Scattered Hearts: My Neighbours’ Story

People often ask me if I feel safe in Jordan. They are thinking about how close Jordan is to the war in Syria, ISIS and the Israel-Palestine conflict. They assume that this proximity to the violence must mean that Jordan, too, is dangerous.

I usually reply that, for me, the impact of being so close to these conflicts is not to do with physical safety but with mental awareness: I do not feel unsafe in Jordan but I do feel that the conflicts in the Middle East have become more real for me. I can’t ignore them in the same way I used to. I have lost the luxury of forgetting.

The conflicts feel close now. They felt close when I heard noises overhead and looked up to see a plane from the Jordanian airforce heading to Syria. They felt close when ISIS murdered Muath. The feel close every day because people all around me have lived, are living, through these conflicts. The conflicts are their reality. It is this, the presence of the refugees, that makes it impossible for me to forget.

Jordan’s total population is just 6.5 million — smaller than that of London. In 2012 an average of 1000 people crossed the border from Syria into Jordan every day and today the number of refugees continues to rise; the UNHCR estimates that by the end of 2015 there will be 1.06 million refugees living in Jordan. 20% of the refugees are still living in camps without proper accommodation. With more people arriving and thirteen to fifteen babies born every single day in Zaatari Refugee Camp alone, the population of the camps is increasing much too fast for the Jordanian government to successfully provide adequate accommodation. Significantly, this current refugee crisis is only one part of Jordan’s long relationship with refugees. If we are to take a more historical perspective, over 50% of Jordan’s citizens are Palestinian refugees, having fled the country after the Nakbah in 1948. This is a country shaped by people seeking safety from the surrounding violence.

I could continue to bombard you with statistics about Jordan’s refugee crisis but I think one story can often hit you harder than even the most shocking statistics and so I want to tell you the story of my neighbours instead. It’s the story of a Syrian refugee family living in Amman, in a small apartment in an old area of the city. It’s the sort of fashionably crumbling neighbourhood that houses both the poor and the bohemian — where artists live next to refugees next to organic-food-only cafes next to small shop owners next to students. This is where I lived when I first moved to Amman.

I remember the day I met the family well. I’d had some bad news the evening before and had spent the morning channelling my anger into the treadmill at the gym. I was stomping back to the flat with angry music blasting through my headphones when I almost bumped into a little girl by the main entrance to our building.

I took my headphones out.

“Do you live here?” She asked me.

“Yes. On the second floor. Do you live here too?”

“Yes. On the first floor.”

“What’s your name?”

“Emmeline.”

“What’s yours?”

“Nour.”

Nour was ten but had the air of a girl much older. She was confident and spoke quickly and strongly with no hint of shyness. She seemed accustomed to speaking to people older than herself. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail. She was wearing a pink Adidas tracksuit.

Nour’s mum, Zainab, walked through the door.

“Mama, this is Emmeline,” Nour said. “She lives on the second floor.”

“Nice to meet you,” Zainab said, smiling at me.

“And you,” I replied.

Nour took me by the hand and began pulling me towards the elevator.

“Come!” She insisted.

“Oh… no…” I protested, thinking Nour’s mother probably didn’t really want me to come round and bother them.

“Yes, please, come for coffee,” Zainab said to me.

I went back to their apartment where there were two more girls waiting. Fatima, who was twelve, and Arwa, who was six. The apartment was the same layout as my own: an open-plan living room and kitchen, a bathroom and two bedrooms.

The girls sat me down on the sofa while Zainab made the coffee.

“Can I do your hair?” Nour asked me.

“Go ahead,” I replied.

“Where are you from?” The girls asked as they plaited my hair.

“Britain.”

“We’re from Syria,” Zainab told me as she put the kettle on.

“From Damascus,” Fatima added.

“Yeah, Baba’s in Damascus,” Nour said.

I didn’t know how to respond. What do you say to someone whose father is in Damascus? I’m sorry? Is he safe?

In a second this little girl asking me if I wanted the pink sparkly scrunchie or the blue ribbon in my hair had put everything into perspective. I had spent a morning wrapped up in my own issues, feeling sorry for myself, when all that time three little girls in the apartment below me had been worrying about their father in a war zone.

“Really?” I said. “I’ve heard Syria is a beautiful country.”

They all beamed at me.

“It’s much prettier than Jordan. Amman is not a nice city. Damascus is much more beautiful.” They said this almost in a chorus. It was the enthusiastic response of four women who miss their home with all their hearts.

I stayed about an hour with Zainab and the girls that day. They showed me pictures of all their relatives and their home in Damascus and gave me origami swans that they’d made with the Japanese woman on the third floor. A few days later I went round for dinner and then I began to see them most days. Gradually we came to know each other well.

After a few weeks their father, Abdallah, came to Amman too. Zainab had been a teacher in Damascus and Abdallah had been a photojournalist and cameraman. Abdallah’s job meant that the family were targeted as soon as the civil war started and Zainab and the girls fled Syria in 2011. Abdallah had family in Jordan who were able to rent them this apartment cheaply and thus they managed to escape spending time in any of the refugee camps. Most of their family and friends have also fled Syria and are now scattered across the Middle East.

Some people, however, have remained behind. I remember once Zainab showed me a picture of an elderly woman.

“This is my mother,” she said, smiling faintly as though recalling happy memories. “I haven’t seen her for three years. She’s still in Syria.”

Zainab’s voice began to crack. “I don’t know if I will ever see her again…”

She began to cry.

