Born in Terror, Living in Trauma

If They Knew - Syrians in Jordan

This is part of a series titled If We Knew, in which we tell the stories of Syrian families we met in Jordan. You can read more of the series, including the introduction and context, here. All of the names in the series have been changed.

Terror and pain wrack her body as they inch through the streets toward the hospital. The contractions come closer together and the pain becomes unbearable, she is certain death is near. It seems like every few minutes they are stopped at another checkpoint, soldiers searching the car, checking papers, questioning, not hearing her cries from the backseat. At the next checkpoint they are delayed even longer. Her mother-in-law glances at her, fear spreading over her face. “Please,” her mother-in-law entreats the officer, “please, can’t you see this woman is about to give birth? We need to get to the hospital.” She begins crying as the officer waves her off impatiently. “Please let us through!” Her mother-in-law’s tears mix with her own terror and pain, deepening her sense of despair: I am dying, I am going to die!

Two hours later they make it to the hospital, but the bed and walls tremble with the reverberating boom, boom, boom, of bombs falling nearby. Fear grips her, pulling her into a haze of confusion and terror, “where is Huda? Where is my daughter?” She frantically searches for her daughter’s sweet round face among those in the room. “She is at home,” her mother-in-law reminds her. I am separated from my daughter and they are bombing outside, tears roll down her cheeks. Another contraction seizes her body just as another bomb explodes and terror and pain envelope her again. Her womb fights to give birth to the child within, but her terrified body fights to keep him safely inside. The war between them ravages her until the doctors decide to operate. Little Ahmad is finally born, cut and removed from his mother’s body, but not before absorbing her terror.

The seizures begin when he is four months old. His tiny hands clenching into fists, his nerves tightening, his face turning blue. The doctor says his infant body and brain have been traumatized by the war. “Don’t let him listen to the sounds of war,” he tells her, “and I will give you something to help the seizures.” The sounds of war are inescapable, but the medicine helps.

Ahmad is now two and though his medication keeps the seizures away and his family has escaped the war, a few miles away from the bombs and guns, he still bears the trauma of war. “He is a very stressed child,” she tells us, “he makes me tired in my soul.”

***

Tasmeem is young and beautiful. The rich black hijab framing her face makes her skin paler and softer and her dark eyes brighter. Her son, Ahmad chases his 3-year-old sister around the house, enthralled with anything she finds interest in. Both are bright and adorable, and irresistible with their giggles and smiles. They will be Tasmeem’s only children, for after the trauma of bringing Ahmad into the world she never wants to go through childbirth again. “If he needs more children,” she gestures toward her husband, Sayyid, “he can marry another wife,” she says, mostly in jest.

Tasmeem was married to Sayyid when she was 18. The marriage was arranged, “the love came later.” She smiles as she thinks about their wedding. She loved her dress the most. The dress and the dancing. She danced all night until some older women took her aside to let her know it was shameful. “I didn’t know,” she says with a shrug and a grin. Her grin fades as she tells us they don’t have any of their wedding photos anymore. When they fled, they took nothing with them.

Sayyid is soft-spoken with a gentle spirit. Before the war he was a foreman with a construction company and even had some contracts in Dubai, where he stayed with relatives and the company paid well. But he preferred Syria to Dubai and after 8 months returned home. As Tasmeem leaves the room to make coffee, I ask, “Have you been able to do any work here in Jordan?”

“I wish to, but it is forbidden,”  he shakes his head as he explains that he would be sent to prison, or to the refugee camp, or back to Syria if he tried to take a job. They live off of coupons from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) but they don’t go far, and they don’t cover rent.

Tasmeem returns and we take sips from our cups of rich, Arabic coffee as Sayyid and Tasmeem recount more of their experiences in Syria.

They used to live in Damascus and they speak of life before the war as being beautiful and safe, when days were filled with the visits of family members and friends, when they would take family trips to beautiful places around the city, when life was affordable, when people loved one another.

In 2013, nearly 2 years after the war began, they fled Damascus to a village in the south of Syria. They stayed there for eight months in a simple, unfurnished room that leaked when it rained. It was the rainy season and they had no way to combat the cold. Ahmad was only one month old – born in terror, living in trauma. “We would cry everyday.”

The army eventually surrounded the village, blocking access to food, supplies, medicine. For two months the village was cut off, “no food, no bread, no nothing.” Everything was closed. They survived on old bread, eating small amounts and saving the rest for another day. They didn’t have the money to escape, but didn’t know how they would survive if they stayed. They lived in constant fear.

“We weren’t so afraid of the bombings as we were of the soldiers. If you walk in the streets, they would take the boys for the war, and the women to serve them.” In the chaos of the war, they were never sure if it was soldiers from the army or rebels or militia like Hezbollah. “They took my sister,” Tasmeem says quietly, she looks at her hands in her lap. “They brought her back, but they did bad things.” She was out on the street selling cigarettes, trying to make a little money for her family and the soldiers took her. They accused her of working for the rebels, the Free Syrian Army. “We think they tortured her.”

“They took my sister’s husband, and my brother, they took him also.” After some time, a man working with the system informed them that her brother had been killed, but others tell them that he is not dead, that they just say things like that to spread fear. They don’t know what to believe, but they hold out hope that he is still alive.

“But my sister’s husband, they decapitated him, so he’s dead.” She says it matter-of-factly, but the horror of it is in her eyes. “That was two weeks ago.”

They have been in Jordan since the end of 2013, but even their escape was filled with terror. It took them three days to make their way from the village to the border crossing. At three in the morning on the last day, government planes flew over and bombed the procession fleeing the country. The terror took over Tasmeem, and in blind fear she threw herself out of the car and fled into the desert. “I forgot I had kids, I was so scared, I just ran off into the desert alone.” She lost her way, lost her shoes, and almost lost her mind as she ran through the desert screaming and looking for her children. When the car behind theirs was bombed, killing three people, they all ran. The fear overwhelmed her, “I couldn’t see, I was blind, I couldn’t see my kids, nothing.” They ran until the Jordanian army took them and brought them into Jordan.

They were brought to Zaatari Refugee camp, “For 3 days we waited in the camp and we didn’t have anything to sleep on, no blankets, no mattress.”  In those days, the camp was less secure so after three days, they saw a hole in the fence and ran away. They now live in a small apartment in Mafraq, where we sit on mattresses donated by a local church. She says when she first arrived, the only thing she did was cry. “I don’t know anybody here, I don’t have anything here. I was very sad.”

She disappears again, replacing our empty coffee cups with cups full of tea.

Tasmeem dreams of returning to Syria and to her family. Tears spill over her eyes as she talks about her father. “He is 80 years old and he’s very sick because my brother died. And he had a stroke. He almost cannot see. Yesterday I spoke with him and he started crying. He told me ‘I hope I can see you before I die.'” They are trying to find a way to make it back to Syria so she can see her father one last time. But they have heard stories of others who have returned and then are trapped and can’t get out again.

As the conversation comes to a close, Andrew asks if there is anything else that they would like people in the US to know.

Sayyid says, “The people of America are better than the government. The people of America are standing with the people of Syria, but the government is standing only for themselves, for their politics. They only have their own interests. I can’t believe they are not doing anything, but you are here. I know it’s hard, but if you have lots of people dying, your family dying…you just wonder, where is everybody?”

 

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