A visit to Syrian refugees in Jordan is an eye-opener

Brandeis students from Israel record the experiences of two families

The hosts and the students, from left to right: Usay and his mother, Rawda, Natan Odenheimer and Chen Arad (kneeling), Uday, Maryam (face obscured at her request) with daughters Hadija and Imani, Sara with Rissal, and one of the neighbors' children.

Chen Arad and Natan Odenheimer met as roommates in their first year at Brandeis last year, and have become good friends. This summer, Arad visited Odenheimer at the Jordanian University in Amman, where he was studying Arabic. Together, they traveled to the Syrian-Jordanian border, where they met two families of Syrian refugees who shared their stories. Feeling that there is a lack of personal first-hand accounts by Israelis in the Israeli media regarding the conflict in Syria, they decided to write an article describing their experience. It was subsequently published as a front page article on "ynet," the mostly widely read news website in Israel. Arad translated it into English for BrandeisNOW.

 “I was hit here, here and here,” says Udai, a scrawny Syrian adolescent. Lying on a simple mattress, he points to healing wounds in his feet and legs. It’s hard to miss the pieces of metal springing from between his toes. A moment earlier he limped towards us, supported by his brother ‘Ussai, out of the unpainted cement structure in which they reside with their family and another family. All are Syrian refugees who found safe haven in the Jordanian town of a-Ramtha, on the Jordan-Syria border.

Udai’s mother, Rawda, is wearing a light-colored veil that brings out her dark and warm eyes. She repeatedly sends her children to fetch more and more pillows for us, making sure we are comfortable sitting on a circle of mattresses outside their house, as she explains that Udai is 19 years old, but appears much younger as a result of a birth-defect. His handicap did not stop the Syrian army, he tells us, from shooting and hitting his legs during the battles in the city of Homs where they lived before the war.

Maryam's daughters giggled and whispered.

In order to get to a-Ramtha, we board a bus from Amman, Jordan’s capital, to the northern city of Irbid, and from there hire a private driver who drops us at the seemingly quiet border-town. Rather than touring the numerous impressive tourist sites Jordan has to offer, we decide to try to learn more first hand about the events in Syria that have been on the news for over a year by meeting refugees. We decide to keep our Israeli identities secret and present ourselves as Americans to avoid unnecessary tension. Saleh, an Israeli friend of ours who also is studying in Amman, joins us and translates the conversations, which took place in Arabic. Not for one moment did we imagine that we would conclude the day with a traditional Syrian Iftar feast to break the Ramadan fast.

A-Ramtha’s peaceful appearance is misleading, says Mohamed, a local 25-year-old barber we meet walking towards the Syrian border. The border was open until recently, he says, and many refugees from the Syrian city of Dara’a, located several kilometers north of a-Ramtha across the border, were able to cross through it to Jordan. “It was closed a few weeks ago and nowadays we hear gunfire, bang-bang every night,” Mohamed says as his friend, Amir, accompanies the “bangs” by making firing movements with his hands. According to various recent reports, the firing is by the Syrian army against refugees fleeing for the border. In one incident, it was reported, the shooting lead to an exchange of fire between the Syrian and the Jordanian armies.

The United Nations Refugee Agency in Jordan claims that over 200,000 Syrians have fled to Jordan since the fighting in Syrian began, but only 35,000 of them are registered. In a-Ramtha they are concentrated in two centers - a-Bashasha and Ciber-City, as well as in one lot that has turned into a refugee camp.

We ask Mohamed and Amir if they know where the refugees are, and they immediately offer to take us to them. Not more than 10 minutes away by a falling-apart car, we find ourselves in a roofless room in an unpainted cement structure -- the two families’ house.

The heart-warming smiles and optimism of Rawda and Maryam, two refugees who escaped from the constantly increasing brutality Bashar Assad’s regime, simply do not reconcile with the horrors that come out of their and their children’s personal stories. Throughout our visit, we can’t help wondering if they would have treated with the same warmness had they known that two of their visitors are Israeli Jews.

“I lost my husband five months ago. The Syrian army shot him in Homs, where we used to live,” Rawda tells us, showing the asylum seeker’s documentation provided to them by the UN. “I ran from there with my children to Dara’a, and we managed to cross the border here.” Dara’a, the city where the revolution against Assad’s regime is centered, is located several kilometers north of a-Ramtha.

Maryam, a slender and noble-looking woman with high cheekbones and impressive green eyes, fled Syria without her husband, who remained in Dara’a. During our visit he calls her cell-phone and she speaks with him, bright-eyed, for a few happy moments.

We ask whether we can speak to him to learn a little about the situation in Dara’a. At first, he prefers not to speak to us, fearing the Syrian Mukhabarat (secret service) are eavesdropping and will use the information he gives us to harm him or his family. Finally, he agrees to speak to Saleh, who venerated his family’s generous hospitality. After she hung up, Maryam said that her husband described Dara’a as being in a state of war where “gunfire is heard at all times”.

Maryam managed to escape Syria with her three young daughters -- Rial, Khadija and Amani, all under ten years old. The three of them are sitting quietly, occasionally moving next to one of the mysterious strangers. Ultimately they settle next to Sarah, an American friend who joined us for the visit, and is very distinctive due to her light hair and skin, where they exchange whispers and giggle.

“I want to be a doctor," Rial, the youngest of the three girls, tell us. Sarah whispers to us that she noticed scars on Rial’s chest. We do not ask what caused them, but it’s hard not to assume they too were caused during the battles and that perhaps Rial hopes that, as a doctor, she could one day help children who got hurt, just like her.

