AMMAN, Jordan—Sitting on cushions in an almost-bare apartment in a crowded Palestinian neighborhood in Amman, Jordan, a family of Syrian refugees told their story through an interpreter to a pair of Americans.
The unannounced visit interrupted a day of housecleaning, but the family welcomed the visitors with little hesitation. The family described their experiences during the Syrian civil war and their exodus to find refuge in this ancient capital city in the nation immediately south of Syria.
They briefly described their life in Syria as farmers on fertile land that produced crops like barley, tomatoes and potatoes in good supply. Theirs was a good life, and they had been happy there.
But the good life disappeared. Government forces commanded by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad surrounded the people living in the area and cut off supplies. Troops intentionally trampled the crops, cutting off residents’ food source.
The family fled to Jordan several months ago.
The family’s 14-year-old son described the chilling experience on June 1, 2012, when soldiers opened fire. Bullets struck him in the leg and tore through the tendon of younger brother’s leg behind the knee. The older brother threw himself onto his younger sibling to protect him from further harm.
The driver of a nearby car also was hit. In trying to get away during the shooting, he ran over the older boy’s leg, breaking it in three places.
The 7-year-old still has not had his tendon repaired. He showed his scars and a crude brace that enables him to lift his foot as he walks.
His family still hopes the youngster eventually can have the needed surgery, but any money the family earns goes first to pay their monthly rent (nearly $150) and then to buy food. Their landlord threatens to evict them if they don’t pay on time. UNICEF provides food stamps.
The influx of about a half-million Syrian refugees into Jordan—a third in refugee camps but two-thirds scattered among the general population—guarantees a steady housing market. Refugees claim many landlords raise their rates for refugee families.
As the conversation continued, upstairs neighbors came in and more floor cushions appeared. The intensity of the stories increased, too, as each person recalled his or her pain and losses. In some cases, the tone was angry.
An older couple described their own losses—two sons.
“One of my sons was in the police,” the woman said, “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.”
The other son, they explained, died in an air strike as he prayed in a mosque.
The teenage daughter and others took issue with casualty numbers reported from chemical weapons attacks in the area where this family had lived. “We heard what they said on television, that 1,400 people died in the gas attacks. It was more than that — many more!” she said. She charged that government forces scented the gas with hibiscus to disguise its deadly odor.
A middle-aged woman from upstairs heatedly joined the resulting discussion, repeating a concern shared by all present. President Obama disappointed the refugees, she said. Their only hope of returning home was a U.S. strike that would have eliminated the Syrian president.
As long as Assad remains in power, they will continue to be refugees, they said.
The woman fled Syria, but her husband still is there. The family could not afford to pay for him to get out. Asked how much would be required, she shrugged. “It depends on how much money someone wants that day,” she said.
She raised her voice and became even more animated as she seemed to address Obama: “You know about the chemical weapons, and still do nothing! We are out of hope!”
Winter is coming, and the clothes on their backs are the only ones the refugees have, she lamented.
A short distance away, another family opened their apartment to share their story. This was a younger couple with a 10-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son.
They recalled ongoing government airstrikes every night back in Syria as the family huddled under thin foam mats, fearful and unable to sleep. The woman has nine siblings still in Syria, including a brother who is a medical doctor who disappeared months ago and still is missing. Her husband’s parents remain in Syria.
They left and moved in with another family in Syria before a bomb destroyed their home. To protect their children, they fled.
The father works when he can find it, but sometimes is shorted when he is paid. He has no recourse. He applied for a passport in Syria years earlier, but never received one, the process further delayed by the war. This makes him illegal in Jordan, without legal recourse when disputes over promised wages occur.
Revolt ‘about freedom’
He wants Americans to know the desire for basic human freedom is what made Syrians revolt against Assad.
His wife says she became physically sick when she learned the United States was not going to bomb Syria. That was their only hope of returning home and rebuilding their lives and home, she said.
Their daughter still dreams of becoming either a medical doctor or a pharmacist, while the 6-year-old misses riding the bicycle he left behind when his family fled Syria.