This is how I danced,
this is how I cry
“She lives in a toilet.”
“They gang raped her and sipped on her lactating breasts, mocking they would find her infant next.”
“I am dead inside. There is nothing.”
“We sang…but we did it softly.”
Looking back at my notes from over five years of interviews with Syrian refugees in Jordan – following the same families, seeing the men die, the women struggle, and the children stagnate – I did not think their lives could get any darker. I was wrong. These refugees are all but forgotten, aid has dried up, and one of the few ways out – the path to Europe – is now full of nearly insurmountable obstacles. Many of these Syrian families in Jordan have yet to be reunited with the fathers and sons who did make it to Europe. Women and children whisper about increased sexual abuse, afraid to officially report it. As a Syrian doctor aiding the community secretly (he is not allowed to practice in Jordan) explained, there is a rational fear of deportation should refugees raise their heads and complain. What is most jarring is that this is normal everyday life now.
This last chapter is dedicated to Hala. She intimately invited me in from the beginning, and despite all that she has endured – including her recent short-lived marriage during which she says her mother-in-law severely beat her – she still recites her poetry and performs her stories visually.
We have a saying: A girl is like a piece of glass. If it breaks, you can’t put it back together.
– Syrian mother
Girls play on a roof in Ramtha, just four kilometers from the Syrian border. Radio Syria is sometimes available, ironically mixing optimistic news, horoscopes, and an array of classic Arabic tunes and pop.
My feelings are dead now. I’m 31 years old, widowed at 27. My feelings are dead. My feelings are dead. I now hate men – the sheiks managing the martyrs’ wives building tell us that men are human wolves who want something in exchange for helping you. We became scared for ourselves and our daughters.
– Um Fadi
I have a lot of anger inside of me that I want to let out. I would give my children my life. I would die for them a hundred times a day. So I keep my and their humiliation inside so we have a roof over our head. My kids are traumatized by verbal and emotional abuse. But [the Syrian sheik who runs her martyrs’ wives building] has all the power, and we have no other recourse but homelessness. So I keep inside every insult hurled at me for the sake of my kids. If I stay silent, he considers this as insolence, and if I do defend myself, he calls me a whore and he keeps using bad words with the kids.
– Um Fadi, widow living in abusive charity building
Five years after I first met her, widowed Aysha was pressured to remarry.
In 2012, I found a woman madly in love with her husband and generous with sexual advice to her fellow fighters’ wives. These women were living for the day when their men would return. None of them did and, in time, Aysha’s turn came to mourn her husband’s death. Still, she remained rebellious, mischievous, defiant, and playful.
Five years on, I barely recognized the lively woman who had shown me the tattoo that symbolized her true love. She was now remarried to a Jordanian man. Her in-laws had pressured her within months of their son’s death to accept the proposal so that she’d be one less mouth to feed in their household. Within a year and a half, she bore him two children. Her in-laws kept her three daughters by her first husband, the one she loved. She aches to be with them, fearing they could be deported.
On the day of this portrait, I found Aysha a broken woman. She was, of course, tired in the way women with babies are, but something inside her had also been extinguished.
The Martyrs' Wives building
Hala's Wedding Album
Hala, 20, displays her wedding jewelry and reenacts what happened on her wedding night. After the Saudi suitor’s proposal fell through, she married another man. She says that after the nuptials, her mother-in-law brutally beat her, claiming “her son was being too kind to her.” The beating lasted for six days before Hala returned home. She asked for a divorce, but her husband and his family initially refused unless she paid back the 2127 JOD they claimed to have paid for the wedding “party” (a humble affair in her apartment), shoes, dress rental, set of gold jewelry, and preparations for her new life. Hala is now twice divorced and less likely to attract another husband. Her poetry remains hidden.
Even if I feel great sadness or remember my wedding or that I’ve led a difficult life, there is still enough joy to remind me that I had some good moments in my life, even if I never saw them to the end or had them for long. There is happiness, but then I remembered that it did not last so the sadness came back. -Hala
They saw my daughter as on object and not a human being. They wanted to control her and take away all her rights. She refused to live like that, so she came back to me. I was scared for her life, so I divorced her from her husband. It was better for my daughter and for us, despite what people say about my daughter. – Hala’s mother
In Jordan, I am somewhere in between life and death, but back in Syria, I am dead. -Hala
The dress was a rental, but Hala’s “Cinderella” shoes and costume wedding jewelry remain with her.
