In 2015, maternity leave and a pre-tenure sabbatical through Connecticut College took Waed Athamneh, PhD’14, back to her native Jordan. It was there that she spoke with more than 20 women living in the al-Zaatari Camp, which has been home to more than 80,000 Syrian civil war refugees since 2012.
“I have a whole year, so what can I do? There was the Syrian war, camps, and the refugees, and I said, ‘You know what? This is an opportunity for me to learn more about it,’” Athamneh recalls.
She set out to collect stories directly from refugee women rebuilding their lives in the camp. She wanted the world to hear firsthand accounts of refugee life. In doing so, she gathered dozens of stories of these women, some agreeing to be published and others simply wanting to be heard. She shares some of these stories in her second book, Defiance in Exile: Syrian Refugee Women in Jordan, published in 2021.
“I was challenged at the beginning that this was not going to be easy. [People asked] ‘What are you doing there, and why?’ I said, ‘I just want to give [the world] these stories. I want to talk to these people. I want to learn,’” Athamneh says. “That’s my character as a researcher. When you are challenged, you are more motivated.”
In the following interview, Athamneh—a second-generation IU graduate—remembers her experience in the al-Zaatari Camp and how it changed her life forever.
For those who haven’t read the book, describe al-Zaatari Camp.
Waed Athamneh: It took me months to get a permit to enter the camps because they don’t let anybody in. You must be a refugee or an official. If you’re a journalist or a researcher, you need an official permit from the government.
It’s like a little town. It’s over 5 kilometers (more than 2 square miles). There are specific issues and problems with camps, especially in a very poor country like Jordan. They were just starting to have private bathrooms. In most families, women were the breadwinners. Men were either disabled or dead.
They have 20 districts inside. I was told by officials: “Some of these districts, they don’t allow anybody in. And even for us, we cannot get involved. It is their law. And whatever happens, we cannot get involved. Even if a crime happens, they take care of it themselves.”
How do Jordanians feel about al-Zaatari?
WA: Jordanians opened their doors, and they shared their life, their schools, their money, everything. Jordan and Syria, the Arab world is very close. Jordanian, Egyptian, Palestinian—we are one country, we are one world.
How did the women receive you when you asked them to tell stories?
WA: They were really very kind and nice, and they shared whatever they had.
I told them, “Say what you want and tell me what you don’t want me to write.” They [called me their] therapist. I just took my recorder there, and I told them, “Go ahead.”
There were so many private stories, hundreds of hours. They said, “Can I just say it? I feel like hell, and I want to talk to a stranger who will never tell anyone.”
How did writing about such an emotional, humanitarian crisis affect you as the author?
WA: It was very, very taxing psychologically. I couldn’t read the book in its entirety after it was published because it’s very, very emotional for me. I go through hell just remembering what I went through—being there, listening to these stories, and not being able to do anything. All I could do was [write] this book.
What impact do you hope this book has on its readers?
WA: It’s a platform for these women to say what they wanted to say, but I was hoping for more, like from non-governmental organizations. At the end of the book, there is an action plan. I don’t know if [the book] changed anything, but at least I did what I promised them, that I would get the stories out.
I want it to reach the public more than I want it to reach libraries and professors. I wrote this book because I was in Jordan, and I wanted to do something about the situation.
Do you plan to visit al-Zaatari Camp in the future?
WA: I want to take copies [of the book] to the camp. There’s a library and a school there. I [won’t be able to] find the same people [I interviewed] because it was a random selection. I didn’t ask for their real names or districts.
Do you intend to cover more refugee stories in the future?
WA: I’m working on a book on the women of the Holy Land. I’m interested in interviewing women in Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, and Israel to document oral history. They will be Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Arabs. It’s a big project for me, because I learned so much talking to the Syrian refugees, and I discovered that we’re all refugees in one way or another. You are a refugee on Earth.
Rapid fire with Waed
Name a book that you would like to see turned into a movie.
WA: Defiance in Exile. I saw it as a movie when the women were talking to me.
What’s your favorite place for a writer’s retreat?
WA: Bloomington. The people in Indiana are so nice. I’ll go for four or five days and just walk [around].
What is a book that you always recommend to people?
WA: The Garden of Heaven by Hafiz. It’s poetry of love and humanity.
Who sees your manuscripts first?
WA: My father, Naser Al-Hassan, MA’80, PhD’82. He reads to my mom, Ayda Al-Hassan, MA’82, and then they both discuss it. Also, Suzanne Stetkevych, who was my PhD advisor at Indiana University. You take your advisor wherever you go, and for 16 years, she has been my mentor.
Read an excerpt from Defiance in Exile: Syrian Refugee Women in Jordan.
This story is part of our IU alumni author series, Novel Ideas.