Stray bullets struck Umm Hareth’s husband, a government-employed highway engineer, killing him instantly. It was January 2013, and the Free Syrian Army was battling government forces to hold onto his northeast Damascus neighborhood.
He left behind his wife, at the time just 24 years old, and their four children. Amid the fighting, they quickly buried him in a nearby cemetery and moved in with relatives in government-held southeast Damascus.
More than four years later, Umm Hareth still has no official certificate.
The Syrian government grants compensation to dead soldiers’ and public sector employees’ next of kin—a vital safety net in a country where only 14 percent of women participate in the workforce. A husband’s death certificate means Umm Hareth and other unemployed widows can claim their share of state compensation money to stay afloat. They can feed their children, send them to school and live in relative comfort.
A death certificate for Umm Hareth’s husband, issued by the pro-opposition Syrian Institution for Documenting and Publishing in Irbid, Jordan. Photo courtesy of Umm Hareth.
But intimidation and questioning by government authorities at her local registration office scared Umm Hareth away from the process, never to return.
Her husband was killed while walking home from work, shot in the crossfire of fighting near his town, Umm Hareth tells Syria Direct’s Reham Toujan from Amman, Jordan, where she has lived since 2014. But she was afraid to tell regime authorities how he died: “They could have accused him of joining or aiding opposition forces.”
Years after his death, what does it mean not to have a government-issued death certificate? Umm Hareth cannot prove her widowhood. Today, she and her children live in poverty as refugees in Jordan. She applied for resettlement to the United States, but without official proof of her husband’s death, she was not approved. Like countless other Syrians whose marital status is not officially recognized, she is stuck, living from month to month with no plan for the future.
Q: Walk us through the process you went through to obtain a death certificate for your husband. What held you back from eventually getting one?
Four months after my husband passed away, I went to the government registration office so they could issue a death certificate for him.
[The officers] started questioning me on the circumstances surrounding my husband’s death. I was too terrified to tell them that he had died due to clashes [in our neighborhood], because they could have accused him of joining or aiding opposition forces. So I told them that he died of a heart attack.
Then the officers requested a medical report confirming that what I told them was true. Of course, I didn’t have one. Even if I did, it would have been from a doctor in opposition-held territory and that doctor would have faced arrest.
Afterwards, they came to the area that I was living in, which made me look like an “informant.” The [intelligence officers] began to ask about me, according to my neighbors there.
Since then, I haven’t tried returning to the registration office, out of fear for me and my children and at my father-in-law’s request, who is afraid of his grandchildren going through checkpoints and being followed by government security units.
Q: What was your husband’s monthly salary? How much compensation would you have received if you had been able to obtain a death certificate?
His salary was SP20,000 [$93] per month, in addition to money from a side job he did every Saturday, which brought his monthly income up to SP28,000 [$130].
You’re supposed to receive a one-time death compensation valued at SP150,000 [$700]. In addition, there is a monthly retirement stipend that reaches up to SP30,000 [$140].
Q: Without this money, how were you able to support yourself and your children financially? What kinds of things did you have to give up or sacrifice during this time?
My financial situation became worse every day, especially because I had to take care of my children’s needs and prices were on the rise.
At first, this forced me to work as a substitute teacher. I earned a salary of SP36,000 [$168], which was given out every semester—meaning I only received it every three months. The work was not consistent.
I was living with my husband’s family because I couldn’t afford to live on my own and I didn’t have enough money to pay rent. Sometimes my husband’s father would help me cover some of my children’s needs to the best of his ability.
A Douma cemetery in November 2016. Photo courtesy of Abd Doumany/AFP/Getty Images.
Q: In 2014, you decided to flee Syria and moved to Jordan, due to your financial situation. How has your lack of a government-issued death certificate continued to impact your life in Jordan?
When I first arrived in Jordan, I was still in mourning. It felt like depression. So I wasn’t paying much attention to obtaining a death certificate.
However, my living conditions were very difficult. I have children who need support, who need to be registered in schools. I registered with the UNHCR. They didn’t request a death certificate [for my husband].
I receive 125 Jordanian dinars [$176] from the UNHCR [monthly], which I use to rent a small home. They also provides us with food coupons and an education for my children in the free government schools. There are some charities that help us with other small needs.
I’m also giving lessons to elementary school students, since I graduated in Arabic literature from Damascus University and I have knowledge on the subject. The money this brings me isn’t too bad.
But there were organizations that I didn’t register with because I couldn’t provide them proof of my husband’s death.
Eventually I had no choice but to go to the Daraa death registration office, which is located in Irbid, Jordan. I obtained a death certificate there. This gave me problems, though. When I decided to apply for resettlement to the United States last year, my case was closed because I didn’t have a government-issued death certificate for my husband from the office inside Syria.
They needed proof that I was a widow, and that I have custody over my children, but the death certificate that I did have wasn’t official enough in their eyes.
Q: What are your plans for the future, considering that the lack of an official death certificate for your husband is causing you issues in Jordan?
To be honest, I don’t want to stay in Jordan. Life here seems like it has vanished—we eat, drink and sleep. That’s it. We have no future here.
We are waiting for the aid organizations to help us through some of the suffering. At the same time, it’s impossible for me to return to Syria. I have nobody. My situation is going from bad to worse.
Right now, I’m considering moving to Europe, but of course that has to wait until after I obtain a death certificate for my husband. I’ve asked the UNHCR about this issue, and they set up an appointment for me with one of their lawyers. That way, I can obtain proof that I’m a widow and have custody over my children.
Q: Looking back on your experience since your husband’s death, what are your thoughts?
I’m furious, and I feel resentful of the [Syrian] regime. They deprived me of my most basic rights, and this is the cause of our immense pain and the loss of my children’s futures. Even the death certificate that I obtained from the opposition isn’t legally recognized.
I’m afraid of what the future holds for me.