The Study of Syrian Refugees: From the Academic to the Actual

Dunya Habash

Out of the baking desert heat, I stepped into the even hotter eight-by-three meter corrugated metal box stamped with UNHCR’s logo. Eight faces turned to look up at me as I stumbled across the room with my camera equipment. I bowed in respect to the family’s father and kissed his wife on both cheeks in an attempt to thank them for allowing my intrusion into their cramped lives at Zaatari Syrian Refugee Camp. The mother ordered her daughter to prepare the coffee as I set up my equipment. I was nervous and the sweat rolling down my neck only made the situation worse. After months preparing for this moment I found myself hesitating to turn the camera on: Maybe I should chat with them first before starting the interview? I turned to a young girl sitting in the corner holding a baby. “What’s your name?” I asked in Arabic. No response. She stared blindly at the floor. I found out later that she was fourteen and the baby was her son, only three days old.

I met this teenage mother, Amira, the summer of 2014, while filming my documentary about Zaatari, itself only two years old.  Built in 2012 to accommodate the thousands of Syrian refugees who were crossing the border in search of safety, the camp now houses about 80,000 Syrian refugees in the middle of the Jordanian desert.

Recounting Amira’s story will reveal a tragic narrative of war, violence, death, and displacement--a narrative that almost justifies her decision to marry young. Almost. However, my intention is not to add yet another story to the plethora of violent snippets we receive about the war in Syria and the mass exodus it created. Our newsfeeds do a good job of this already. I want to illustrate the resilience of the Syrian people, their willpower to survive and succeed despite the world standing against them. Thinking about Syrian refugees in this way, seeing the beauty in their survival, will help us empathize with them more than when seeing them as victims,  or worse, seeing them as beggars who can do nothing more than wait for international handouts.

And Amira’s story is not the only one I have about Syrians living in camps in Jordan or who made it to Europe.  There are more.  All gathered first-hand.  All true.  None romanticized for a good read.  The details are real.

Ameer was sixteen when he left the love of his life in Damascus to cross the border into Jordan with his family in 2013. At the time, Zaatari was barely a year old and most people were still living in tents. As the oldest son, he worked hard to help rebuild his family’s life in the camp, trading what he could to upgrade the free tent from UNHCR to a corrugated metal trailer known as a caravan, registering his family members with all the NGOs in the camp so they could have access to various services such as healthcare and schooling, and, most importantly, finding a store to purchase minutes for his cell-phone so that his family could stay connected with loved ones left behind in Syria.  The thought of Tasneem never left  him, no matter how busy he was with bettering his life in this new home.   He often replayed the scene of his final night in Damascus, the one at his aunt’s house because she lived in the same building as Tasneem’s family. After everyone went to bed, he left the flat  and called  to her, imploring her to join him outside. They spent the next few hours in each other’s arms, arms that would soon be empty. In Zaatari, Ameer uses this memory to ease--and to sustain-- his yearning.

Rana left Aleppo about a year ago. She watched her father cry at the doorway of her childhood home as he said goodbye to his only daughter. He didn't stop her from leaving. She couldn’t stop from leaving.  She spent about a week traveling through Turkey via bus and train, crossing the Aegean Sea by inflatable boat and continuing through Eastern Europe until she made it to a "camp" in Austria. There are now dozens of these camps across Europe, housing refugees until their ‘status’ is determined. My aunt, who lives in Linz, offered to host this young refugee so that she would not have to live alone in one of these camps. I recently met Rana while visiting my aunt between terms. At first, I did not believe Rana had taken this journey, but the details of her story were too sharp, too vivid, not to be true. She told me how she barely slept for a week, afraid to miss a bus stop or have her only bag with all her belongings stolen. She told me about the mud field she crossed on foot, walking for hours without rest, trying to help the older women who were making the same journey alone.

“How did you feel crossing the Aegean sea on an inflatable boat?”

“I didn’t. I couldn’t feel or think. I was just moving, trying to get as far as I could as fast as I could. Being with other Syrians making the same journey gave me some comfort.”

Back in Zaatari, Ameer dutifully called Tasneem at least once a day. He did this for a year, holding on to the hope that her family would decide to cross the border and move to Zaatari one day. He asked her to wait for him.  Someday, he promised her, he was going to be with her again, and they would get married. He didn’t know how or when, but he knew it would happen. In the meantime, he found a job with one of the NGOs and used his paycheck to help his family improve their situation in the camp. The little he could save for himself, he put away for his future life with Tasneem. Time passed. One day, he heard the news that would change his life--his girl was moving to Zaatari.

Rana got married a few weeks ago to a Syrian refugee working as a chef in Linz, Austria. Their wedding was cozy and elegant, full of love, friends in exile, and good Syrian food. I held Rana’s cell-phone throughout the evening so that her family could see the wedding via Skype. I watched her mother cry as she watched her only daughter’s wedding through a computer screen thousands of mile away, back in war-torn Aleppo. I watched Rana beg her mother to stop crying as she, herself, could not hold back the tears on her wedding day. Even so, she looked so beautiful.