A Syrian Refugee Wedding
Before Nada’s wedding, as we wait for the completion of the marriage contract, I’m invited into a nearby caravan ringed with maybe a dozen men, including a local sheik. They pass around tiny cups of cardamom-flavored coffee and cellphones with videos displaying the war’s brutality: I’m shown scenes of men in fatigues stabbing a dead body repeatedly and dragging another with its scalp hanging half off.
The men never smile. When I carefully ask about the rape of women back home, unsure if they’ll be comfortable talking about something so stigmatized, it’s as if a floodgate opens. Stories come pouring at me from several men at once—a baby raped and skinned alive, a girl kidnapped, a rape, another rape…
Flies cluster on the thin mattresses we’re sitting on. The air is heavy with the mid-afternoon heat and concentrated masculine gloom. It’s as if the wedding preparations twenty feet away were taking place in a different world. A few of the men confide that they regret coming to Zaatari. One tells me he is seriously considering returning to Syria with his family.
After an hour of horror stories, the men are pointing and grabbing at my notebook and pen, thrusting them into the hands of my translator. Before I realize what’s happening, she is copying down words spoken by the sheik, transcribing the wedding contract. The bride’s family, she writes, will receive 125,000 lira for the marriage and 125,000 more if there is a divorce. There is no romance or sweetness. Four men sign as witnesses.
With that, the wedding is done. We emerge into the area between tents and caravans, still warm in the late afternoon sun, and wait for the bride to meet the groom at a gray Kia Sport van, which will “protect their honor,” Mohamed says, by driving them 500 yards to the borrowed caravan in which they will spend their honeymoon.
Once the couple are squished alongside the bride’s mother in the back seat, a male relative gives money—gifts from the wedding guests—to the bride’s mother. He hands it to her one note at a time, shouting a brief prayer for each well-wisher as he does so. The total is about 20,000 lira ($205). The estimated cost of the wedding is 70,000 lira ($719).
* * *
Everywhere in Zaatari, I meet young brides. marriages happen daily, and children, from the looks of it, are born in great numbers too.
A young woman, 23, offers to tell me about her unhappy marriage. Requesting that her name not be used, she says that in the year she’s been here, her husband has taken up with “a different girl every week.” He’s about to take a second wife, but in the meantime, he comes to her tent and beats her “every single day.” She’s the first of a number of women I’ll meet in Zaatari whose husbands are taking second wives, and the first of many I’ll hear about who are enduring domestic violence. Without hope of escaping the daily assaults, and concerned for her four kids and the one growing in her belly, this woman refuses to report the violence to authorities; she fears her husband will kill her if she does. She tells me about a 15-year-old neighbor who just married an “old Jordanian man” who paid the girl’s family 100,000 lira. A Jordanian man also asked this woman’s family if he could marry her 12-year-old sister. Her mother said no, she tells me, but that’s not a choice many families feel equipped to make in the face of poverty and war.
“Families have so many kids, they just marry off the daughter to whoever comes,” says Masarra Sarass, head of the Syrian Women’s Association in Amman, which processes 400 new refugee families a week.
The stories come at me for days, not just in Zaatari but as I travel throughout the region interviewing Syrian refugees. One teacher in Zaatari says that men from Gulf countries have asked her where they can find young girls for marriage. A 15-year-old in Beirut tells me that an “old Lebanese man,” a local mufti, comes daily to ask her mother for her hand in marriage. Every day, he shows up and tells her sick father that he would be happy to take the burden of this daughter off the family’s hands; every day, her mother says no. Every girl I speak with between Amman and Beirut has either been considering early marriage or knows a friend or a neighbor who has.
Early marriage has become so prevalent that it has caught the notice of Zaatari’s authorities. The UNHCR is now implementing a campaign to stop the practice, emphasizing the illegality of the marriages and pointing out that many don’t last more than a month. The idea, I was told, is to make it clear that smooth-talking older men are not necessarily filled with good intentions for underage girls.
* * *
As the sun finally nears the horizon, Nada and Mazen are secure in their honeymoon caravan. A clump of henna is stuck to the door, symbolically gluing the couple together for life. A few dozen people continue to talk outside and nibble on pistachio-topped sweets.
I return to the family’s caravan and find Mohamed in the dusty area outside the houses, where chickens wander around barrels, piles of wood and strung-up laundry. We sit on a flimsy bench with our backs to a UNHCR tarp.
I ask him if he’s happy for his daughter. He tears up. “If we were in Syria, we would have gotten more money in gifts,” he says. What else was wrong with the wedding? “There would have been shooting…the contract should have been written on a bigger piece of paper,” he says. He quickly clarifies that he’s not focused entirely on the physical: “It’s about pride,” he says.
I ask if he feels any joy. “No,” he answers. