I sat on the floor cushions in Ahmed’s majlis—the front room of an Arabic house used to entertain guests—with a woman from South Africa and her Canadian husband who is native to the Middle East. A purple curtain demarcated the room from the front door. The dilapidated, yellow walls shine a little bit brighter than normal today since Ahmed pulled aside the drapes which hung over the two windows.
Ahmed swung his stiff left leg—injured from a motorcycle accident in 2008—around and used his hands to push himself up. He hobbled to the fan and directed it toward his sweating guests. Summer in the desert without AC is brutal.
We all made small talk for a while. We were there to drop off some food and diapers for their family, and, as all Arabs do, they invited us in to enjoy some tea and coffee—even though they were fasting for Ramadan.
I sat and listened as Ahmed and my friends went back and forth about who we are, how Ramadan was going, and so on. The only word I knew in Arabic was shukran, which means thank you, so I watched and listened for clues that could help answer questions I had. Was he happy here? Sad? Exasperated? Angry? Every turn of his hand, every inflection of his voice might point to how he plays the cards dealt to him.
Early in our conversation, I noticed the corners of his lips turn down and his voice soften—tremble almost. My friends translated for me:
Back in 2012, our nineteen-year-old son was ordered to serve in the Syrian military. We were devastated. If there was any thought of us fleeing the country, there was none now. We couldn’t leave our oldest son, alone, in war torn Syria, so we decided to stay in hope—hope that the war would end soon, hope that our son would return to us, hope that our home would once again be our home.
Early in 2013, we received news that a bomb had dropped on our son’s unit. He was dead. The military didn’t send us his remains or tell us where he was. At this point we realized enough was enough.
I had family and friends flee to Turkey, so we decided to do the same. When we arrived on the border, we were turned away. Since we were leaving two years after the beginning of the war, and Turkey was the country that received the most Syrians, they had begun restricting their borders. Because of this, we decided to escape to a “safe” village in Syria.
A week within moving into the village, bombs dropped on the two buildings adjacent to our new home. All night, my family hid underneath the stairwell, wailing in fear. Our neighbors tried to console us—“You should still stay here. This is one of the safest places in Syria.” But, why would we? Our son is dead.
So, we decided to go to Jordan, but we had only one way to successfully reach the border—hire smugglers. In order to receive the services of the smugglers, we had to pay them $60,000 USD. $60,000 to hopefully, maybe, make it to safety. What other choice did we have?
By the grace of God, we arrived in Jordan and were sent by the military to the Zaatari refugee camp—fifteen kilometers from the Syrian border. In hopes of receiving a knee surgery to fix my torn ligaments and patella tendon from the motorcycle accident, we sought a sponsor in a nearby city. If we are sponsored by a citizen, we receive the rights of a Jordanian. But, we had to find this person from the confines of our refugee camp, and it was nearly impossible.
We only had one option at this point—to sneak out of the camp and hope we aren’t caught by the UN or the Jordanians. While we didn’t get caught, it took us too long to find a sponsor, and I lost my surgery appointment and the opportunity to fix my knee. Now, I need $8,000 USD for my surgery, and as a Syrian, it is illegal for me to work here. Even if I could work, my leg hinders me from being able to stand on my feet for long.
But here I am. My family is safe, and while life is hard, the government allowed us to come here when no one else would. I praise God for them. I have friends who fled to Lebanon, and they are being oppressed there even though our country gave them asylum in the ’80s during their civil war.
I know we are treated poorly by some, but does that mean they are all bad? If one of my five kids was bad, should the whole family be punished for his conduct? Absolutely not. If a handful of Jordanians treat Syrians poorly, should I hate Jordan for those few evil ones? Absolutely not! In the midst of their struggling economy, Jordan opened their gates wide for us. I can even understand why the Jordanians would be frustrated at our presence. I’m sure they are questioning the government and saying, “You can’t even take care of us. Why would you let them drain our resources!” Nonetheless, I have only love in my heart for this place and their people.
Only love? We were all floored. No hints of bitterness, no hatred in his voice—only a deep sorrow and a grateful heart. No sense of entitlement, no vengeful spirit—only grace and love.
I looked at the floor, covered by a green, black, and beige arabic mat, and sipped my coffee. The sun had moved across the sky as Ahmed told his story. The light that had filled the room with such splendor slowly drifted toward the floor, and now it was Ahmed’s goodness that filled the room with beauty.
Cover image by Igor Ovsyannykov.