In Defiance in Exile, Waed Athamneh, PhD’14, and Muhammad Masud offer us many moving portraits of the perilous situation of Syrian refugees in camps in Jordan. Simultaneously, we are inspired by the heroic acts and resilience of refugees clasping onto faith and dignity. This book rightly focuses on the plight of women and their families. Why so many women feel compelled to leave hearth and home to become refugees is surely obvious. Women fear not only for themselves; often women’s most overwhelming concern is to protect their offspring from the dangers of certain death, especially if they are forced to fend for themselves in situations of war. Escaping death is one thing. To escape a life of debilitating poverty is another, despite the best charitable support available from time to time.
Wherever refugees go they have to begin a life of normality anew. But for every refugee, normal is never the same. It is always a “new normal,” one that is frequently shadowed by pain, grief, and loss. Yet sometimes there are flickers of hope, what the authors describe as a glimmer of light. Athamneh and Masud have given us one detailed portrait of the lives of Syrian refugees who were driven out of Syria by a pitiless civil war.
Point of No Return
We were sitting in the living room, waiting for news. It started as distant sounds of bombings. Then the bombings escalated. We did not have time to prepare for this. We did not know if war would reach our town. We refused to think about it. The bombings continued non-stop. We ran to the underground cellar. Men, women, and children. All hurried. We covered the children’s heads with our bare hands. We worried a bomb would reach them at any minute.
After long hours in the dark, the morning arrived. We left the cellar and went to the house. We picked out a few things and left. We were racing against time. Against a time bomb. We arrived at a neighboring town. We discovered it was attacked and the ones who were not killed left. Nobody was there. We stayed there briefly. This time we evacuated to al-Zaatari Camp. Some families went to Lebanon, some to al-Zaatari, some to other places. We left, carrying nothing but children.
It was not a smooth journey. We left everything behind. Horror made us leave. We could not look back. We were happy to reach the Jordanian border. None of us left home by choice. It was by force. I was never ready to leave home. But I had to walk with the rest of the group. When we arrived at the camp, I saw what I saw. I said, “I want to return to Syria.” The camp was not like this, not like it is now. The first year was the hardest. My heart gradually gave up and hope within me faded away. I left my daughter behind in Syria. She got married two months before we left. I was torn between thinking about her and getting by here.
Home is where you spend time with the ones you love. Home is safety. Home is warmth. Home is the comfort of your children around you.
My second daughter, Sama, came with us. She got married here. She returned with her husband to Syria. Her husband insisted on returning. We were torn to see her go. We think about her every day. We worry we will hear bad news about her. We pray God will save everyone in Syria.
I have to say, life at the camp now is much better. Imagine leaving the comfort of your home to live in a tent, or even in a caravan like we do now. When we first arrived it was extremely hot. We looked for any shade to sit in to hide from the sun. We lived for two months in the tent, thank God. Now we have water, bathrooms, and electricity. Not long ago it became available from 7:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m.
My husband and I do not work. The kids cannot work either. I would rather not complain. I do not like to complain. I just say, thank God. My husband’s hair became white here. He questions his self-worth day and night. He cannot sit idle, without a job. The children ask for things, but we cannot afford anything. I have two sons, refugees, and two daughters here. One of the girls is fourteen. Her sisters got married early. She is too young. Why hurry to get married?
I miss my daughters in Syria. I told my husband we need to return to Syria despite the dangers. Then I say to myself, I will destroy my family here if I insist on returning to connect to my family there. My town is not safe. When I call my daughter, I ask her, “How is life?,” and she makes me promise not to return. She says it is not safe. I just feel like my daughters are lonely there, and I have to support them. I have to be there for them. And here for the second part of my family.
I hope things change here. I hope life gets better for everybody. People rise every day and make the best of what they have despite the lack of resources. We share an aspiration: opportunities and jobs for all. I saved some money after selling one of our houses in Syria. It helped us the first few months here. People wish for war to end. People want to return to Syria. To their homes. To their families. To their gardens and lives.
Excerpt from Defiance in Exile: Syrian Refugee Women in Jordan by Waed Athamneh. Copyright © 2021 by the University of Notre Dame. Reprinted by permission of University of Notre Dame Press. All Rights Reserved.