When setting on a humanitarian trip of any kind one expects to go and help as many people as possible by whatever means possible, including uplifting their morale. Little did I know that I was going to be the one uplifted in spirit by who I expected to be downtrodden refugees.
Several weeks ago with a group of young professionals and college students, I embarked on a trip to Jordan carrying medical supplies and cash collected hastily a week before the trip. Only hours before reaching Amman I tried to envision the circumstances we would meet the refugees in , and tried to mentally prepare myself so that I would not be in shock, and be a source of strength and solitude. Upon reaching the airport, I solemnly swore to myself that I would not show weakness in front of the refugees because I knew that it was in these circumstances they needed reassurance and compassion not pity and condolences.
Upon reaching Amman we were immediately received and warmly welcomed by Baitulmaal representatives, the group organizing the trip. From the airport we were then driven through the Jordan dessert to Al Mafraq, a tiny town only fifteen minutes away from the Syrian border. Reaching the town late in the evening that night we were not able to conduct any humanitarian distribution of any kind.
It was instantly apparent that the development of Al Mafraq was below the level of any town that it can barely sustain itself, let alone an influx of refugees. Residential buildings, commerce, job opportunities, and public services were all limited. This contrasted with the fact that it was the location with the largest concentration of refugees in Jordan. Approximately 1,000 registered families were in Al Mafraq at the time and tens of families were coming every two days, not to mention that many families were not registering with the local humanitarian organizations for fear that they would be located and persecuted by Syrian mukhabarat (Syrian security forces).
Following that night we quickly set upon visiting first the refugee children at the local elementary school. Once we walked into the classroom the teacher announced the purpose of our group’s visit to her 30 plus pupils and from there immediately were greeted with a standing salutation of “Salamu Allaikum”. At first the students were extremely tense and apprehensive, but that quickly changed after the first student we talked to bravely opened up to us with a chant commonly used in the weekly Friday protests.
Suddenly, after that initial barrier was broken all the students jumped out of their seats and things got interesting and full of emotion. The students, all around 7 or 8 years old ,all began to chant in unison as if it were a protest straight out of Syria. Some were standing on chairs, others on desks but no matter where they were you could see it in their faces, they wanted to be heard. They wanted their presence to be felt because although they were young, they told us stories no young child should ever have to know.
One story I feel compelled to speak of is that of one of the girls named Sidra from Homs. After we asked her about her experiences and what she witnessed in Homs she began to whisper with a quivering lip. So I got closer to her and heard her say “I remember everything from Syria”, and then she repeated it again louder and as I’ m about to ask her what exactly she saw, she burst into uncontrollable tears and said “May God never grant you success Bashar” .
Until this day I always try to imagine what it was that she had seen that traumatized her, and I remember how the more I consoled her with words of a beautiful return to Homs the more she cried.
Contrary to my expectation, most of the families in Al- Mafraq were not from nearby Daraa . Most were from distant Homs. The journey from Homs to Al Mafraq was one that had bedazzled me and was told to us by several of the refugees later that day.
The Underground Railroad of Homs
The first objective of any family from Homs fleeing to Jordan is to reach Damascus by any and all means possible. Reaching Damascus guaranteed a significantly higher level of safety, and a point in which they can regroup if the family is separated at any point. The hard part was getting there.
To get out of Homs, as it was narrated to me, only reminded me of the hardship, and fear that a slave had to endure in order to reach freedom in the colonial times in America. In order to get to the outermost edge of Homs one had to go through Bab Amro, or Khaldiyeh and other neighborhoods heavily under siege.
Pre-revolution times a local could move between all of these neighborhoods within minutes. Now, however the situation required that the walls of adjacent apartments and buildings be tore down so that one could simply travel between these neighborhoods without exposing themselves to sniper and mortar fire. A trip that once required 10 or15 minutes now may take an hour or more. If I could give one name to the network of safe houses in an accurate portrayal I would title it the Underground Rail Road of Homs.
Upon reaching the outskirts of Homs, I assumed that freedom was inevitable, but that was the furthest from the truth. The most dangerous part of their escape only begins when they have to take a highway route where there is literally no cover from the snipers that are spread throughout. It was described to us as a “race against death”, in which you must run as fast as humanly possible to avoid being killed by sniper fire or even get injured. Anyone that is injured is picked up by scavenging Assad thugs and executed.
Those who pass this route and are able to reach Damascus for the most part have saved their families but usually with nothing more than the clothes on their back.
Another camp that is even closer to the Syrian border had more precarious conditions. There the UN is the primary sponsor of the camp and Jordanian officials are responsible for security. Refugees in that camp are placed in what appeared to be large shipping containers and are restricted from any movement and interaction with life outside.
Essentially the camp there was a large open air prison in which the only crime committed is that of being a refugee without identification or travel documents. The Jordanian government has somewhat turned that situation into one of monetary gain, where in order to release any particular refugee a charge of 15 dinars is collected and a Jordanian must officially sponsor.
Most of these families in this camp are seeking to have some form of stability in their lives by finding employment, housing, and schools for their children all of which are stifled by the stringent camp conditions.
Many of the refugees we interacted with had obvious symptoms of psychological damage that need not a psychiatrist to diagnose. Cases of adults speaking to themselves were not uncommon. Some had developed extreme phobias that their safety, even in Jordan was compromised. Others had issues simply sleeping at night without surreal dreams of what they had experienced from military incursions into their homes.
Children were by no means an exception, and in fact may have been more affected. Some had described to us how some of their friends and neighbors had been killed. Most are still affected by the screeching sounds of missiles and deafening mortar fire to the degree that if they hear any fireworks in the street they panic and hide.
One man by the name of Abu Akram was in extreme depression after he discovered that his house had been demolished in Homs when he was watching AlJazeera. He exclaimed to us how hard he had worked to have built that house only to be demolished by artillery fire in minutes.
Another woman from Daraa was near the point of frantic helplessness . Both her sons had told her to leave in order to save herself since she, a 70 year old woman, had been placed on a list by the Syrian security forces. The reason for her warrant was quite simply that she lead a funeral procession for a local martyr. While telling us how she had received news that both her sons were nearly killed by tank fire, it was nearly impossible to calm her.
While the humanitarian organizations in Jordan try to provide as much help as they can in terms of shelter and sustenance, little is being done to help repair the mental damage that may have incurred. And as far as I saw, psychological help was desperately needed.
With regards to Morale I had never seen people in such dismal conditions as these refugees that were certain they would be returning home soon. None of them had planned to make their lives in Jordan permanent. Nearly every family I met spoke to us about their “iman”, (Arabic word for faith) remaining strong and that Bashar’s regime is upon its final strings.
One of the refugees from Homs said that many afflicted Syrians have become more united and had begun taking care of each other more after the revolution erupted. He said some families have even shared the little food they have with neighbors down to the last loaf of bread.
All the children were beaming with their revolutionary fervor as they sang songs of the revolution and spoke admirably of the Free Syrian Army protecting them.
My own morale would often sink as I heard the children telling their horrible war stories, and how I wished I could erase them from their memory. I found that each time I reached this point I would somehow be uplifted by the same children.
Before I left I asked on of the children what she wished for in hopes that she would say a toy or some sort of candy that I could buy, to which she cheerfully replied “ I don’t want anything, just for Bashar to be gone”.
Source: The Syrian Sun