They Call Us Refugees

If They Knew - Syrians in Jordan

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

Note: The following interview is particularly difficult and raw. These women have witnessed and endured unspeakable violence and the trauma of war is heavy upon them. They showed great courage in sharing their story with us and giving us permission to share it with you, but we share it with the weight of respect for their grief and trauma. Please read it with the same respect.

We sit in a second-story room, grey, unpainted concrete walls closing us in, a light breeze coming through an open window. Amirah, Suha, and Farah sit in a row, Farah’s bright pink jallabiya accented between the other two in black. Their nine children, all under the age of 10, run in and out of the room. Amira’s three-year old daughter clings to her arm, while her youngest cries from the other room. Two of Suha’s children are blind. She tells us that when she discovered her eldest son, Said, was blind, she decided to have more children to help take care of him. She looks at him now as he colors with the pastels we brought them, calmly feeling his way around the paper, “but he is the one who takes care of them.”

When we were first introduced to Amira and Suha, we were shown a gruesome black-and-white, computer printed photo of Amira’s dead husband, his entrails strewn on the ground. Their eyes peered cautiously at us from veiled faces, questioning, why do want to hear our story? We spoke of valuing their stories, of the importance for people in our country to get a glimpse past statistics and numbers and newscasts into the lives of real people, of wanting them to know that we care. Our words seemed to fall flat. But with a curt nod we were told we could come over tomorrow.

The sisters are from Homs, an early stronghold of the opposition forces and therefore one of the civil war’s largest battlefields. Many of the Syrians who have ended up here in Mafraq, Jordan have fled the increasing violence in the Homs province. We ask them what life was like before the war, and they tell us vaguely, “Before the war we were happy.  It was beautiful.”

But their trauma has eclipsed their lives and memories from before. “I can’t remember any happy memories,” Farah says, “all I remember is the killing and the death and the pain.”  Suha tells us, “our happy memories are all of our family, we filled our time with visits of our brothers and sisters and our family. We’d go to the beach. There were parks and there were trees and it was just the being together that made it good.” But even those memories are loaded with pain and grief, for their family has been torn apart, some murdered, some missing, the rest separated.

They lived through two years of the war, fleeing much later than most of the families we have met. After six months of increasing violence, they left the city of Homs for an outlying village but didn’t escape the war.

Syrian women walk past destruction in the Bab Amro neighbourhood of Homs on May 2, 2012. photo credit: FreedomHouse via photopin cc

Syrian women walk past destruction in the Bab Amro neighborhood of Homs on May 2, 2012. Photo credit: FreedomHouse via photopin cc

“The thing that made us leave our homes is fear.” says Farah. They tell us of invasions into their neighborhood, of rapes, of people breaking into houses and taking all the men, of bombs terrorizing them in the middle of the night. “One of my friends, their daughter was out playing in their backyard, the parents were watching and a bomb came and landed on the little girl, just like that, and there was nothing they could do,” Farah says. She tells us of nights spent sitting up watching her children sleep, “my husband would say ‘go to sleep,’ and I would respond to him ‘I can’t, I’m worried that something will happen to them.’” So she watched them in their quiet slumber, fearing the worst, hoping, praying, worrying, weeping.

“There was no safety.” Suha says, her eyes staring past us, past the house and the present into the abyss of the horrors she has seen. She turns her dark eyes to mine, “Don’t believe it if you see us laughing, that we’re happy. We’re not. We’re barely surviving. If you looked into our hearts you would see that they’re as black as this robe that I’m wearing. The pain and the suffering that we’ve been through, the deaths of our relatives…”

The stories come tumbling out, one after another, a litany of fear and terror and atrocity. They take turns recounting for us fragments of horror.


They tell us of the missing. “You can’t leave your house.” Amira says, “If a guy goes out and if they see him, whether he’s doing something or not they can take him and you’ll never hear from him again.”

Their father was taken. “He is 60 years old and he was taken a year and half ago and we have no idea if he is alive or dead or where he is. He was passing a checkpoint and he wasn’t doing anything wrong, he never did anything wrong, and they just took him.”

Their brother was taken. “He’s been gone for 2 years, we don’t know where he is.  His children are young, they’re all little children and they don’t know where their father is.”

Their cousin was taken. “He and his mother went out to the market and as they were returning the military stopped them, took the son, pulled his shirt over his head so he couldn’t see, and lined him up against the wall with other people they were taking. His mother cried and begged them, ‘don’t take my son, don’t take my son, he hasn’t done anything.’” But they pushed the weeping mother away and tore her son from her life.

Their uncle was taken. “He used to weigh 100 kilos [220 lbs.] when he was taken, and when they brought back his dead body he was just skin and bones. It’s like they starved him to death.”


They tell us also of the dead. “At the time when my husband died, there was a blockade by the government military,” Suha begins, “he wasn’t allowed to leave the area that he was in and then they started bombarding the area. Ten other people died along with him.” Farah nods, “my husband was wanted dead or alive.” Amira doesn’t explain how her husband died, but the image of his mutilated body flashes through my mind.

