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Spending Time with Jordan’s Invisible Refugees

Elizabeth Dickinson spent time with Syrian refugees in Amman. Here’s what she found.

Written by Elizabeth Dickinson Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes

The neighborhood children throw rocks when Fatema’s two older children, aged four and five, go outside. So for months, they’ve stayed inside two rooms in a bare apartment carved into a Jordanian hillside. No one is rich in Abdun Valley, Amman, so the family’s poverty doesn’t stand out. It’s them. “The immigrants,” they say. Syrians.

I walk into their lives as a stranger, too. I don’t know the smell of the wheat at the farm Fatema’s family owned in Deraa, or the taste of the chickpeas she harvested and mixed with olive oil. It was a land they once called the Roman bread basket, until soldiers marched in. First, the army came and chopped the olive trees so rebels would have nowhere to hide in the brush. Then the families nearby scrambled to collect the firewood. They burned their livelihood in order to live, one night at a time.

I can almost feel the shivers that go up and down her children’s spines when Mahmoud, my friend in Jordan, pops a balloon. Was that the shelling, the jets, the bombs, now inside those two safe rooms? To be contained was not something they knew on a farm. Now their eyes squint slightly as they try to stay brave. A doll lies on the floor, unable to comfort anyone anymore.

To be a stranger, again and again, fleeing the land you tended by hand to a capital where you were crammed between fellow refugees. In Damascus, they were supposed to be safe among their fellow displaced; everyone was lost and somehow equal in their despair. But the war came and it massacred. What did they witness? It’s as if the memory is too dark to see.

But now they are here in Jordan, outside all of that, but ever outside. First it was Zaatari camp, meant to contain the other Syrian immigrants. Fatema paid smugglers to get them out. In Amman, they paid a landlord to get in. They keep paying, even though everyone tells them it is too much for the apartment they have.

The water only comes to Abdun Valley once every two weeks, and it bypasses their home. One day, Fatema was thirsty, and her children cried. She knocked on neighbors’ doors, but they shouted back instead of opening. A Sri Lankan woman walked by. She gave Fatema a drink.

I am a stranger, I am new here too. But when I look into Fatema’s eyes, I see someone like myself. I see Fatema, a friend I could have known all my life — middle class, educated, shy. I see her up at night thinking about how to make the crooked sheet that divides the bedroom from the kitchen hang straight. I hear her counting the money out loud, because it doesn’t take long, even though it is all small bills.

I see Fatema, but she can hardly see herself anymore. It’s too dark in here.

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