Hala hopes her little sister has a better chance in life.
My friends asked me to write a poem about love. I told them I haven’t fallen in love but I will do one for them. They teased me after, saying that Syria is always on my mind:
My love for you equals the number of tanks in Syria,
My love for you equals the number of mothers’ hearts Bashar has shattered,
My love for you is till the death.
Love in the way of war.
Haven’t you figured it out by now?
That your lion is nothing but a panicked cat.
Afterwards, he was brought to Jordan, wrapped in a blanket. We had to bury his legs here in Jordan as his mother requested us to do. I was waiting for him to die any day, but he didn’t.
Um Ahmed, Muhammed’s aunt, shares a photo of him proudly wearing a suit, the day he returned to Syria. Despite surviving his injuries, his joy was short-lived. Muhammed is now dying and cannot get medical help.
HIS NAME WAS AHMAD
It was safe when we were in Syria, in our community. The boy acted as if we were still in Syria. We all did. We looked for him till 6 a.m. We didn’t leave a single garden unsearched. The police called us to the station and offered us a glass of water and a cup of coffee… in Syria you expect a beating after being offered water or coffee by police. I prayed for the best. They took out the cell phone and showed me his picture. His father was born mute. When the police showed me the pictures, I became mute.
– Ahmad’s paternal uncle, Abu Hamood, 47
In Syria, I was something else. I loved my life there. I had my own shoes and accessories shop. Now I have a baby that only I am responsible for. His father told me he was divorced and asked for my hand in marriage. He stayed with me for four days then told me his wife was pregnant. He went back to his job in Saudi Arabia, with his children. He came back thirty-eight days after I gave birth. After three days, he left again, just before surgery for the baby’s bladder hernia. He refused to pay for his son’s surgery. I had to beg for the 550 JOD to pay for it. I sold my necklace, earrings, and my mother’s and cousins’ rings to pay for milk and diapers. I have not seen the father for seven months now. He divorced me and it seems used me for pleasure and forgot his son. And his relatives in Jordan are threatening to have me deported.
Go to sleep, go to sleep,
I’ll catch a pair of doves for you.
Don’t believe me doves.
I’m fooling Abood
So he would sleep.
Abood, Abood, the prettiest one,
His hair is black and clean.
If you love him, you may kiss him,
But if you don’t love him, you can go away.
– Um Abood
I hope a software wipes everything away, I don’t even want to know my name. I want to forget everything.
I left Syria during the war, and am raising my two orphaned grandchildren. My son was kidnapped near the Jordanian border. After three days we found his body. He was 26 years old. His name was Firas.
My son’s son (my grandson) was eleven months and his daughter [was] two years old… Then their mother was killed in a bombing. The boy doesn’t remember his parents, but the girl does.
So, it is me, my two grandchildren, and my beautiful son with Down Syndrome. He was so terrified when we left Syria that I almost had to carry him.
I used to be glued to the news. The sadness we carry is taking all of our energy, so I don’t watch the news or keep up with what’s happening in Syria anymore.
It’s obvious as long as we are still here, this means the bombing, killing, and death have not stopped. We just pay attention to our own lives; we really can’t do more than that. Only Bollywood films and Turkish soaps to numb our brains.
One day the landlord came to the house and said we could stay if we gave him one of my teenage daughters. We refused and were ordered to leave immediately. My daughter was only fifteen at the time.
-Um Ahmed, from Daraa
This was a storage room, where they put sheep. It didn’t work out because there are a lot of rats here, so they made it into housing spaces for us poor refugees. They refused to store things in these containers, but are fine with storing people in them.
– Ali, wounded in Homs
We break our children’s spirits, eclipsing them. If one gets into a fight with another child, we tell them to respond with, “may God forgive you.” Even if they are hit, don’t fight back. We don’t want to be deported.
– Um Saleh, from Daraa, former occupant of referenced “martyr’s wives” building
I always feel like I can’t breathe. I feel it in my chest. I get tired from walking, if I shout, if I get sad, and things like that. My husband went to Europe and left us with two JOD. Two years alone with three children and not a dime. Not allowed to work. I am done. I am going back to Syria with my children. Whatever happens, I am done.
– Um Asim
Um Asim returned to Syria three days later with her three children.
She told them, “There are trees there.”