The Syrian civil war, now in its twenty-ninth month, has led nearly two million Syrians to flee their country. More than 500,000 of them have headed south to neighboring Jordan, a number that is expected to reach one million by year’s end. Most Jordan-bound refugees pass through the Zaatari camp, whose current population of 130,000 makes it the second largest refugee camp in the world. Considered as a city unto itself, it would rank as the nation’s fourth largest, according to The Guardian.
The broader migratory pattern is being fed by the fraught calculus and often-harrowing journeys of individual exiles and displaced families. Here, 13 of those refugees talk about the places they abandoned, their new lives in limbo, and the homes they hope to find again.
Homs, 33 years old.
We left because of the problems that happened in our town. We talk, as they say, bluntly. The problems were that the people rose against the regime, and the regime started killing the people. We left from Homs, from the village we were in, and moved to another village, and from there we went with cars to the borders. From the border, we walked into Jordan, and from the border we went to the Jordanian police, and from there we came to the camp. We traveled early in the morning, when there would be no one around.
Mohammad Mounir Al-Zamel
Hirak, 23 years old.
I defected from the military and joined the FSA [Free Syrian Army] because of the killing and the criminality and destruction. A protest would start and the regime would start firing. I was serving in Aleppo, but when I went on leave I just stayed home. My friends in the military, they all defected as well.
There was a siege on my town that lasted five days. On the fifth day I was hit. I stayed there for two days after that without getting treatment. The bone was shattered. I had steadied my arm with a splint and I tried not to move it; when I moved it the bones would start rubbing each other and coming out from the flesh. They didn’t know what to do with it. There was shrapnel in it but they couldn’t get it out. They said it would be too dangerous to try to remove it.
I’ll go back, no problem. My area is mostly liberated now. There are no more raids, just shelling and bombing from planes. I was there fighting for a year and a half. If I wasn’t hit, I wouldn’t have left.
Eyad Ghassan Al-Jughmani
Dara’a, 20 years old.
Mo’ayad Ghassan Al-Jughmani
Dara’a, 19 years old.
Eyad: My cousin was killed, he was 22 years old. A sniper with the regime security services killed him in the square. Another cousin was kidnapped at a security checkpoint and killed. A female cousin was also killed by a sniper. Another cousin from my father’s family defected from the Syrian army and escaped to Dara’a. The government grabbed him and killed him. My brother and I took only the clothes we were wearing and a change of clothes. That’s it.
Mo’ayad: I came to Jordan about four months before my family. I stayed in the camp for one week and then left. I was in a really bad way, and then, thank Allah, I found work and fixed up my affairs. When my family came, we got them out of the camp as well, thanks be to Allah. It’s not a good living in the camp. I’m a guy and I couldn’t take it. How would it be for the families who live there?
Photos from an album kept by Eyad and Mo’ayad’s sister, Safa’a. It was one of the few possessions the family brought with them to Jordan.
Dara’a, 37 years old.
Our neighborhood was in the center of town. It was full of people. During the first two years of the war, everything changed. It would be quiet, and we would go to get bread, and then there would be an air strike. The street would be full, then suddenly it would be empty. You would hide anywhere you could, in any house, until you could get home. We decided to leave when the regime decided to enter the houses and take the men for the army.
Our neighbors here are very good. It’s as if you are still among your family and friends. But in your house, you feel like you’re home. Here, this is not your home. This is not for you. The neighbors are good, but in one’s country it is different.
Eyad and Mo’ayad visiting their mother and their four siblings in the home that a Jordanian family is letting Intisaar use.
Above: Wurood, photographed just days before her due date.
Hama, 23 years old.
My mother left before me, her and the girls, then my brother and I came. We had a lot of trouble on the Syrian border initially. It was raining and they wouldn’t let us in. They wanted to send us back. They were asking “Where are you going, what are you doing, who do you know in Jordan?
”The camp was very strange to me. You are surrounded by people and you can’t leave. It’s like a prison. I think by the time my unborn son is able to return to Syria, he’ll be aware of the world—he will be maybe four or five years old. I’ll be naming him Mohamed, after my brother, the martyr with the FSA.
Dara’a, 36 years old.
I came into Jordan last December through the camps. I’ve been working for nearly five months as a volunteer with the UNHCR [the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], helping the Jordanian brothers in organizing the line and distributing numbers and helping them out. We help the Jordanians in helping the Syrians. It’s difficult with the heat. We have humanitarian cases and we get them in quicker, but you see how it is here. People are coming to wait in line at 6 a.m.
Abdullah Ahmad Al-Heraaki
Dara’a, 30 years old.
The world outside the camp works and inside the camp we also work. My craft is to be a barber. I saw people putting up corrugated metal sheets, so I did the same and set up a place. I paid seventy-five dollars in the beginning for electricity and that was it. I did it with my hands, I did it all with my own two hands. Thanks be to Allah, we opened up a barbershop, and we’re working. Since people here barely have any money, we only charge twenty-five cents for a haircut. We help each other out here.
One of the main roads cutting through the sprawling Zaatari camp. The gravel seen on the side of the road was trucked in and laid down to combat dust storms.
A boy wheels an air-conditioner to the trailer where his family is staying.
A fountain set up by a refugee family outside their trailer. In Syrian culture, fountains are symbols of stability.
A boy plays a video game in a cyber cafe started by one of the camp’s residents.
One of the approximately 350 water trucks that makes deliveries to the camp each day.
A pickup soccer game on the outskirts of Zaatari.
Nasser Haamed Abdul Fattah
MZEREEB, 43 years old.
As a Palestinian in Syria, and a person from Gaza, you have no proof of identity. You can’t go from one area to another. You want to go work, a checkpoint gets you, they arrest you, and you are put in the prison for a month, two, four, five, six, a year; no one knows.
We got out at night, at 7 p.m. approximately. We had nearly thirty children and five women with us. When we first crossed the Jordanian border we were received by the army—thank god for them—because we were fired upon by the security forces. For the first three months, we stayed in the Bashabsheh camp near the border. Then they opened up the Cyber City camp [a special camp for Palestinian Syrians].
Life here, compared to the other camps, is a thousand blessings. There is some restriction and noise, as you can see, but it’s comfortable. Police from the Jordanian government, they’ve secured everything for the refugees. There is no harassment. We come in and out freely.
The entrance to Cyber City, an all-but-abandoned technology park that now houses Palestinian refugees from Syria.
Fattah with his family in their room in Cyber City.
Dara’a, 22 years old.
I was a student at Tishreen University in Latakia, a nice city near the sea where they have the most important port in Syria. I went home for Ramadan, and two days after I returned to the university, I had an exam. There was a message on the board: “Wajed has to go to the administration office as soon as possible.”
I went to the office. The administrator told me, “Ah, don’t be scared. It’s a routine thing. It’s normal.” Then he asked me to go with him to a security station. I said, “I really can’t. I have exams.” So he said, “Can you come tomorrow morning at 11?” And he made me sign some sort of paper that I was informed I had to go and see the security detector or whatever. I didn’t tell my parents because I knew they would freak out and tell me to come home. Since the administrator asked me so nicely, I thought they would ask me a couple of questions and then they would let me leave.
I arrived at the security station. They took my ID and asked me to turn off my mobile phone. I thought that was normal because I was entering a governmental place. I was asked to have a seat. I waited for fifteen minutes, then a short guy came and asked me to follow him. Then he blindfolded me. I thought that was okay, because there are secrets inside the building they don’t want me to see.
I followed him for, like, ten meters. I knew that we had entered someone’s office. Then the short man asked me to kneel on the ground. The detective, or whoever was there, started to ask me questions: “Where do you live? What do you do? Do you write things on Facebook?” He started to read my posts. He said they were “against” Assad. They were not against Assad. I was just describing demonstrations that I saw and quoting from the songs they were singing there.
