They Embody Possibility

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 this series have been changed.

We sip the Turkish coffee given by our hosts, but we don’t sit long before we’re guided to a new room. I love Turkish coffee, but I haven’t finished my small glass, so I awkwardly make gestures taking it with me, leaving it on the table, shuffling a couple times in indecision when an Arab man tells me to take it with me – no problem.

We enter the room and I have my glass resting on its saucer, and Becca has hers, but the 20 Arabs in the room do not have coffee. I feel stupid, and set my cup on the table in front of me, letting it go cold.

We sit in a circle on chairs, not the traditional cushions we are used to when meeting with Syrians or Jordanians, but in a classroom-turned-meeting-room to hear about life in this community.

The floor opens, along with the floodgates, and their words come out in a torrent, as if all their pent up pains and frustrations had been waiting to be heard, waiting to be seen. Snippets of their stories fly around the room: fleeing Syria, coming to Jordan, the struggles and needs and abandonment.

we have been here for three months – we have been here for 8 months – we have been here for one year – we cannot pay the rent so we have to move from place to place – we share a room with three families – my son needs surgery but we cannot afford the hospital bills – we cannot afford the medicine – we cannot afford to see a doctor – there is not enough food – some days we go hungry  – we eat once every three days – they do not want to deal with us – they tell us to go to another organization – they tell us they cannot help us – they do not want to deal with us – we cannot work – it is illegal to work and they do not want to deal with us so how are we supposed to pay for rent – how are we supposed to feed our children – how are we supposed to pay for medical care – how are we supposed to survive – they do not want to deal with us – we tried to marry her to a bedouin man – we tried but the family changed their minds so we are trying to find another man to take her – this girl sitting here – how old is she – she is thirteen years old – these two babies are twins – I wish I could sell one of them so that I could provide for the rest – they do not want to deal with us

The stories are brief, variations on a shared pain and a shared fate as Palestinians. They are Palestinians who fled the civil war in Syria for the safety of Jordan. Their families had been living in refugee camps in Syria since 1948, or for some 1967, two years that mark two wars and two disasters in the minds of the Palestinian people. But in Syria, despite living in refugee camps, they had lived and worked and adjusted. Now, fleeing another war, they possess the unfortunate identity of Palestinian refugees from Syria. This “double refugee” identity means that agencies are just beginning to recognize the unexpected reality of the double jeopardy status and make changes to serve them. So far, the organizations working with Syrians tell them to go to those working with Palestinians; the organizations working with Palestinians consider them refugees from Syria. Nobody has a clear mandate or the capacity to deal with them yet.

They share the same struggles – rent, medical needs, food shortages, inability to work, inadequate education, harassment – as the Syrian families we’ve met elsewhere in Jordan. But their circumstances shuffle them around and push them to the bottom, where they lack advocates or assistance. Most of the families we talked to were receiving no monthly stipend, no rent support, no food packages.. They cannot work, they cannot go back to Syria, they cannot go back to Palestine. Without the right paperwork, they cannot get into the already long slow lines to leave the Middle East for work or resettlement opportunities elsewhere. Most Western nations are accepting only a handful of the 3 million refugees from Syria anyway. Impossible. It is an impossible situation. They are stuck and the air in the room is thick with frustration, desperation and waning hope.

And who are we to hear these stories? We listen, feeling their pain and feeling woefully inadequate. We are guests of Questscope, an organization committed to ‘putting the last first,’ investing in Arab youth who are falling through the cracks through mentoring and non-formal education. We are here to hear their stories, but at this moment hearing feels … unhelpful. Becca speaks for all of us who are listening:

“Thank you for sharing some of your stories with us. We cannot imagine what it is like to experience what you have experienced, but we can feel a bit of your frustration. You are in an impossible situation, and it is not right. In the midst of all your needs, words seem like the last thing you need. Unfortunately, all I have to offer right now are words, these words: We want you to know that we hear you. We hear you and we see you. You matter and your stories matter and we see you.”

A man with grey stubble coating his face and a white skullcap on his head leans forward on his chair and points both his pointer fingers at Becca and exclaims, “Yes. We just want you to see. We want you to understand what it has been like for us. We want you to understand. Thank you.”

Hospital in Syria

Hours later we are in a room with fifteen teenage girls, one is Jordanian and the rest are from Syria. The girl we saw earlier that day, the one whose family is trying to find her a husband, is there. Some of them stand, in turn, and recite lines from a play they wrote and performed, lines about Syria and the war, strong, sad, full of passion and intensity, love for what whey lost, and pride in their creation.

Before coming to the education program, these girls never even left their houses. For them, a network of friends becomes their source of life and a glimmer of hope. They tell us what they hope for: education, opportunity, peace. “I want the war to end,” says the one Jordanian girl, “so my friends can go back home.”

“We need a sponsor,” says another. Both her parents were killed and she and her sister live with their uncle and cousins. One uncle, nine children, and one elderly grandmother. Like the other Palestinian families who fled Syria, nobody wants to deal with them yet. We look at the girls, beautiful and defiant, and know that without rent money, without food, their only option is marriage.

The group is told their four-month restorative education program is coming to an end today, that they need to welcome a new group of girls for the program. They converse quietly with each other until their spokeswoman stands up from among them. “We want to thank you for allowing us to be a part of this program. We have found friends here and we are thankful for all you have given and taught us. We would like to ask you to consider extending the program so we can continue to participate.”

It is at once beautiful and heartbreaking.

Amidst it all – the frustrations and needs and pains and hope – is Manal, the manager of the center. She wears a black and silver jalabiya and matching headscarf. Like the others, she came to Jordan from Syria, but she has access to her family’s  resources and is able to support herself. Her adult children are still in Syria, unable to get into Jordan because of the identity of their father: Palestinian. Without her own daughters to care for she has given herself to these girls and their families, using her own time and her own money to meet their needs, provide a safe space for teenage girls and invest in their education.

Her work with Questscope has mobilized the local community to respond to the needs of these girls—to ensure they will not go hungry, to shield them from the threat of violence and exploitation that spins around them. It is in the presence of advocates, friends and community that some of the burden is released from their hands, so that they can begin to reach for dignity and a future.

In our first story in this series, Umm Hanif told us, “This war has shown people as they really are.” And this may be true. In times of crisis, we are not necessarily our best selves, but our true selves. In this crisis Manal shows us who she is: someone of compassion and self-giving love. She and other Jordanians and Syrians and Palestinians in Mafraq and Zaatari and Amman and Aqaba embody possibility. They are small voices, they don’t make the news. But they work tirelessly for their communities and their neighbor. They work because of their love and because they have hope – hope in the potential for the creation of a new future for the war-torn regions of the Middle East. If they can sustain hope amidst their devastation, we will look to them and choose hope too.


photo credit: FreedomHouse via photopin cc


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