It was July, two weeks into Ramadan. Our car was speeding toward Amman along the endless two-lane highway, slicing through the stoney plains of Jordan's desolate eastern desert. Rarely frequented — except for transportation trucks making the arduous journey from Baghdad as well as the occasional tourist on his way to one of the area's handful of early-Islamic castles and fortresses — we had the road to ourselves that afternoon. The Islamic State's recent march across western Iraq just a few weeks earlier, as well as the piercing heat of the midday sun, had cleared the road of traffic.
In the back of the car, two-year-old Esraa lay slumped across her mother's lap. Esraa was tiny and barely looked half her age, with scrawny limbs and dull, thin hair. Her face was gray and drawn and lacked the rosy hue you'd expect in a child her age.
Earlier that day, a small handful of Ritz crackers dug from the bottom of a bag had momentarily distracted the girl and betrayed her real age. She had piled them on her stomach, hid them up the sleeve of her mother's cheap, synthetic abaya, and even slotted them back into the packet. But as we drove west along the sun-baked highway through what is referred to as Jordan's "Panhandle," her energy had begun to diminish. Her head lolled across her mother's thigh, her face wiped of emotion. Leaning over, her mother placed her face close to the girl's and began to gently blow air against her temples, stopping every so often to clutch her closely to her chest as the car lurched over the pot-holed road.
"I was up all night," her mother had explained earlier that morning, as we sat with her and Esraa on the floor of their home, her eyes red from lack of sleep. Pulling down the girl's trousers, she had pointed to a bulge protruding from the girl's groin. "She won't stop crying. It's been like this for weeks. We're isolated here and we can't afford the transport costs of getting her to the city so a doctor can look at this lump."
The pain of having to watch loved ones suffer is the very torture from which the family had originally fled, leaving their home in northern Syria for the deserts of the Kingdom of Jordan. But even in this land of refuge, where they had hoped for the dignity and autonomy denied to them in the war zones of Syria, it was happening all over again. With three extra seats in the car, we offered them a lift to Jordan Hospital in Amman.
Esraa's mother, father and six older siblings had set up camp on a remote farm toward the Iraqi border in Jordan's northern Badia region. These unending desert plains were, as T.E. Lawrence described in his autobiographical epic, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a place of "unfathomable silence … steeped in knowledge of wandering poets, champions, lost kingdoms … crime and chivalry and dead magnificence." The desert seemed to echo. Its emptiness broken only by the occasional dusty hamlet and rare vegetated wadi (valley), a world away from the well-trodden rust-colored sands of Wadi Rum — the gem of Jordan's tourist industry.
Along with 110 other members from the Al Aboud tribe, Esraa's family had fled the northern Syrian town of Idlib with just the clothes on their backs in the summer of 2013. In return for their occasional work picking tomatoes, a local farmer had allowed several members of the group to erect their tents on the infertile edges of his land, nestled amid spindly shrubs attempting to hold their own in the dry dirt.
"Where is the rest of your group?" we asked Esraa's father, curious as to where the other members of the tribe had gone.
"Some have moved to Azraq camp," he explained, referring to a newly-opened U.N.-run refugee camp located not far from Qasr al-Azraq, a third century Roman fortress where T.E. Lawrence and Sharif Hussein bin Ali had based themselves during the winter of 1917–1918 during the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottomans. "They wanted the extra support. Maybe they will have an easier life there. Others have returned to Syria."
"It's not uncommon — this preference to die a martyr in Syria than to live in a foreign land," Esraa's mother, Aliyah, explained when she saw us frowning with confusion at the thought of returning to a warzone. "One boy went back to Syria. His father was sick and he wanted to see him. His father is still alive, but the boy is dead. Shot by a sniper."
Night falls in Amman | (Tom Bradley/Courtesy Latterly)
Syria is a country that is no longer contained within its borders. Over 9 million of its people have been uprooted by a violent war that is devastating the country. Fleeing from the rubble under which so many others have been buried, Syrians have been forced into neighboring states such as Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and Jordan. As refugees, they are weaving Syria's story into the broader regional tapestry.
In Jordan, a country of 6.4 million, over 626,000 Syrians are registered as refugees by The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) — a number regularly challenged by the Jordanian government, which tends to claim double this figure. Wherever one goes, evidence of the war next door emerges. A lyrical Syrian accent floats past you as you sweat your way up one of Amman's steep staircases; a Homs number plate hangs from a parked car in the street; a Syrian woman and her child beg at a set of traffic lights; a Jordanian radio station airs a program specifically for Syrian refugees.
