Fair warning: this is going to be a lot darker than most of my posts here. I’m going to shelf my usual feeble attempts at pithy humor, because it doesn’t feel right when discussing the horrific and ongoing plight of the millions upon millions of Syrians that have been displaced from their homes by the increasingly brutal civil war being waged in their homeland.
Officially, more than 600,000 of those refugees have resettled in Jordan alone (with more than two million additional refugees also escaping to neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, and Egypt, among other nations). In reality, these figures are likely far higher – the 600,000 figure is calculated by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), and only counts those that have officially registered at the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan among its figures; an untold deluge of thousands of additional families have slipped across the border to escape fighting and bypassed the camp entirely.
Rereading that previous paragraph, it’s hard to discern how any of this differs from any basic account offered by the likes of the BBC, New York Times, Al Jazeera, etc. (except for, you know, journalistic credibility and/or talent on the part of the author). For that reason, I’m going to refrain from pushing any further general statistics in this post – though, trust me, there are plenty of them for those interested. Instead, I’m going to attempt to humanize the tragic scope of this ongoing genocide as it was humanized for me during my time in Jordan.
A Chance Breakfast Encounter
It all started when I was having breakfast one day and happened into a conversation with a woman named Aminah. English-born and bred, she came to Jordan in November 2013, ostensibly to teach English to refugees at the Zaatari camp. She’d worked with a number of aid organizations back in the UK, but, frustrated by the bureaucratic red tape and administrative overhead that so often prevents larger charities from being able to follow through on their stated missions, she opted to come to Jordan herself and see if she couldn’t be more effective by taking a direct, hands-on approach. It was for that same reason that she quickly realized that the Zaatari camp, and its reprehensible living conditions and severe administrative shortcomings, wasn’t the place in which she could make the greatest difference.
Instead, she opted to found her own charity, Syrian Family Aid. She oversees the entire operation herself, from purchasing and delivering necessary supplies to families to soliciting donations to taping and posting a weekly YouTube diary about her work there. While she certainly doesn’t have the blueprint for peace in Syria, nor does she have the wherewithal to help reform the pallid conditions at Zaatari and other refugee camps in surrounding countries, she’s firmly committed to making even the smallest of differences on a more local level, and it was inspiring to see her in action.
Aminah is focused on helping 10 refugee families that have escaped Syria and are currently trying to make ends meet in Jordan, where they’re prevented from seeking legal employment and, in their desperation, often exploited by extortionist locals as de facto slave labor. She raises donations from willing parties, and puts the entirety of it towards food, medicine, and clothing for these displaced families (she refuses to put even a dime towards administrative costs).
Nearly every evening, she makes the rounds to each of her 10 families, who have come to see her as their guardian angel and rely on her for the basic necessities which they’re suddenly unable to attain themselves – think food, medicine, clothing. Keep in mind that, prior to the outbreak of civil war, Syria was by no means an impoverished country; rather, its people were solidly middle class and knew stable lives. The shock of their current situation is much greater than it would be for a people accustomed to more habitual cycles of poverty. For most refugees, this is the first time they’ve ever had to wonder where their next meal will come from, or how they can possibly afford to pay rent. It’s jarring, and it can certainly take a heavy toll on their psyches.
Not my own picture (credit: NYT), as I wasn’t able to take any photographs of the families I met. However, the setting that you see above – a large family crammed into a small, spartan apartment – is consistent with the living environments I was able to visit.
Aminah agreed to let me tag along with her on her rounds one night, and it was an experience I won’t soon forget. While I’m unfortunately not able to share pictures or specific details due to the fact that most of the families she’s helping are living illegally in Jordan and face possible deportation to Syria if they’re caught, there are still a few general stories I want to share here in the hopes that they help to better personify the reality of this conflict beyond simple headlines and statistics.
In the Shadow of Bashar’s Bully Brigade
The first family we visited consisted of a man – whose name and location I’m withholding at Aminah’s request – and his twelve children, crammed into a three-room apartment. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll refer to him henceforth as Mohamed, because I’m quite confident that there are more than a couple of Syrian Mohameds now living in Jordan. Mohamed served for about five months in the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main fighting group for secular-minded rebels (read: not Al Qaeda) opposing the ruling regime of Bashar al-Assad.
According to Mohamed, the army consists primarily of former Syrian army soldiers and officers. To hear him tell it, the FSA never deliberately targets civilians, and will always warn villagers to make themselves scarce in advance of expected clashes with government forces.
The Syrian army – or “Bashar’s army,” as they’re colloquially and perhaps more accurately known – does not have such a charitable reputation. Among refugees, they’re notorious for indiscriminately slaughtering villagers, including one of Mohamed’s cousins, at will and then blaming their murders on rebel forces. Mohamed told me that in the case of his cousin, officers from Bashar’s army went so far as to force his cousin’s aunt – Mohamed’s mother – to make a formal, sworn statement that her nephew had been killed by rebel forces, not the Syrian government. To hear him and others tell it, this kind of thing happens every day in Syria.
There’s one final story that I’d be remiss not to share here, even if I wasn’t personally present for it. Aminah shared this with me during our first breakfast encounter, and I think it was the single most powerful story I heard, and the one that really humanized the tragedy of the Syrian genocide for me. As she recounted, she was chatting with a girl from one of the families she supports one day, and the girl was asking Aminah about her home back in the UK. She was curious to know about Aminah’s world there – and especially about her family. The girl asked Aminah if she had a brother, Aminah said yes, and that they were quite close and that she missed him a lot. The girl asked to see a picture, and Aminah obliged. Then, the girl told Aminah that she also had a brother back in Syria whom she also missed dearly.
She then asked Aminah, “Want to see a picture of my brother?” Of course, Aminah responded. The girl then somberly pulled up an image on her phone and handed it to Aminah. It was a picture of a boyish-looking Syrian teenager lying in a casket, with a bullet hole through his head.