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.
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.
"There are many orphanages in Syria, but very few that aren't run along strict traditional models," says Bassam Baldan, the country director of SOS. "We are giving children families, not just a home."
"The children at SOS are so happy," says Yusra al-Ahmad, a mother of two and a local Arabic teacher who takes her students to volunteer at the village. "A lot of that is due to mothers such as Thiab, who give them so much."
Set up in 1981, SOS Chil¬dren's Villages are part of an international chain of orphanages founded by Austrian benefactor Herman Gmeiner. The organization supports more than 2,000 projects in 132 countries.
The children at the SOS Children's Village here attend schools in Damascus and are expected to help out around the house. Together the family decides on meals, goes shopping, and arranges weekend trips – often with other houses.
Each month the children are given pocket money, which they can spend during one of their trips into the city.
"The children have as normal a life as possible," Thiab says. "The idea is to prepare them for life." The children stay in the houses until they reach age 18, when they move to single-sex transitional youth houses until they are ready to leave care.
Being a mother is not always easy, Thiab concedes. First there is the intense nature of the job. And helping children to settle in on arrival can be tricky.
"Sometimes you can bond with a new child straightaway, but other times it can take up to a year," she says. "It is very hard at the start for them to adjust to the surroundings."
Thiab says she loves seeing children who have come as timid boys and girls leaving as well-adjusted young men and women. She mentions Khaldoun, a boy who was good with his hands. He now works as a plumber in Saudi Arabia, she says with a smile.
It is also a simple pleasure to see the children enjoying themselves. "When I see the children choosing their clothes and smiling, it makes me so happy," she says.
Many of the children return to the village to visit her, bringing their husbands, wives, and children. "It is like having a child for life," Thiab says. "We build ties as strong as many real families."
For Thiab, being a mother is a role she wants for life. She has, she says, no plans to leave until she retires.
"I wouldn't leave," she says. "This is a life for me, not a job."
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