The detective ordered the short man to bring in a torturing machine called a flying carpet.
It’s a wooden board with joints in the middle, and you get strapped from your hands to your chest to your legs, and then they bend it over. I don’t know what they used to beat me with, but I guessed from the texture it was a metal rod.
Someone entered the room, a higher officer. Whoever the interrogator was, he asked me, “Have you ever participated in any of the demonstrations?” And I said no, because I really hadn’t. They sent me down to the basement where they took off my blindfold. There were other teenagers sitting there, crying. I thought, My parents are now calling everyone they know. I will be out of here in two hours.
I spent eleven days in a cell. It was night when the prison keeper came. The next day they took us to the civilian court, where I had to be judged. The judge said, “I know that you wrote these things. I know that you’re a student. I don’t want to destroy your future. Because of the amnesty that Bashar Al Assad gave to all the prisoners, you’ll be freed.”
The next day, I took the first bus to Dara’a. It took me, like, twelve hours to get to there because of the checkpoints—normally it takes five. I had lost like ten or fifteen kilos.
I stayed with my family for two weeks before the security people called me again. They said, “Can you come in? We need to ask you a couple questions.” I told the guy who was speaking on the phone, “It’s an old trick, you should change it a bit,” and I hung up the phone.
The next day I was in Jordan.
Muhmoud Ali Abo
Damascus, 70 years old.
When my land, Palestinian land, was occupied by Israel in 1948, we left our home and went to a village on the West Bank. We stayed in a big cave, my family and another family from my town. After three months, we left the caves and went to Jericho. We made camps from tents. We had schools in our tents. We stayed in this situation almost twenty years, until 1967. After that, we left for Jordan and then for Syria and then Libya.
In 1982, I lived in Beirut, where there was a war between the PLO and
Israeli armies. We left for Tunis. Later we went to Yugoslavia where I studied a special course in flight engineering. We stayed in Yugoslavia for about six months and then came back to Beirut. I went to Libya and then to Syria in 1991.
I lived in Syria until 2012, in the Yarmouk camp in Damascus. But then there was a fight between the FSA and Syrian army in Yarmouk. So both armies were fighting over control over the camp. They were dividing the camp. Many people were killed in the attacks.
Since 1950, we Palestinians have had the nationality of Jordan. But the Jordanian government took my documents. They say to me: “You are not Jordanian. You have Palestinian roots.” They took my documents, Jordanian documents, and kept them at the border when we came. I am without documents, and so is my son, and the son of my son. We are three generations without documents. This is the problem. I am very tired from constantly moving during my life. I am very tired, very, very tired.
Dara’a, 45 years old.
I don’t want to go back, but my aunt and her kids want to, so I’m waiting with them here until they get on the bus. The lift from here to the borders is free, but once you are inside Syria, it is out of your pocket. May Allah thank them, they have helped us, but there is no organization. No names, no receipts. Because there is no one to do those things, it has become an awful situation. The crowd attacks the bus. My aunt and her kids, they didn’t want to push their way on, so they keep on standing.
Would-be passengers of one of the four buses, paid for by the Jordanian government, that ferry refugees back to the Syrian border.
Refugees carrying their belongings to the bus pickup area.
Abdul Rahman Mounir Al-Zalem
Dara’a, 22 years old.
In Syria we have a small orchard. Twenty four olive trees, five lemon trees, and three grape trees. We also have orange and mandarin trees. And mint and everything. It was a whole garden. I planted an olive tree here so we could feel like we were home.
Every week we say we will go back, and now it’s been two years. Our house was shelled by the government airplanes—there is no trace, no trace. Maybe today we’ll go back. Maybe tomorrow—if Bashar goes away, you know? We would go to Syria, to the Hirak, sit by the olive trees, and we would sleep and eat and drink there.
A TV in the apartment that Al-Zalem and his four sisters share. It is showing footage from a Free Syrian Army channel.
Al-Zalem’s nieces and nephews. Their fathers remain in Syria, fighting with the FSA.