yesterday we returned to the mafraq outlying “random” camps — canvas tents that act as homes to families that can be found sprinkled in and around he city of mafraq in northern jordan some 10 miles from the syrian border. what media coverage that exists on the syrian refugee population living in jordan is, from my observation, disproportionately focused on those living in zaatari or azraq (two of the larger, formal camps that are now home to well over 100,000 wyrian refugees).
what isn’t being discussed is the fact that those in the camps account for less than 20% of all syrian refugees in jordan. the great majority are barely making due in makeshift tent camps or struggling to survive within the towns and cities of the jordanian kingdom.
last week i had the chance to visit these camps for the first time and as a photographer and a human being i felt drawn to return for reasons that go beyond what seems like a gross lack in media coverage. each individual that has shared with me their story of hardship, courage and resilience has given me a gift — one from which i have learned and gained more than i ever could ever repay.
i admit that i am struggling with a weight of responsibility that is inherent to having the privilege of hearing and photographing these stories. i welcome this weight and seek to do justice to their trust in me and to their hope for a better future for themselves, their families and for syria. i have started to write this post numerous times but my words continue to fall short of what it felt like to sit in the tents of families who have been displaced from their homeland and who are now beholden to government coupons for their daily needs as the continuation of conflict leaves them with what can only be called an uncertain future. my attempt at doing so is sharing with you images and their stories.
the story of Abu Anwar and his family — originally of Homs, syria:
a father of 7 — 6 girls and one boy — Abu Anwar was an exceptionally wealthy man in syria. trained as an electrician and the owner of a plumbing store, two city buses and numerous plots of land, Abu Anwar worked hard to create a good life for himself and his large family.
when the conflict began in 2011 he and his family stayed in Homs for as long as was possible, but as violence escalated it became clear that they must move or meet the fate of so many that had failed to stay clear of the regime. instead of fleeing the country, Abu made the decision to travel with his wife, mother and 7 children 100km outside of Homs to a small village called Shiha — there he was able to buy a small plot of land, build a house and live in relative safety for nearly two yeas as war raged on. unable to work, Abu Answar and his family passed the time waiting and hoping for the conflict to end.
rather than end, the violence and airstrikes increased.
in early 2014 war reached his family’s doorstep and they were again forced to flee. this time it was decided that staying in syria was no longer an option — they would make the trek to jordan.
Abu Anwar describes this next passage as a “death journey.” in a town near the border called Suwayda Abu was forced to separate from his family. for safety reasons, the women and children would be smuggled across the border by vehicle and he and about 100 other men who were also fleeing Syria would walk the 18+ hour route to circumvent interception.
only after he had completed the long walk did he discover that his family had run into trouble at the border and would now also have to complete the long, difficult walk. Abu waited at the jordanian border for his wife, mother and 7 children to walk the 18+ hours.
once reunited, Abu Anwar, his children, wife and mother were taken to the zaatari refugee camp but stayed only a few short hours. while hardly a cozy existence zaatari is funded and, for the most part, provides for basic needs and a place to sleep. why did he make such an immediate decision to leave? he describes that not long after arriving in Zaatari he was approached by other men who warned that zaatari was not a safe place to have six daughters — that the risk of harassment, trafficking and rape was high. words fail to do justice to how much respect i have for this man who, on a dime, made the decision to leave the camp and seek out another refuge for his family.
Abu Anwar spent the last of his financial reserves on two months rent in a small room in mafraq before having no other option that to borrow money from friends and family to rent a tent and move into the ever expanding outlying camps of mafraq.
the family now lives in this tent in what can only be described as a barren field of dirt, sand and hot, dry air.
while the individual stories differ the situation is shockingly similar for all. each person that i have spoken to has left behind a life where they were a doctor, an engineer, a teacher, a student, a husband, wife or a young child when the fighting and shelling became too much and the decision was made to flee. each of them has left everything behind. homes, cars, friends, clothing, memories … life as they have known it for most of their existence.
syrian refugees have no rights in jordan. as a result, they are not legally permitted to work, have little to no access to healthcare and get by on coupons provided by the jordanian government. these coupons are good for basic needs but anything outside of those needs requires cash. unable to work legally the only way to obtain cash is to work illegally or to sell the items that they are able to obtain through the government coupons.
there is so much about this particular story that merits further commenting. I want to underline that Abu’s story is an exception to so many in that he had money. this of course does not make his journey any less horrific but it does shine a light on the fact that so many fled with nothing and that their journey was even more perilous and fraught with obstacles.
i recognize that when presented with stories such as Abu’s many do not know how to react or what to do with the information. i will tell you that these men, women and children do not want our pity. no one that i have met wants our promises that so often go unfultilled. they want us to lend a compassionate ear, to know and understand the truth. in my humble opinion, it’s the least that we can do.