This post is a part of a series titled If We Knew: Conversations with Syrians in Jordan. You can read the introduction, the context, and other stories here. All names in this series have been changed, but all of those interviewed have given permission for their stories to be told (and in this case, their photos – taken by Rebecca Ulasich – to be shared).
Somehow Eman was separated from the rest of her family. Only 8 years old, she hurried anxiously, trudging barefoot through the sand, past rows and rows of tents. Peeking in one to see if her family waited inside, she found only strangers.
“Hey! What are you doing here?” someone barked at her.
Trying another tent, Eman was met by the screams of a woman in the middle of changing. Finally, in the distance, she glimpsed clothes she recognized hanging outside of a tent. She slowed when she saw cousins playing outside; her twin sister Ayesha was among them.
Her stomach growled as she smelled her grandmother’s kebabs sizzling on the grill, its smoke wafting to heaven. Eman could hear her aunts and uncles laughing inside the tent. She watched her little brother, Hanif, digging in the sand as the waves lapped onto the beach. She rejoined her family while the setting sun sparkled across the Mediterranean Sea.
“Those were the best times,” her mother tells us, “before the fighting started.”
We sit cross-legged on mattresses that circle the room, as they do in every home we’ve visited here. Small cups of Turkish coffee are on the floor in front of us. Hanif, now eight, interrupts to show us his drawing of Spongebob Squarepants, while his younger brother runs from room to room. Eman is quietly leaning against her mother and Ayesha is working on her own drawing with the pastels we brought. We listen as Umm Hanif (Mother of Hanif) weaves parts of their story bringing memory to life.
“Going to the beach was our favorite thing to do,” she continues. “We would load up our car, drive with our whole family – maybe 30 people – to the beach and set up a tent. Fancy hotels aren’t for us. Our kids wouldn’t feel comfortable there. Give us a tent by the sea and we’ll be content. We would swim all day while our mother labored over dinner. Dripping salty water and covered in sand we’d flock back to the tent making a mess of mom’s feast,” she says, laughing.
On one occasion Umm Hanif and a friend, Fatima rowed a small boat out to a beached oil tanker.
“What are you doing out here?” a man asked as their boat pulled up by the tanker.
“Can we come up?” they asked. ” We want to act like we’re on the Titanic.” Soon they were climbing up a ladder covered in oil and grime, then standing at the bow of the boat, arms spread in the wind like Jack and Rose, singing Celine Dione over the Mediterranean.
When the excitement wore off, they realized their predicament. “We’re on a boat full of men,” Fatima said to Umm Hanif. “What if they do something to us? And how do we get off this boat? I don’t know if I can go down that ladder.”
“Usually we just dive off,” said a man eavesdropping on their whisperings. “And don’t worry. I’ll make sure your honor is guarded here,” he smiled kindly.
Umm Hanif descended the slippery rungs of the ladder, safely climbing into her boat. “But Fatima tumbled backwards off the ladder and fell into the sea,” she chuckles. “The man who spoke to us dove in after her and lifted her into the boat.”
She smiles a half smile, reminiscing on better times, remembering where she is.
She exits the room and returns minutes later with glasses of tea.
“Would you tell us about the war?” we ask her.
“During dinner, we heard an explosion,” she begins. “I went to the roof to look out over our neighborhood and see what happened. In the street was a man in military fatigues with a machine gun. We looked at each other and then he pointed his gun at me. I ducked behind the wall as one, two, three – nine! Nine bullets whizzed above my head and into the wall in front of me. If I hadn’t ducked I don’t think I would be here now. That was how it started for us.”
One day Hanif was biking down the street to his cousin’s house. He turned the corner and was startled by armored vehicles bearing down the street toward him. Terrified, he dropped his bike and ran back down the middle of the street. The massive beasts of metal didn’t slow but continued straight at him. Running in a haze of fear, Hanif didn’t respond to his neighbors calling for him to come off the street into their homes. With the trucks on his heels, he finally reached home, jumping into Umm Hanif’s arms.
“He just wanted his mother,” she said.
“After that we started locking our doors to keep the children from going outside. And things began to get worse.
