At least once a month, 20-year-old Wilaa sets out from her home in rural southwestern Daraa province and heads to class 22 kilometers away. She studies economics, and expects to graduate from university next year.
It is a journey like many students around the world take. But when Wilaa goes to class, she must travel from a town controlled by an Islamic State affiliate and cross multiple enemy lines to reach Damascus University’s Daraa campus in the regime-held northern half of the provincial capital.
“It has been my goal to get an education since I was little,” she tells Syria Direct correspondent Jawad Abu Hamza from her hometown of Sahm al-Jolan.
Wilaa’s hometown has been under the control of the Islamic State-affiliated Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed (JKW) group since February, when the hardline militia launched a surprise attack against rival rebel forces.
JKW was able to capture a number of towns and villages in the advance—including Wilaa’s hometown—expanding on the nearly 200 square kilometer stretch of territory it already held within southwestern Daraa province’s Yarmouk Basin.
Within the territory it controls, JKW enforces a strict, punishing legal code similar to that used by the Islamic State elsewhere in Syria.
As a woman, Wilaa is not permitted to attend university. She must wear loose, modest clothing that conceals her face and entire body. And if she wants to leave the Yarmouk Basin to visit opposition- or regime-held territory, she must be accompanied by a male relative.
Damascus University's Daraa city branch in 2013. Photo courtesy of Damascus University Daraa Branch.
Despite the risks, Wilaa still visits the university once or twice a month to sit for exams and register for classes, in between lectures that she attends remotely from her home. She travels with a fellow female classmate and the classmate’s father, who must convince JKW guards at the sole checkpoint out of their territory that the young women are only visiting family in opposition-held rural Daraa.
“We pretend I’m a member of her family—IS doesn’t ask for personal documents from women,” says Wilaa.
Q: Explain why getting to your classes at the university is so difficult for you.
I wasn’t able to attend the last general exams after Daesh [IS] took control of a stretch of additional territory in the Yarmouk Basin [in early 2017, including the town of Sahm al-Jolan].
[Ed.: Daraa residents commonly refer to Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed as “IS” or “Daesh” due to the faction's affiliation with the Islamic State.]
They imposed their rules on the residents at that time, which included [what they consider] modest, sharia-compliant dress for women. They also forbade women from traveling unless accompanied by a mahram [male family member] such as their father or brother.
But my father is elderly and sick, and isn’t strong enough for long periods of travel. That meant I couldn’t go sit for my exams last semester.
Now, I go to the university [once or twice a month] with my friend who leaves the Yarmouk Basin accompanied by her father. We pretend I’m a member of her family—IS doesn’t ask for personal documents from women.
Q: How do you get permission to leave from JKW?
When the fighters ask where I’m going, we tell them I am visiting relatives nearby.
After arriving [in opposition-held territory], my friend and I continue on to the university [in regime-held Daraa] while her father waits for us with one of his friends. When we return home, he accompanies us to our village in IS territory.
As for our treatment at the checkpoint [leading out of the Yarmouk Basin], IS checks us to see if any of the passengers—both men and women—are deviating from the sharia clothing rules.
They only question the men, mostly about where they are headed and their reasons for going there. They also order the men not to mix with any fighters from the Free Syrian Army, and to avoid talking about what goes on inside [JKW-held] areas.
The men accompanying us always tell them that we are going to do important errands, visit relatives or see doctors for medical treatment.
Many people have left this way, but the fighters don’t discover them because of the crowd of people who exit and return each day. The sharia-compliant clothing we are forced to wear also means that the fighters cannot see our faces to determine our identities.
Q: How long do you typically spend outside of the Yarmouk Basin when you leave?
Usually I only leave for one day when I have something important to do at the university such as registering or attending lectures, or taking exams.
Q: Why go through such a difficult journey? What is your goal?
I go to the university so I can graduate and earn my diploma. It has been my goal to get an education since I was little. I’m also in this for my father, who doesn’t have the strength to work because of his old age. He won’t be able to support the family in the future, as his health deteriorates.
In the end, I’m achieving my dream by finishing my studies and graduating. This way, I can support my father with the burden of making ends meet, which has become harder under IS control in our area.
I'm currently trying to find a job so I can pay the rent for a house in opposition territory in rural Daraa and leave the Yarmouk Basin. I’ll rid myself of having to take such a difficult and frightening journey [to university].
Q: When you cross regime checkpoints to get to your university, do you face any particular harassment as a resident of the Yarmouk Basin, seeing as it is controlled by an extremist militia?
Before going to the university in regime-held Daraa, we take off the coverings that IS forces us to wear. We either store them in our bags or leave them with our male companion in Free Syrian Army territory.
We can’t go to regime territory wearing the coverings because we want to avoid questioning at the regime checkpoints. Sometimes a guard there will ask us about the situation inside the Yarmouk Basin, but we answer that we live outside of Daesh territory.
With additional reporting by Jawad Abu Hamza.
This interview is part of Syria Direct's month-long coverage of the state of the south in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer on southern Syria here.