On the Edge of Syria

Story and photo by Devin Windelspecht, windelspecht.d@husky.neu.edu

The Syrian Civil War represents one of the greatest humanitarian disasters in recent memory, comparable to, if not in some ways greater than, the the conflicts in Rwanda, Bosnia, or Somalia in the 1990s. In a country of just over 15 million, 6 million people are internally displaced within Syria, while over 4.8 million refugees have fled outside the country from a war– at the time of this writing nearly six years old– that has seen the deaths of thousands and witnessed the rise of one of the most dangerous and fanatical terrorist organizations since Al-Qaeda.

Officially, there are around 600,000 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan, a small, arid Middle Eastern country nestled between Syria, Israel, and Iraq that I traveled to on dialogue during the summer of 2016. Estimates by UNICEF and other international organizations place that number far higher, to somewhere closer to 1.4 million– to say nothing of the refugees from Iraq and other fragile states in the greater Middle East who are themselves fleeing conflict in an increasingly unstable region.

Altogether, Jordan’s population– which before the war hovered somewhere around 6.5 million and today pushes towards the 10 million mark– now consists of around 30% refugees. When compared to the one million Syrian refugees the entirety of Europe has taken in, or the mere thousands the 300 million large United States has given refuge to, those numbers are astronomical.

Perhaps thirty minutes from the northern Jordanian city of Mafraq, past the town of Za’atria where one of the largest refugee camps in the world now resides, a small farm rests but a few miles from the Syrian border. This farm is something unique: it’s a refuge, a place where 150 Syrian families can live, work, and make a salary as laborers all under the patronage of one Jordanian farmer who opened his arms to the refugees flooding across the border.

To us on the dialogue, the farm presented a rare opportunity: to sit down beside, interact with, and talk to the very Syrian refugees who we so often see on our news feeds, and whom we have been told to be afraid of by the likes of far-right voices in Europe and the States. Although we are too large of a group to enter the main refugee camps of Za’atarie and Azraq in Jordan, here we had the opportunity to hear these people’s stories, to listen to their hopes for the future and try to understand how they continue to move forward, day by day, after three, four, five years estranged from their homes.

Yes, we did enter one afternoon on an air conditioned bus, and left later in the evening aboard the same bus. Yes, we could go home to showers and beds while these people would continue to sleep in tents. And yes, there is a fair amount of guilt to be had in doing so– I won’t say that I changed the world simply by talking to some families or playing soccer with children. I didn’t.

But I can relay what these people had to say to us, and that in and of itself is valuable.

Many of the men and women that we met were from Aleppo, a city north of Damascus near the Turkish border that has endured some of the worst of the conflict’s fighting. Some of them had trekked for  over 15 days to reach the Jordanian border, braving shelling, gunfire, and hunger in an attempt to escape the turmoil of their country.

For them, there was no home to go back to– their houses were destroyed, the families and friends they left behind often unaccounted for and feared the worst for. That is the reality of being a refugee: sitting and waiting for a conflict to end, hoping to one day be able to go back without knowing if the place you grew up in, raised kids in, and called home still exists, or if your friends and neighbors are even still alive. It is being in a constant state of limbo, with the world continuing on even as your life seems to halt to a stop.

These people were taxi drivers. Construction workers. And now they were displaced, homeless, without hope in the future or of the future of their children, many of whom were born in Jordan without ever knowing Syria. Those were the things that we heard, and one more, very powerful question:

Where is America?

Over and over this was asked. Where is America, where are the United States. If the United States is so powerful, if it can lead armies in Iraq and bring down Osama Bin Laden, if it truly is a power of human rights and democracy, than why hasn’t it stopped what has happened in Syria?

Why can’t the United States, in all of its power, let them go home?

I could tell them about the politics of International Relations and Political Science that we so often hear in the classroom at Northeastern. I could tell them how, in our current political environment, nearly half our country sees them not as taxi drivers and construction workers but as Muslims, as foreign, and thus dangerous. I could try to explain how, back home, good, honest people just like them have been misled into believing that, somehow, refugees like them are a threat.

But I couldn’t. Because no explanation could give them their homes back. No rumination of politics and international affairs could give them hope that their friends and families are still alive. No insistence that not all Americans are afraid, not all are intolerant, can bring back those who have already been lost.

A wall stands not far from one of the largest refugee camps in Jordan, Za’atarie, painted by the hands of children displaced by the Syrian War. On it, in Arabic, a single phrase is written: “The Future is Between Our Hands”

On the wall children have scrawled notes and drawn pictures of their memories from Syria: their houses, now probably destroyed, are most prominent. But there are also tanks. Men with guns. Helicopters and planes raining bombs. These are the memories that an entire generation of children will always have, will always carry with them.

And yet, despite everything, the war still wages. Despite the enormity of the humanitarian catastrophe staring us in the face, we, as an international community, have continue to allow this to happen. We, as an international community, have not yet solved this conflict. We have not yet allowed those displaced from it to return to what remains of their homes. Instead we face a continuation of the seemingly endless years of violence that will forever scar a generation of survivors, with no real end in sight.

That, above all, is our collective moral failure.