“Syrians continued to be the largest forcibly displaced population in the world, with 12 million people at the end of 2016. That’s more than half of the Syrian population.” Source: UNHCR
Last month, I traveled with Islamic Relief USA to Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan—the three countries populated with the majority of Syrian refugees. It was a life changing experience for me, and I don’t think I was quite prepared for the people I would meet and the stories I would hear. They weigh heavy on my heart. Below are some of the photos I captured on my journey along with my journal entries. I hope they open your heart to give and support our efforts to help Syrian refugees.
Have you ever seen a few lone rays of sun stretch across a gray sky? It’s the best way I can think of to describe the way Syrian refugees looked to me, scattered across the informal settlements I visited today. The landscape itself is bleak and desaturated, tattered and worn. The people appear as light escaping from another plane, powered by a hidden source. The contrast is striking. Their smiles stretch like soft morning light across a bedroom floor, the kind that makes even dust look magical and even the worst days feel hopeful. Their beauty on such a backdrop becomes all the more pronounced. All the more beautiful.
I met Sittah in the Beqaa Valley of Lebanon. The tattoos on her face are called Deq. They are a fading tradition, found almost exclusively on women above the age of 60. I thought she was so beautiful. She sat outside her tent as children played around her, and she smiled gently and absently. I wish I could have spent the whole day with her, but I was grateful to have been in her light for a moment.
“I have heard it said that we are the uninvited. We are the unwelcome. We should take our misfortune elsewhere. But I hear your mother’s voice, over the tide, and she whispers in my ear, “Oh, but if they saw, my darling. Even half of what you have. If only they saw. They would say kinder things, surely.” -Khaled Hosseini, Sea Prayer.
There is a small settlement of Syrian refugees in Mafraq, Jordan that is surrounded by sandy, lifeless plains that stretch as far as the eye can see. Homes made of bricks and orange, blue, and white tarps create the perimeter of this small community. The homes surround a large, open space where children run free and rows upon rows of young olive trees grow with a confidence that seems almost out of place. It makes them that much more beautiful.
The day I visited, the weather was perfect. The sun was bright and a strong breeze set everything in a rhythmic motion—the baby olive trees swayed and the tend openings flapped as children ran out and in. But even with all that movement and children laughing and playing, it was so quiet. It was a quiet that was somehow louder than the rushing wind.
I watched the adults sit around the camp, scattered, watching, silent. I thought of all the trauma they carried in their memory, of everything they hid away from all the new life that sprouted around them. And then the loudness of the quiet made sense, and I wondered if anyone else could hear it.
Kifaa and her seven children live in Jordan. They took refuge there after escaping the horrors they faced in Syria. Her husband abandoned them and provides no support.
To make ends meet, she wakes her children at 5 a.m. each morning and they search the streets for discarded bread. They gather as much as they can, clean it, and resell it for animal fodder. The bread is laid out on a blanket in the open space outside her home. The way the children dance around it and show it to me with pride tells me that their mother has somehow turned this fate into something fun. A mother’s magic. I imagined her nudging her children awake at dawn with her bright, sure smile. I imagined them drawing strength from its light the same way flowers draw energy from the sun. I thought of this displaced family collecting the bread that no one wanted and giving it new life. I saw the beauty and sadness in the parallel.
Mahmoud Darwish writes about things on earth that make this life worth living, and one of them is the aroma of bread at dawn. I read this after meeting Kifaa and her children, and I don’t think I’ll ever read this line the same again. He also lists grass that grows on a stone. That made me think of them, too. I will never think of resilience the same, or doubt for a second the strength of the human spirit.