About nine miles from the Syrian border sprawls Za'atari camp: an endless sea of white tents and caravans that blend into the rocky sun-scorched desert. Planned by the Jordanian government and UNHCR, the camp was opened hurriedly in July 2012 on Jordanian military-owned land in response to the seemingly endless flow of Syrians crossing into Jordan in desperate search for safe haven. Since opening, Za'atari camp has swelled. With a population of over 80,000 (largely from the southern Syrian city of Dera'a) the camp has multiple schools, mosques, playgrounds, hospitals, and streets lined with stores set up by entrepreneurial refugees selling everything from mobile phones to wedding dresses. It is best understood as a pseudo-city, a "makeshift metropolis" as one New York Times article described it in 2013.
Za'atari has served as the international media's lens into the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan. With so many war-scarred Syrians living in such a concentrated area, the scale of the crisis is painfully evident. But there is no singular narrative to the refugee story in Jordan. Only 16 percent of Syrian refugees reside in official, U.N.-run camps, such as Za'atari. The majority live beyond the camp fences, setting up homes wherever they can — in tiny isolated villages, congested suburban neighborhoods, informal makeshift camps, rented apartments, and charity accommodations. Two thirds of them are living below the Jordanian absolute poverty line ($96 per month), and as the conflict continues, many are falling increasingly into debt.
One in 10 are like Esraa's family: unwilling to surrender their autonomy in formal refugee camps yet unable to afford standard housing; they have established their own makeshift settlements. While some are tucked away on private farmland, others can be seen dotted around the northern reaches of Jordan: small collections of tents by the sides of roads, gatherings of grain-sack and plastic sheeting on abandoned scrubland. Informally erected, access to water, food, education and medical care is, at best, sporadic.
Elsewhere, more fortunate families are scraping together the funds to rent apartments in the country's cities, towns and villages. In line with the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention, Syrians are technically eligible to gain work permits in Jordan. Yet acquiring the permits has become notoriously difficult, and the vast majority of Syrians are left working illegally in poorly paid irregular and informal employment, plumbing the depths of their savings and relying heavily on remittances from relatives, loans from friends and neighbors, and assistance from relief agencies. The variation in living conditions can be vast — from an elderly couple from Dera'a living in a half-constructed concrete outhouse without glass in the windows, to an apartment in the upmarket Amman district of al-Rabiah serving as a bachelor pad for five young Damascene students.
From this struggle, a commercial scene for Syrian culture has emerged, catering to the difficulties of life in exile and to refugees' nostalgia for home. Shadows of Syria begin to appear. Among long-established Jordanian institutions, Syrian businesses have sprung up, importing the taste of Syria to Jordanian soil. On Amman's multi-colored Medina al-Munawarah thoroughfare (a technicolored consumer heaven) a small stretch of stores confronts the taste buds with a plurality of Syrian foods and flavors: succulent chicken shwarma marinated in pomegranate molasses from the Damascene fast-food chain Djaj Anas, freshly squeezed juices from Orange al-Sham, gummy Arabic-style ice cream rolled in pistachios, and hot, creamy sahlab straight from Souq al-Hamidayah's famous Bakdash ice cream parlor. This culinary diversity reflects Syria's enviable former position along ancient trading routes.
This diffusion of one land into another extends beyond what can be simply eaten or observed; Syria is also weaving its way into Jordan's soundscape. At the ancient Roman city of Umm Qais, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, Tiberius and even Mount Hermon, the harsh reverberation of shelling from just across the border in Syria regularly interrupts the tranquility of the site. Elsewhere, voices of war and exile lodge themselves in the airwaves — on the radio, in flickering images on TV screens in private homes, and in snatched conversations in the street. But it's not always talk of the war. Syria continues to inspire those who are exiled beyond her borders and scenes. Stories from days gone past are treasured by refugees attempting to keep their beloved homeland alive — her fertile gardens with vine-covered trellises and tiled fountains, her ancient fortresses encircled by swooping swallows, her streets filled with men selling produce fresh that morning from the countryside and elderly gentlemen slowly shuffling home from Friday prayers.
To protect the identity of persons mentioned in this article, some names have been changed.
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