she saw a dramatic increase in divorce cases in 2017, a year after Syrian refugees first fled to Germany.
“I’ve never seen so many people of one nationality want to get divorced,” she said.
Last year, the Federal Statistical Office in Germany reported a total of 449,000 Syrian nationals residing in the country since 2016 and 19,100 Syrians who were naturalized in 2021.
Yasmine Merei is the founder of Women for Common Spaces, an initiative to empower and connect Arabic-speaking women in exile in Berlin, as well as a Syrian refugee herself. She is not particularly surprised by the spike in divorce.
“There are a lot of social changes that are happening for these families,” she said. “It can take a man who arrives in Germany years to get permission for reunification [with family in Syria]. It’s not easy to stay away from your family for that long. People change.”
Even when families finally reunite, they’re expected to quickly integrate into a culture that can feel alien at first.
“It’s especially different for the women,” Merei added. “In Syria, a lot of women never worked. Even if they did, they lived under the umbrella of the father or the husband.”
In comparison, she said women who move to Germany have a new kind of independence. They have an independent stream of income, legal protections, easy access to health care and child care and an overall greater sense of control over their lives.
“If they are not happy in their marriage,” she said, “they have no reason to stay.”
For some Syrian women, the freedom they enjoy in Germany accelerates the unraveling of their marriages. Abokal said she noticed the phenomenon in the cases she has seen over the last five years.
“Personally, I think it’s important that they have this opportunity to be free. But I don’t know if the freedom is good for them,” she emphasized. “It can be like some kind of freedom shock.”
“The man is given very little money to move to Germany,” she explained. “So when the woman joins him, it’s not exactly to a four-bedroom apartment, you know. Often, the women don’t want to live there. They want to leave and sometimes they threaten to take the children, too.”
“Because now,” she said, raising her shoulders, “they feel like they can.”
Merei said this freedom makes men lose the sense of control over their wives and children that they were used to having in Syria.
“A lot of men think that if their wives go out, they will be talking to other men,” she shared. “I remember during one of my workshops with Syrian women, one of them took a video call from her husband and turned the phone around to show him that she was with other women because he didn’t trust her.”
“I was shocked,” she said. “I told her you cannot do that. But this is the truth. The men feel like they don’t have the value that they had before, the power they had before.”
Domestic violence another trigger for divorce
Aryn Baker, a senior correspondent for TIME magazine, spent a year and a half following six refugee families that left Syria for Europe in 2015 and 2016. In that political climate, she said, it could also sometimes be harder for men to get new jobs. She thinks that reality conflicted with men’s expectations of themselves to be the provider for their families.
“When he can’t fill that role, and his wife can, it’s threatening,” she said. “I feel like a lot of Arab men at the time just felt constrained by life in Germany.”
Merei’s experience was that some men grew depressed as a result, while others became aggressive. She explained, “It led to violence, and that led to divorce.”
It’s the reason Hiba finally decided to leave.
“We didn’t have that much understanding,” Hiba said of herself and her husband. “Everything we started talking about, we argued about.”
Despite the trouble, she stayed with him — until he started hitting her in front of their children.
“I had to send her to a therapist,” Hiba said, looking gently at her daughter. “That’s when I knew I couldn’t bring them up in that atmosphere anymore.”
So she asked him for a divorce, and when he refused, she moved out. Hiba moved into a female-only refugee camp for a few months, where she met many others in similar situations.
“I had a roommate from Homs,” she remembered. “Her husband married another woman and then divorced her.” In fact, she recalled, most of the women at the camp were either separated or divorced.
But it is not that Syrian women are unable to divorce their husbands in Syria. Abokal said, “The Syrian law is a very good one, actually.”
Marriage disputes in Syria are arbitrated in Sharia courts, which follow jurisprudence derived from Islamic scripture.
“The religious texts are actually very clear about this issue," Merei said. The concept of khul in the Quran permits women to initiate divorce but it requires her husband's consent.
Syria's Personal Status Law has always granted both men and women the right to divorce. In February 2019, the Syrian government amended the law to grant women custody of their children after divorce and the right to petition for divorce without anyone else’s permission.
“The problem is that the community deals with divorce based on society’s interpretation of the texts. And social traditions in Syria are much more effective than laws," Merei said, explaining that the social tradition is based on shame rather than legality. So although women are legally permitted to divorce at will, they are unlikely to seek it out for fear of social backlash.
“Divorce in [Syrian] communities is a stigma,” she said. “So Syrian women hold onto the idea that we will be stigmatized if we divorce.”
Merei is divorced herself. In fact, she lived in Syria as a divorced woman for a few months before leaving the country. But getting the divorce was not an easy decision.