Towards the end of the interview, we decide that a fussy stuffed giraffe one of us purchased at the Irbid market earlier as a present for his girlfriend, could better serve to make the girls happy. They shyly refuse the doll at first, but finally accept it with delicate smiles and run inside the house to play with their new toy.

It appears that the constant fear of the Mukhabarat surrounds families in Jordan as well as Syria. Su’ad, Rawda’s daughter, conveys the fear: “While still in Homs, I assisted the Free Syrian Army that fights Assad’s man. Many women participate in the struggle. Some assist the wounded, others help move ammunition from place to place, some even fight!”

She tells us that she helped many of the wounded, but “had to flee with my family after my husband gave me in to the Mukhabarat because I wanted to divorce him. I feared for my and my family’s life.” Assad’s people continue to look for her in Jordan, she says. “There’s a Mukhabarat officer in a-Ramtha. One day he arrived at the market while I was there and asked around about me -- I had to run away and hide.” Since then she’s afraid to walk around the city.

It’s hard to even begin to imagine what Su’ad has been through, but from the little she is willing to share with us it’s clear that she’s been through horrors. “One day,” she says, “a car crossed from Jordan into Syria. Assad’s army thought it carried supporters of the Free Syrian Army, opened fire without a warning and killed everyone. I tried to help as much as I could, but there wasn’t much I could do.”

It is evident that recollecting the story is a heavy burden for her. At one point she asks us to move further away from the children. Then she tells Saleh that she was raped by Assad’s soldiers. She goes silent, and after a short while says that she still has much to tell about Assad’s men’s horrific assaults, but she is not yet ready. When she will be ready, she says, straightening herself, “I would like to go on television and tell the whole world of what I’ve been through.”

Back with the rest of the family, Sou’ad elaborates on the involvement of women in the struggle. Those who lose their husbands and children, she says, are the ones who volunteer for the most risky tasks. The women’s bravery is no less than inspirational. Not only do Rawda and Maryam manage to keep their families united away from home, but they do so with uncompromising determination. At some point Maryam (who asked that her face not be shown in the article) declares passionately: “If we are needed -- the Syrian women are ready to rise and fight. Give us weapons, and in G-d’s name we will fight!” Everyone excitedly nods in agreement.

As we speak, Ussay, Rawda’s 17-year-old son, passes his cell phone around, exuberantly showing us horrid videos from Syria: A man shot by a firing squad, soldiers decapitating a tied-up rebel using a chainsaw, fighting and gunfire in the streets, burning bodies, He claims he took some of the pictures himself.

UN papers identifying Rawda as an asylum seeker.

The heavy atmosphere becomes more optimistic when the women tell us that Udday, the handicapped boy, is a fabulous singer. They encourage him to sing and he agrees, singing of hope for his homeland. Despite the horrors, despite being away from families whose lives are still in danger and despite feeling that world has forgotten about them, Uddai’s song conveys the happiness and hope the two families manage to maintain.

Throughout our visit the families seem to genuinely appreciate our interest in them and their stories. We are impressed that their kindness towards us is beyond even the renowned Arab hospitality; they have a keen interest in getting the events in Syria out there and shocking the world into acting against Assad. “We are very angry with Russia and China”, says Ussai, referring to the two states’ veto against proposed UN Security Council resolutions against Syria. “We want the world to get involved,” he says. To our question whether they would want the United States to invade in order to remove Assad, they answer without thinking twice: “Sure! Anyone who wants to help the Syrian people, we welcome.”

“Everyone’s now worried that Assad will use his chemical weapons,” Ussai says, lighting a cigarette. Everyone around him agrees. Hearing their concern, we can’t resist asking how they feel about reports that Israel is planning to attack Assad’s unconventional weapons storage, to prevent the weapons from leaking to terrorists. We ask carefully, so as not to expose our Israeli identity. Their answer is more or less that what the United States is allowed does not necessarily apply for Israel.

“We are afraid that if Israel strikes many Syrians will be hurt,” Ussay says; he surprises us by adding that “Assad is rumored to have an agreement with the Israeli government.” It seems that even in today’s difficult situation, the distrust between the two peoples prevails over the possibility of cooperating.

The sun slowly sets, and the family insists that we stay we stay over for Iftar, the dinner to break the day-long Ramadan fast. We contemplate. On the one hand we are a little concerned about our security if we stay after dark. Additionally, It’s clear to us that food is not abundant and that they live in poverty. At the same time, we don’t want to refuse and seem disrespectful. After a series of persistent attempts to convince us by Rawda and her sons, the second consideration wins over the first. We sit back on the mattresses, and are served fabulous Syrian dishes. “The mattresses you are sitting on”, says Maryam as she serves, “are the donation of the Jordanian government. We are here thanks to the King alone, and we owe him much.”

Our hosts, who haven’t eaten since dawn, do not seem even a little impatient in the last minutes of the fast, even when the tempting plates of food are right in front of them. Moreover, when the sun finally disappears, heralding the end of the fast, they insist on first filling our plates, even though it is clear we are not the who fasted for a whole day. Only then do they eat.

After the meal, we ask Ussai what would he like to do when he grows up. His answer, conflicting to an extent with the hope-inspiring song his brother proudly sang to us minutes earlier, perhaps captures the situation of the refugees, and maybe even of the Syrian people as a whole. “I don’t know,” he replies, “How can you know when you can’t predict what will the future in Syria be like?”

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