A thousand suns have set on Syria’s forgotten refugees

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

Some things are simply too big to be taken in all at once. Raise your eyes one night to the sky, to the blackness sprayed with millions of stars, and try seeing all of it. It can’t be done. It overwhelms.

The best you can do is to fix on a star or two and imagine the sheer vastness of the heavens through them. For sometimes, what you can’t grasp in whole, you can picture through its parts.

The same could be said about human suffering. Over 220,000 Syrians have been killed since the start of the war; 7.6 million are displaced inside Syria and 3.9 million are living as refugees in neighbouring countries. These are important numbers to know.

But they overwhelm. Numbers have a way of merging millions of faces into a blur of human tragedy, a calamity so sprawling, that, paradoxically, it undermines our ability to truly see it.

I recently returned from Jordan with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, meeting Syrian refugees and hearing about their experiences. Each encounter reminded me anew of the role of stories, why sometimes they can be more useful than numbers, why we need the tale of a Tom Joad to understand a Great Depression, why Rudyard Kipling said: “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”

Let me introduce you to Khalida, a bespectacled 70-year-old woman with jutting cheekbones and a schoolgirl’s laugh. Before the war, she lived a Syrian mother’s dream, surrounded, loved and supported by her nine grown children. But then war broke out, and Khalida learnt that armed groups were forcing young men to fight for them by threatening to assault and abuse their mothers. Khalida made a painful, and to me, stunning choice. She decided to deny the militants this leverage.

“I didn’t want to be the reason my sons had to fight,” she says, “so I left everything I had.”

She left her children, her home, her city. Alone and illiterate, Khalida tore herself from Syria and now lives on the outskirts of Amman, renting a nearly empty one-room apartment at the bottom of a steep hill.

In this new, tabula rasa existence, she is forced to fend for herself entirely. Her greatest expense is rent, and she pays for it with help from a kind Jordanian woman – though soon Khalida will be receiving help through UNHCR’s cash assistance programme, an initiative targeting the most vulnerable Syrian refugees.

Every day, Khalida climbs steep, battered steps uphill to the main road. She travels to a community centre in Madaba, a 40km trip taking over an hour, requiring her to hitch two car rides and board two buses, where she takes literacy classes in a room full of other Syrian women and young girls.

Khalida is the oldest and most enthusiastic student in the class, because for her, literacy is now an indispensable survival skill. She needs to read street signs, bus destinations, her medication labels. Despite a marked hand tremor, she has diligently filled entire notebooks.

Khalida misses Syria. She misses her home, and most terribly, her children. But she would rather live alone, with nothing, in a foreign country, than go back to Syria and put her sons at risk.

I am reminded of Genghis Khan’s famous utterance as he watched his mortal enemy, Jalal ad-Din, bravely leap into a river on horseback. “Every father should have such a son.” I marvel at Khalida’s will to survive, the magnitude of her self-sacrifice, her gumption. Indeed every son should have such a mother.

Um Anas is 43-years-old and 10 months ago, fearing for her kids’ lives, she left her home in Syria and fled to Jordan with seven of her children, including Marwa and Holood, aged 22 and 17, who are disabled, born with severe congenital arm and leg malformations.

Holood’s affliction is particularly heartbreaking, her nearly non-existent legs tucked under the hem of her dress, giving the illusory impression that her body ends abruptly at the waist.

For five months, Um Anas and the children moved from village to village inside Syria, sometimes by foot, sometimes by car, always looking for a safe place. Um Anas carried Holood on her back, or pushed her in a cart, while the boys carried their other sister. Um Anas thinks a lot about her other son and disabled daughter trapped in a besieged area in Syria with Um Anas’ husband and his second wife.

In Jordan, they first lived in Azraq camp, now home to some 18,000 Syrian refugees, but Um Anas knew that her disabled daughters would struggle in Azraq, a sprawling camp in a dusty swath of desert. “The ground was very hard and rugged. It’s a rocky terrain.” With assistance from the children’s paternal uncle, the family left Azraq camp after five months and now rent a room in a spartan, rundown apartment building near Madaba. Um Anas pays for rent with help from the same Jordanian woman who helps Khalida.

Um Anas and her children are safe in Jordan, but they lead a flimsily tethered life. The children get two small meals a day, olives and cheese in the morning, bread (often lifted from the rubbish bins of others) and tea in the afternoon for dinner.

The children don’t attend school. “I cannot afford the uniforms or the travel or the stationary,” Um Anas says. She says the trauma of war and not being in school has made them absent minded. “They stare a lot, they have lost concentration, they barely smile.”

A silver lining for her is that, because of her family’s extremely vulnerable state, she is about to receive 120 Jordanian Dinars (Dh622) a month through UNHCR’s cash assistance programme. The regular cash will not solve all her problems but it will help.

“In Syria I had high hopes but the war has taken those hopes,” Um Anas says. “I have no hope now apart from my children to get an education.”

These are but a few of the myriad stories. Every Syrian refugee has one. They accumulate, the stories, each distinct from another, each a voice in a chorus. And collectively, they lead back to the numbers. The numbers, in turn, lead back to us.

As an international community, we have watched the Syrian tragedy develop into the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. But the funding to support refugees like Um Anas has not kept up with the rapid expansion of the crisis.

In Jordan alone there are currently 16,000 vulnerable Syrian refugee families that have met the criteria to qualify for UNHCR’s cash assistance programme, yet they remain on a waiting list.

If we, as an international community, and as individuals, cannot bridge the funding gap, then we will increasingly see extremely vulnerable families forced to resort to desperate and dangerous coping mechanisms to simply survive – child labour, early marriage, homelessness.

In Jordan, I even heard of some families who have made the decision to return to Syria. Others, having escaped death in Syria, are gambling with their lives and making the treacherous sea crossing to Europe. No one should have to make that kind of choice.

An old Arab proverb says, patience is the key to relief. But millions of Syrians like Khalida and Um Anas need relief now. Patience is a luxury they, and we, cannot afford.

Khaled Hosseini is Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency and author of The Kite Runner

For more information visit www.unhcr.org/khaledhosseini

Published: May 29, 2015 04:00 AM

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