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The last camel

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Many Syrian refugees have every intention of going home. Meanwhile, others don’t have homes to return to; their families have been all but obliterated.

Munir Atalla
4 March 2013

The swell in Syrian refugees in Jordan has many news networks worried.  “What effect will the refugees have on Jordan?” they ask.  True, Jordan scarcely has enough resources for its own population, but has proven to be a generous host in the true sense of the word.  The Bedouins tell the parable of a stranger in the desert who stumbled upon the tent of a lone Bedouin.  The stranger was starving, but noticed that the man was frail and malnourished.  Still, the Bedouin insistently went out back and slayed his last camel in order to feed his guest.  With water resources scarce, and neighbors in the Gulf and allies in the UK falling through on their promises of aid to Syria, Jordan is eyeing its last camel. 

Still, most channels have been singing one note, leaving several others untouched, including the experience of the Syrian refugees .  With access to the camps being strictly limited by Jordanian officialdom, the stories of individual refugees are a rare glimpse into life in a refugee camp.  The British think tank Chatham House recently released the story of Ahmed, a farmer from the Deraa countryside:

“They killed my son, he wasn’t involved in any demonstrations, just working the fields, when a sniper shot him in the head. Even then, though, I didn’t want to leave. But then we heard stories of Assad’s men, the shabbiha, raping women in Deraa, systematically using sexual violence as a weapon. I was scared for my daughters so we fled. We hid in the forests for three months, preparing to cross; we managed to avoid any Syrian troops, and climbed over the border at night. Then we were stopped by a Jordanian soldier and I was scared he might send us back as we had no papers. He just said ‘alf ahla’ [a thousand welcomes]. I wept.

This heartbreaking story tells us first that the situation in Syria has descended into a state of near anarchy and second that Jordanian soldiers have received orders to take in Syrian refugees, although there have been clashes.  That which separates a refugee from an immigrant is the longing and intention to return. Many Syrian refugees have every intention of going home.  Meanwhile, others don’t have homes to return to; their families have been all but obliterated.  In 2006, half a million Iraqis sought refuge in Jordan.  Before that, there were Lebanese and before them Palestinians.    Since then, Palestinian refugees have only multiplied.  Many Iraqis have settled down.  For Syrians, return is still an option.  But many will be asked to move on.  Will they be able to?

What is never properly quantified as the collateral damage of war is the number of psyches damaged and hearts broken.  Many refugees have fled, leaving their dead behind, unburied.  Many have no idea where their loved ones are to this day.  Each of us knows know to tell our own story, but for refugees, this means being able to open the floodgates of horrific memories. 

One of the ways memory is interpreted is through micro communities; as Syrians gather around in Za’atari camp in Jordan and elsewhere, they will start creating their narratives and healing their wounds.

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