In an attempt to stimulate tourism, the Jordan Tourism Board invited a group of editors and journalists to tour their country. I was fortunate enough to be included in the group. I look forward to sharing with you some of my thoughts and experiences during the trip.
Day 3: When hope is gone, what is left to lose?
If it wasn’t anger, it was a good imitation. The middle-aged Syrian woman who sat across the room from me had raised her voice and for added emphasis jabbed the air with her right forefinger.
The man who served as our contact sat beside Bill Webb, editor of Missouri’s Word & Way, and me on a foam rubber mat on the floor of a concrete cubicle. Measuring about 12-feet square, it is one of two rooms that house 15 members of an extended Syrian family of refugees. Although we arrived unannounced and interrupted energetic housecleaning, we were welcomed with only a slight hesitation.
As we explained our mission — to hear their stories and share them with our readers — one horrific account after another began to pour out as they spoke. Their stories were hard to hear and, had they not been so consistent and told with such brokenness, they would also have been hard to believe. Through our contact, who translated, I asked if they had actual first-hand knowledge of atrocities.
An old man began: “My neighbor who lived right above me decided to take pictures of the abuses he knew about. One night the government soldiers came for him. We found out later that they killed him. Somehow or other they hooked him to a car battery and tortured him until he died.”
Stories of soldiers bursting into homes to take people away were common and given as one of the principle reasons the people eventually rose in revolt.
But the grief the old man felt at losing his neighbor was nothing compared to the death of two sons. His wife told the story. “One of my sons was in the police, but when he was told to kill some people who had done nothing wrong, he said he could not do it. A while later they executed him. They put a gun to his head and killed him.”
Her daughter took up the story. “My other brother was praying in a mosque and he was killed by people shooting.”
So eager were they to tell someone what they had been through that sometimes several were talking all at once. I never understood whether the shooting that killed her brother in the mosque also wounded her two sons on June 1, 2012, or whether it was another. The boys, now 14 and 7, showed us their scars.
“I was afraid for my little brother,” the older told us. “So when I heard the shooting I grabbed him and fell on top of him. That’s when my leg was run over by a car whose driver was shot.” His fibula and tibia were broken in three places.
Both boys were also shot in the legs, the younger having a tendon behind his knee severed, making it impossible for him to lift his foot. He wears a device to keep his foot from drooping, but he needs a surgery, says his mother. And the parents have no hope of affording one. They can barely scrape enough together to pay the monthly rent of $170.
The boys’ older sister, who appeared to be 15 or 16, took on the broadcast media. “We heard what they said on television, that 1,400 people died in the gas attacks. It was many more than that. Many more! And the government mixed the gas so that it smelled like flour,” she reported without telling how she knew.
As word of our being there spread, others began to slip in and share their own trauma. A neighbor woman fled Syria, but they could not afford to pay for her husband to get out, so he stayed behind. I asked how much it would cost to get him out and she replied, “It depends on how much money someone wants that day.”
“Winter is coming and these are the only clothes we have,” she said, pulling at her dress.
That’s when she raised her voice and jabbed the air with her finger. “You know about the chemical weapons, and still you do nothing! We are out of hope!”
In our second interview, we spoke with a young couple, their daughter, 10, and their son, 6. “My brother is a medical doctor,” the woman said. “He disappeared six months ago and we do not know if he is alive or dead.”
For a year and a half they listened to the shelling and the air strikes. At night they sought protection by placing their thin foam mats on top of themselves. They could not sleep, and finally, they couldn’t take it anymore. Although the husband had applied for a passport before, the war brought such processing to a stop.
Realizing they were likely to be killed if they stayed in their home, they moved in with another family. Soon afterward, their home was destroyed by a bomb. They fled to protect their children.
They are settled now in an area of Amman made up predominately of Palestinians. The husband has no job and, because so many are in the same circumstance, little prospects of finding permanent work. He works as a day laborer when he can find it and says that half the time his pay is shorted because he has no means to find justice. He is in Jordan illegally. He said he wanted the American people to know that it was for freedom — basic human freedom — that the people in Syria revolted.
When word spread that the United States would not be bombing Syria after all, the wife became physically sick. With that word, all hope of returning to rebuild their home and start over evaporated.
Bill asked the woman what their greatest need was. She replied, “Every month it is so frightening because the landlord says, ‘You pay me, or you must get out.’ We have nowhere to go.”
No job, no money. No passport, no chance of leaving Jordan for somewhere with greater opportunity. In short, no hope.
I have not used any names because they are too frightened of vengeance attacks on family members who are still in Syria. Neither have I shared all their stories and, in the words of our contact person, “These stories, while still tragic, are mild compared to many I’ve heard.”
Three themes emerged:
• The evil (there’s no other word for it) that the Assad regime has committed against the people. One part of the first family with whom we spoke lived as farmers, but their city was surrounded and government forces laid siege for seven months. No food or water was allowed in. People were eating grass, they reported. One term that was used repeatedly sounded like “badah” and according to our translator means to slit someone’s throat.
• They felt crushed by the decision of the United States not to bomb Assad’s forces.
• They feel utter hopelessness. I asked the young man what he did with his rage. Without denying he had any, he said, “I take walks. I think I should talk to a psychiatrist, but there is no way I could think of affording one, so mostly I don’t do anything with it.” This is important, because, as another man told me, “If nothing happens, in 10 years you may be looking at a terrorist.”
Obviously, I cannot verify that everything they told me is the truth. But I can say that they told it for the truth, and they did so convincingly!
While I cannot blame them in the least for feeling the sense of outrage at what they regard as the world’s inaction, one of the benefits of not being mired in the hopelessness in which they find themselves is that we may discover a better way forward.
But we cannot do nothing. This is one of the greatest opportunities the church has ever had to love others — if we will seize it. If we do not shirk or shrink from this opportunity, who can imagine the good that can be done when half a million displaced persons discover that Christ’s people love them in deed as well as in word?
Jim White ([email protected]) is executive editor of the Religious Herald.