Their oldest brother was also killed, Farah describes how he had been “a brother and a father and a caregiver.” When their father remarried and his responsibility shifted to his new wife and her family, it was their brother who stepped in to care for his sisters. “He’s the one that used to check up on us and come visit us and take care of us. He’s the one that was the man of the family. When we lost him…” she trails off, “life just won’t be the same.”


Then they tell us of their experiences in the Karm al Zaytoun Massacre. News coverage is hazy, but the reports say that there was a bloody two-day spree of reprisals conducted by the government (or loyalist forces) on civilians in which 129 people were killed. In the town of Zaytoun, 26 children and 21 women were killed, many had been raped, beaten and stabbed. One of the sisters’ cousins was among the victims. “she was a young mother.” Suha tells us, “and she was pregnant, and there were about 20 women in one house and the military came in, they raped them all, and then murdered them all.” Fifteen people from one family were murdered, “my friend, her cousins, her brothers, from all of her relatives fifteen people died in that massacre.”

“It has become normal now.” says Farah, “We never imagined that we would see killings and murders. We never imagined that we would see someone be killed and thrown in the street in front of us.”

We are all silent for a while. A dispute breaks out among the children over a coloring book, which we resolve by tearing out pages and separating pastels so that everyone can color. Said carefully puts his pastels back in their box and his little cousin Sera climbs in my lap to show me her drawing – a rainbow of rapid scribbles. Amira leaves to attend to her baby. The rest of us attend to our coffee.

A Syrian flag flutters outside a military barrack in the devastated Bab Amro neighbourhood of the central restive city of Homs on May 2, 2012. Photo credit: OSEPH EID/AFP/GettyImages) FreedomHouse via photopin cc

A Syrian flag flutters outside a military barrack in the devastated Bab Amro neighborhood of the city of Homs on May 2, 2012. Photo credit: JOSEPH EID/AFP/GettyImages FreedomHouse via photopin cc

Life in Jordan

When Amira returns, we ask about what life in Jordan has been like for them. “It’s so difficult, we can’t get used to it,” says Suha. Amirah shakes her head, “it’s impossible.”  Farah shrugs, “at least it’s safe.”

Amirah continues, “we feel like we’re foreigners.  We go through town and we hear the Jordanians say, ‘oh, the Syrians came, and they’re living here and they’re having a good time, and they’re living at a level that they never lived at before, and the organizations are helping them, and people are paying for them, and they’re living for free.’”

Before the Syrian war, Mafraq was a town of about 60,000 people. In just a few years, the rapid influx of Syrians has more than doubled the population to an estimated 135,000. Unemployment and cost of living was already high, with many Jordanians struggling to get by, but with the added pressure on resources and the economic system caused by 75,000+ new residents, resentment has begun to simmer. There are circulating reports that Syrians get thousands of dinars from aid organizations, that they are getting paid to sit back and do nothing, while their Jordanian neighbors are just scraping by. Some Jordanians have taken advantage of the economics of supply-and-demand by renting tiny rooms for exorbitant prices, knowing that if a family can’t pay there will always be others desperate for a place to settle down who can take their place. Of course, there are also many Jordanians who are compassionate and friendly, even going out of their way to help their Syrian neighbors, but the situation is complex.

“Now we feel like we’re beggars,” says Suha, “we used to have our own homes and our kids used to go to the best schools. But now we’re here and everything is expensive. If my kid needs a diaper I worry. If my kid needs a bottle of milk I worry because I can’t find the money to get it. “

“Even if you do have money,” adds Farah, “you’re going to pay it all in rent.”

“Yes,” says Amira, “we worry about finding money to pay our rent. It’s the most important thing. Our kids go without clothes so that we can pay rent.  But all of the help that we get doesn’t pay for our rent and if we’re two days late paying the landlord comes and starts threatening to kick us out on the street.”

“He says, if you can’t pay your rent, there’s the camp, you can go live there for free.”

Suha tells us the kids are having a hard time adjusting because they are bullied, “Jordanian kids continually harass them and tell them they’re beggars. ‘You’ve just come to Jordan to beg.’”

“We feel like we’re imposing on everyone.”

“They don’t treat us like people.  They call us refugees.” she spits out the word like a bitter fruit.

“When we get up, we pray.  Every time we do anything, if we eat, if we drink, we pray that the war will come down, that we’ll get to go home.”

Farah gestures, open-palmed to the sky, “But praise God, he’s the one in charge, what else is there to say? May God fix the situation. We have to learn to adapt. We were living in a different situation in Syria, but we’re going to have to learn to adapt to this situation. Even if we went back to Syria it won’t be like it was.”

Said has fallen asleep behind the women, Sera is nestled next to Farah, and the rest of the kids are scattered around the room playing.  I ask the sisters with all they have experienced where they find hope to keep going.

Suha gives a terse laugh, “that is a difficult question.” Amirah says, “we have hope that we can go back to Syria,” she gestures toward the kids, “if not for us then for the next generation. Eventually the truth will come out.” Farah shakes her head, her hand rests on Sera’s head, “personally, I’m just living for my children.” Suha nods, “these children are innocent, it’s not their fault.”


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