“I’m never going to see her again,” she repeated.

There was nothing to say. I hugged her tight.

“We have nothing here,” she sobbed. “We used to have a home, a car, a life. We don’t have any money. We need the food coupons but they keep cutting them with no warning. We want to work but it’s illegal. None of us have anything.”

She showed me another picture. This time I was looking at a baby, around six months old, with chubby cheeks and those big wide baby eyes that make you feel simultaneously as though they cannot understand anything and as though they can see every little part of you.

“This is my friend’s baby girl.” Zainab said. “She’s sick but my friend can’t afford the medicines. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

She was crying again.

“She’s so beautiful,” she said as she looked at the picture.

Just then Arwa stormed into the room in that melodramatic six year old way. She was upset about something. Zainab jumped up, wiped away her tears, and immediately saw to Arwa. Her children would never see her crying.

I became closer and closer to the family. I would play clapping games with the girls, watch Arab Idol with them and dance with them. Although I tried to refuse, knowing how little the family had, Zainab always fed me wonderful meals. When I was ill they gave me herbal medicines and teas. When I was sexually assaulted they comforted me: they gave me food but I was shaking so badly that I couldn’t get the fork to my mouth and when the tears came Zainab cried with me and hugged me. The girls, too young to understand what had happened, held my hands and showed me videos of Disney princess songs until I was smiling again.

This is a woman who has known pain, so much pain, yet she still has time for mine. These are children who have had everything taken from them, yet they still find the love within them to show me compassion.

The girls were entitled to free education in Amman. Zainab and Abdallah devoted themselves to the girls’ work, encouraging them in all their subjects, doing homework with them, instilling in them ambition and drive. The life of a Syrian refugee in Jordan often seems without opportunity or possibility; higher education is incredibly expensive for a non-Jordanian and therefore completely unattainable for most refugees. Employment is completely prohibited. As long as the family remained in Jordan, the girls had until they were eighteen to educate themselves and live as a relatively equal citizen. Once they reached eighteen their lives would halt, the world around them sealed off behind red tape. Zainab and Abdallah were painfully aware of that, but they never let the girls believe anything other than that the possibilities and the world were open to them.

It was obvious to the family, as it is obvious to many Syrian refugees, that Jordan, necessarily preoccupied with responding to the crisis in the short-term, trying to ensure that people have water and do not freeze to death in the tents in the winter, is not yet capable of providing the refugees with any meaningful long-term existence. They had to get out if they wanted a life.

They applied for asylum in Sweden and their application was accepted. I arrived at their home one day and they all rushed over to me excitedly.

“We’re leaving for Sweden at the end of the month!”

I believed them. We said an emotional goodbye when I left for the UK for Christmas. But when I got back to Amman in the new year they were still there.

By the third time they told me they were leaving, I no longer believed it.

Months passed and the promise of a new life in Sweden began to seem like another cruel method of torture designed to slowly drain them of their vitality. They had to wait for a phone call from the embassy to tell them that they could leave. The call could come at any time.

Abdallah looked increasingly exhausted. Zainab became quieter, more subdued. Unable to work, they were prevented from providing for their children as they yearned to, helpless to alter their situation.

It was heartbreaking seeing the suitcases waiting by the door, packed and ready for months on end. It was heartbreaking listening to the girls count from one to ten in Swedish, and heartbreaking watching Zainab sew a traditional Swedish dress for Arwa.

Then one day I turned up at their door:

“We’re leaving tonight!” They said.

It was actually happening. There was life in their eyes. The promise of a new start, of a home, a career, a future, was becoming a reality.

I can’t quite believe it, but the family is in Sweden now. It is not going to be easy. Zainab and Adballah will have to learn Swedish to a very good level before they can get a job that actually fits their experience and qualifications. The little girls will have to make friends in a new language and a new culture and deal with all the difficulties of being the one who’s “different”. They have never left the Arab World before — there is no doubt that this will be a tough adjustment.

But I have every faith that they will get there. Last week Zainab sent me a photo of the girls on Fatima’s thirteenth birthday, standing behind a fantastic cake that Zainab had baked herself, Arwa climbing on the chairs as usual.

This is how it should be: three little girls, who’ve been through pain that no child should ever suffer, smiling on a birthday, with access to all the opportunities that, for a few years, it looked as though they would be denied.

This is how it should be: when children are driven from their homes, we need follow Sweden’s example and show that we will not let this mark the end of their lives, that we will continue to care for the people on whom the world has turned its back. Syria’s neighbours are reaching breaking point with the influx of refugees; we need to play a part, we need to open our doors.

On one level, the endless stream of people looking to rebuild their broken lives in Jordan can remind you of the crueller side of humanity.  The wars, the oppression — it’s here and I can’t force it from my mind. Yes, I could get bogged down in this. I could look at the refugees from Syria and Iraq, the recent chemical weapons use by Assad, the atrocities committed by ISIS, the re-election of Netanyahu and wonder if human compassion exists at all.

But instead I have met the people behind the statistics and with them I wonder whether human kindness has any limits. How is it possible for people who have shed so many tears themselves to still have time for my own? How is it possible for someone living off food coupons to still insist on cooking for her guests? Life in Amman, a city and a country whose history has been shaped by refugees, is a daily reminder of all the hate, of Assad, ISIS, Netanyahu and the bombs we’ve dropped in the name of democracy, but it is also a daily reminder that people’s hearts are strong: you can crush bones but you cannot crush love.

(All names in this article are changed.)Featured image

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