If We Knew: Conversations with Syrians in Jordan

If They Knew - Syrians in Jordan

Co-written by Becca and Andrew

This is the introduction to a series of stories from Syrians we met in Jordan. You can read about the context in ‘A Brief History of Syria’s War.’

We spent three months in Jordan, near the Syrian border, listening to stories of those who have fled the war and violence there. They are stories that need to be told, stories that need to be heard. We sat in many homes, shared tea and coffee and occasionally meals, and listened. Eyes sparkled, mouths laughed, kindness was extended, hospitality accepted, but then, always then, there was silence. Downcast eyes, horrors re-lived. Mostly it came out in fragments.

His beard lengthens for each day without news from a missing brother. A vow for the living (or the dead). Her tears slip from hidden eyes as a photo of her murdered son circulates the room. The lines in his face grow deeper as five grandchildren run around the house – the only remnants of his family. He is too old to keep them, too broken to let them go. She wrings her hands, unable to wring out the worry over two sons trapped, surrounded, unable to break free. Her hand slices the air in anger as she recounts massacres of children. Her other hand swipes through photos on a smartphone, revealing image after image of young girls’ bodies charred and wounded. Collateral damage. “As long as Assad is still there, we cannot return.”

“The land.”
“The soil.”
“The place.”
“The country itself.”
Variations on the primary answer to the question What do you miss most about Syria?

He cowers behind his mother, eyes haunted. She crawls into my lap, hungry for love she can no longer be given by slain mother and father. He knows the sound of every aircraft, the pop of every weapon, he lists them off like answers to a test. She will be married by her fourteenth birthday, one less mouth to feed. He sits in the corner staring, immobilized by trauma. Catatonic. Her brown eyes peer from a mask of scar tissue – third degree burns from a misplaced missile.

They are bullied and teased
Forgotten and neglected
Unwanted in this land that is not their own

He gestures to the four walls that surround us. Three families try to live here and still they cannot pay rent.
No home
No work
No country
No place
No hope

She shakes her head “They were our neighbors, we hosted them in our home, they welcomed us into theirs, we were together.” But conflict brought with it brokenness and violence. Lines, sides, hatred. So they murdered her son – a bullet in the head in the middle of the street. He spreads his hands – “They took everything in our house then burned it down. We were brothers once.”

But praise be to God. We are still alive. We still have each other, it could be worse.


There are always difficulties in telling a story. It gets harder when it is a story filled with pain and trauma; harder yet when the story is not your own. This week we will be sharing the stories of Syrian families who are living as refugees in Jordan. We embark on this series with trepidation, and a few caveats about the complications of storytelling:

Risk of a Single Story

Chimamanda Adichie describes this risk brilliantly in her important TEDTalk on the Danger of a Single Story. If you haven’t seen it already, go watch it now.

The problem with the stories we tell from Kolkata or Kathmandu or Jordan or Israel or Palestine, is that we paint a picture of India as slums and red light areas, and the Middle East as endless violence, when this is not the whole story – perhaps not even most people’s story. The red light areas and civil wars exist and our journey involves facing them, but we do a disservice to you and the world to reduce these countries and cities and regions to these experiences only.

Risk of Reducing Individual’s Lives to a Series of Events

Take the single story idea of nations (or continents) and cultures and bring it to the individual. People are more than the few experiences that we tend to focus on for our compelling stories, update letters and marketing schemes. When I narrow Saraswati’s story to a sex slave who found freedom or Umm Saud to a victim of Syrian civil war, I do an injustice to their whole persons whose personalities, experiences and actions are vastly more than the single identity we tend to place on them.

Risk of Taking

A question that we continually reflect on without answer is, Is this our story to tell?

Do we, as white, wealthy, college educated, US Americans have the right to tell Saraswati’s story or Umm Saud’s story? To take their joys and sorrows, pains and longings and broadcast them to the world? Like Becca’s reflection on Taking Photos, do we steal something when we take their stories?

In an age when storytelling is a hot buzzword and people’s stories are utilized for raising money, these are questions we should be asking, and questions that have made this idea of storytelling complicated, at times paralyzing.

Mostly we have told you our stories about the interactions we have with people in the contexts of red light areas and places of conflict, and our reflections and joys and sorrows and yearnings. We do this because, quite frankly, we often feel our story is the only story we can tell. Yet, this has it’s complications too. For one, when we tell stories from our own perspectives, we often become the center of the story. When we, as people of privilege, continue to take center stage in a story that is not our own, we further marginalize the marginalized.

We recognize all of these pitfalls as we attempt to share the stories we have been honored to hear from our Syrian friends in Jordan. We don’t know what is best, but we do know that these are stories that need to be told. Our hope is that in the telling (and reading) of these stories, barriers will be broken, not erected, people’s dignity will be honored, not stripped, and that the voices of our friends will be heard through our words.

If We Knew

Many Syrians still have family members who have been left, trapped, imprisoned or taken in Syria. Because of fear of reprisals against loved ones if they speak out against the regime or militia, most families have not wanted their stories shared publicly. This, of course, we respect and we will not repeat openly what they have shared with us. There have been, however, a handful of families who have given us permission to share their stories. In all of these interviews, we have changed their names to protect their identities.

In one of our interviews a woman told us, “If the people at the top knew what we experience, none of it would be happening.” If they knew.

I don’t know if she is right, if a dose of empathy would change the status quo, but it has us wondering: What if we knew? Not the ones at the top, but us? Would we engage? Would we pray? Would we send money? Would we welcome Syrian refugees to our city with open arms? Would we call our congresspeople? Would we think of them differently? What if we heard their stories? What if we knew?

As we these stories, we ask you to consider with us, if we knew, then what?


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