“My husband lost his job in the government municipal office, so he tried to make money by carrying goods with his car. One day we woke to loud noises of destruction outside, and found a tank had flattened all the cars into the pavement.
“Before long our power was cut; we couldn’t buy bread. There were days we didn’t know where our next meal would come from. And we lived in constant fear.
“At night we heard soldiers breaking down doors. We heard the sound of battering rams busting through wooden doors, metal doors, into our neighbors’ homes.”
The family became afraid to stand up in their house for fear of bullets finding a home in their bodies. At night they didn’t even dare use the light of their mobile phones to tend to their newborn baby for fear of drawing attention – and gunfire.
“It became too much for us. We had to get away from the violence. And we needed to fill our stomachs.
“All this I saw in only 5 months, and we were in a neighborhood where there was not officially any war or fighting. I saw this there in 5 months. It has now been 3 years. Others could tell you much more.”
We pause again from the questions and the stories as Hamoud, 3 years old, carries in a baby cat and throws it on my lap. He then snatches a bag of chips from Hanif and looks him up and down, as if to say, “what are you going to do about it?” Everyone laughs at the beloved youngest boy. We drink orange soda as Umm Hanif tells us about life as refugees. It is a flood of statements, marked by frustration, passion, and longing.
“If the people at the top knew our stories, if they knew what it was really like for us, none of this could happen. But they don’t want to know. People around us don’t want to know our story, they don’t want to hear what our lives are like. They watch the news and get the reports but they don’t want to listen to real people.
“This war has revealed who people really are. People are not caring for each other, supporting each other. People are acting selfishly, hoarding what they can while others have nothing. I thank God for this war because it has made me strong.
“The government of Jordan is good. They are doing what they can to help us, but the people don’t want us here. I walk down the street and the men think that every Syrian woman is for sale. Men say lewd comments to me and other Syrian women. I am from Jordan, but because I now have a Syrian accent and came from Syria, they treat me like dirt.
“On the bus I have to sit and listen to people talk about all the problems the Syrians are causing. They say terrible things about Syrians. I want to say something to tell them they are wrong but they wouldn’t listen, so I just sit and get angry.
“Syria is dead. I don’t want to go back. It will not be what it was for a hundred years. I want to go to America, where my kids might have a future. There is nothing for them here.”
This statement is uncommon among those we’ve spoken with. Most families would happily leave the uninspiring, brown, dusty town of Mafraq, Jordan for a western home, but they long for Syria, and put their hope in returning when the war ends.
The school for their kids is inadequate; they haven’t received textbooks and they don’t have any class but Arabic. The adults are not allowed to work, so they live off an inadequate stipend – that mostly goes to the inflated cost of rent – and the charity of others. They wait for something better. For nearly 3 years they’ve been waiting.
“Our whole life now is just waiting. I don’t ever turn my phone off, I always carry it with me, hoping today is the day I will get the call that we have received refugee status in another country so we can finally leave.”
We sit quietly and let the words and frustrations settle in us.
She looks down at our hands. “What are your rings made of?”
“They’re made of wood,” we tell her. She smiles.
“I want to tell you a story.”
“When my husband and I got engaged he gave me two rings, one silver and one gold. But I needed money, so I sold them both.
“When he asked me where they were, I lied and told him I was leaning out the window and they fell off. He knew I was lying, but he also knew I needed money.
“When we finally got married, I wanted to give him a nice gift, so I bought him a ring. When he wasn’t wearing it, I asked him why. He said he heard of a man who got it stuck in a car door and lost his finger.
“I knew he was lying though, that he had sold it to get back at me. So now we don’t wear rings,” she laughs deeply at the memory.
“We don’t have that problem,” we tell her. “We couldn’t get any money for these wood rings.”
The conversation is coming to an end. We sip our final cup of coffee. “Do you have any questions for us?” we ask.
“No, what would I ask?”
“You don’t want to interview us about our story?” I jest.
“I already know your story. It’s a beautiful story. You are newly married, you are traveling the world and listening to other people’s stories. It’s a beautiful story.”
She looks at our hands again.
“Next time you come, bring us some wood rings so we can’t sell them.”