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Difference Maker

Defying tradition in Syria to serve as a full-time surrogate mother

Fawzia al-Thiab has left behind the idea of having children of her own to be a foster mother to orphans – more than 35 of them so far.

By Sarah BirkeCorrespondent / August 2, 2010

Qodsaya, Syria

Fawzia al-Thiab stands surrounded by five children in their kitchen. This wouldn't be an extraordinary picture in Syria, but these are not Ms. Thiab's children, and their house is one of 12 similar houses in SOS Children's Village, an orphanage in Qodsaya, north of Damascus, Syria.

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Arranged around a central playground and gardens, each house is presided over by a "mother" such as Thiab, who runs her household like any other family.

"I think of these as my children," she says. "It does not feel like an institution here."

As a surrogate mother, Thiab lives in the brightly decorated house 24 hours a day, seven days a week, taking care of seven children – five girls and two boys, ages 3 to 14.

From getting the children up at 6 a.m. to putting them to bed at 8:30 p.m., she is responsible for the daily activities – preparing meals, seeing they dress properly for school, helping with homework, and solving issues that arise.

Thiab has been at the village 15 years and has mothered more than 35 children. It is an unusual – and unexpected – career, she concedes.

She applied for what she thought was a day job working with children that she'd seen advertised in a newspaper. When she got to the village, she was told the job would be live-in.

Thiab comes from a village in Daraa, in southern Syria, where traditional ideas are entrenched. Her family and friends were very resistant to her taking the job, she says. Her father was especially worried about her staying away from home overnight – a stigma for unmarried women.

More significantly, the job also meant giving up the traditional roles of marriage and children of her own. SOS demands that each mother must be single (they may be widowed or divorced) and have no children of their own to ensure complete focus on and devotion to the job.

"This goes against the expected norms," Thiab says. "But I feel as though with these children, the other mothers, and the father [the head of the orphanage, Majd al-Ibrahim], I have more than gained what I have lost by not having my own family."

While Thiab wanted to have her own children, she said she had not met anyone she wanted to marry, despite several offers. After a trial period working at SOS, she says she knew it was the job for her.

"It is so important to give these children love and care," says Thiab, whose sister Souad followed in her footsteps to become a mother at another house. "Without SOS, they'd have no one."

No statistics are available on the number of abandoned or orphaned children in Syria, but anecdotal evidence suggests the number is rising. What's clear is that good institutions to care for such children are few.