She said, “I remember my father telling me that it is my right to be divorced, but that I had to choose whether I really wanted to be divorced.” Her father couldn’t bear to think about what people in the city would say about her if she got divorced. So he insisted that if she made that choice, she would have to return to their home in the countryside, giving up the life she had built for herself.
“You have to consider the reputation of your family on the one hand,” Merei said, “and your future and career on the other.”
Her father passed away before she divorced her ex-husband.
“If my father were alive at the time, I would not do it," she said.
Different landscape in Germany
In Germany, the social landscape is different.
“Their rules of life change when they come here,” Abokal said of her clients’ experiences. “They don’t have the same level of social observation from neighbors, relatives and everyone.”
For many women, divorce symbolizes a brighter future for themselves and their children. But often, the reality is not quite the fairytale it seems. From her experience following six Syrian refugee families to Europe, Baker cautions against seeing divorce as the liberation that Western feminists often assume it is.
“I see it as a handicap,” she told me. “It is still considered a disgrace in traditional Syrian society, so you will be isolated and looked at as 'that woman.'”
For one Syrian woman Merei was in contact with through Facebook, the fear of social ostracism kept her from ever asking her husband for a divorce, even at the expense of her own safety.
"She never shared her real name with me,” Merei said. “She used a fake name throughout because she was so scared her identity would be revealed.”
The woman, who had been married for 26 years and had four adult sons and daughters, told Merei that she had not left her house at all in the last eight months because her husband refused to let her leave his purview.
"This is in Berlin,” said Merei, wide eyed and shaking her head in disbelief.
Even if they muster the courage to ask for a divorce, women can suffer unfathomable consequences.
For her project, Baker spoke to 23-year-old Aya, who moved to Germany in 2015 only a month after she got married. Aya absolutely loved Germany.
"I think when she got there, she realized that there were so many more opportunities for her to be who she wanted to be and express her dreams, desires and independence,” Baker said. “She was exposed to a whole new world and culture, and she embraced it.”
Her husband Mohammad was not on the same page. The deeper Aya dove into German culture, the more Mohammad resented it. Their disagreements escalated to loud arguments and then to physical abuse, and it continued that way for a year until Aya decided that she could no longer tolerate it and asked for a divorce.
Two weeks later, she came home to find Mohammad and their two-year old son Joud missing. Mohammad had taken Joud back to Syria. He told Aya that the only way she would be reunited with his son was by returning to join them.
Aya’s case is, of course, in no way standard.
Hiba’s ex-husband is living a new life with his new wife in a different state in Germany. Hiba insists that she doesn’t want her children to be estranged from their father. They talk with him over the phone every day.
“They love him and he loves them,” she tells me earnestly. “He is a good man. We just couldn’t get along.”
Finding freedom in divorce
For some women, divorce may deliver on everything it promises. On the same project following Syrian refugees to Europe, Baker met Oula, a 38-year-old single mother of four living in Tartu, Germany. Getting divorced offered Oula freedom, control over her own life and even the chance to discover new companionship. But it came at a heavy price.
"The day people found out I was seeing a German,” Oula told Baker, “I lost all my Syrian friends.”
Baker remembers it being a tough time for her. She said, “You’re still a woman alone, trying to raise a kid, four kids, in Germany and childcare is not a given.”
Oula was left completely isolated, living in a foreign country with a foreign culture and no Syrian community to fall back on.
The stories are multiplying throughout Germany. And yet divorce is still not openly discussed within Syrian refugee communities.
"We grow up with the social education of not sharing our stories,” Merei said. “The more silent we were as women, the better.”
Hiba hasn’t told anyone except her brother all the details of her marriage and divorce. Even when she was in the refugee camp with other women, she could not bring herself to share her experiences. Sharing it with me was carefully conditioned on a clandestine coffee shop rendezvous, away from the eyes of anyone she might know.
Divorce's persisting taboo is the reason Merei founded Women for Common Spaces. She said, “Sharing their stories in a common forum will change the stigma into solidarity.” After all, they have no option but to find a way to move forward.
“I’m very proud to have helped them,” Abokal said of the Syrian couples she has advised in Berlin over the last couple of years. “At the end of the day, I think it’s good to have a good family and to be happy in their lives. But I think it’s important to have the possibility to make such a decision if they want.”
The comparative freedom to divorce in Germany promises Syrian women a lot — safety, security, independence, control, happiness. But there is still a price to pay.
I asked Hiba how she feels after securing her divorce, if she thinks it was worth it. “Do you feel happier now? More independent?”
“Aqwaa,” she said firmly in Arabic. “Stronger.”
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