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Lorraine Ma

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On The Syrian Border, Refugees Show Boldness and Passion

Posted: 02/ 8/2012 1:53 pm

As violence intensifies in Syria, so too do pressures on Syrian families to seek refuge from the fighting. In December, a group of students and faculty from Northwestern University in both Evanston, Illinois, and Doha, Qatar, traveled to Amman, Jordan, to report on Iraqi and Palestinian refugees for the RefugeeLives project. While there, they had an opportunity to interview Syrians who'd recently crossed the border into Jordan and were living in Ar Ramtha.

Since the bloody crackdown that started last April, more than 7,000 Syrians have fled to Jordan, according to Arafat Jamal, UNHCR's Acting Representative in Jordan. He said Syrian refugees are staying in various UN facilities in Jordan. Former military figures who refused to cooperate with the regime stay at a special facility in the south because of the life-threatening situation they are in. The settlement we visited in the border town of Ar Ramtha houses singles and families, some of whom had crossed the border the night before.

The girl at the door first appeared as a pleasant distraction. She waved into the room where we, a group of student-journalists, sat with a Syrian refugee family and their friends, some of whom had crossed the border into Jordan only a few weeks before. When I smiled back, she laughed nervously and hid behind the door. Moments later, she peered in from the hallway again.

Refugees in the Ar Ramtha facility were not allowed to leave its vicinity. In every room, there hung unspoken questions: When will the violence end? When will we return to a peaceful Syria? The questions penetrated through people's eyes.

She was the exception.

Noor's youthful face was full of happiness and hope (NB: Names have been altered for the safety of the subjects.) She seemed to live outside the world of pain and struggle those in the facility faced. Maybe she was too young to understand it all. She looked too innocent and lovely in her light blue flowery dress, checkered navy hijab and silver bangles.

Her face lit up when I signaled her to come in. She sat down next to me and occupied herself with the toddlers in the room, occasionally passing a baby into our arms and laughing softly when the child burst into tears.

After the conversation with this family, I went upstairs to meet Noor's family. They lived on the second floor. Each floor had about 10 bedrooms, one communal bathroom, and a pantry and food storage area.

"Which one is your room?" I asked. She stared at me and smiled as I asked the question again, signaling with my hands and arms. We walked over to one of the Arabic speakers in our team. He was having a conversation with a young Syrian man, Hussein.

"This is my husband," Noor said in Arabic, which was then translated into English for me. My face must have betrayed me because she flashed a sweeter smile in response to the shock I fought to suppress.

Later, when we sat down with Noor's family, who were from Idlib, in northwestern Syria, we learned that she was 18 and had been married to Hussein, 20, for about two months. They had been engaged for a year before that. The couple sat close to one another and exchanged gentle glances as Noor's father, A'hd, talked about the revolution and described the family's exodus into Jordan one month earlier.

A'hd's eyes switched back and forth between our faces and the television screen that showed continuing bombings in his homeland. Behind him, his one year old grandson Abbas lay sleeping. Abbas is a target of the regime because his father refused to kill civilians and defected from the army. "We will not return until Assad falls," A'hd said in Arabic.

Hussein said he had been imprisoned in Syria for about 20 days for participating in the protests and defacing government slogans. He said he was one of 300 prisoners who were stripped naked and beaten with electric wires. He said he saw prisoners getting their eyes gouged out and fingernails removed; some were tortured to death by having a carpenter's tool slowly drilled into their heads. Hussein said protestors used phones as 'weapons.' He recalled instances where he stood before tanks, completely unarmed. He would take pictures and videos while declaring, "Allahu Akbar" -- "God is the greatest." Then he would send the pictures to local television stations and immediately delete the files from his phone.

Although women were also a vital part of the anti-regime movement, Noor said, her parents did not allow her to participate in the protests. One woman, she recalled, simply stood in front of a rolling tank. The soldier cried and stopped driving because he apparently could not bear to kill her.

We asked the couple about their current lives and their future. Hussein said life at the refugee facility in Jordan was good because they could at least sleep two to three hours each night without fearing for their lives. Despite the relative comfort, he wanted to return to Syria. He said he could not bear living in peace while his people continued to suffer under the current regime. The kerosene heater lamp warmed their faces with an orange glow and each flicker of its light seemed to awaken another height of courage and passion within them.

"I am afraid of losing him," Noor said, and looked at her husband. She smiled again, and no longer did it seem like a smile of naivety, but rather one of boldness and passion, both for the man she loved and the country to which she she belonged. She grew quiet as the conversation went on, but continued to smile at me as if I understood what she was thinking. I probably never will, but as I sat a few feet away from her in that little room, I felt the weight of what she had to accept: love meant sacrifice, even bloodshed.

Was it worth it?

A month later, I learned through a phone call that Noor's youngest brother, who was still in Syria, had been shot in the stomach and had to have his spleen and kidney removed. Fearful of loss on one side of the border, Noor remains hopeful on the other side, as she now carries a new life: she is two months pregnant.

"We will go back to Syria if God willing," she said in Arabic. "We will be a nice family, and we will live happily."

Lorraine Ma is a student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Rachel Hoffman, Khitam Amer and Jack Doppelt contributed to the story, through their Refugee Lives reporting project. The story was made possible by funding from the AT&T Foundation and the Roberta Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies at Northwestern University.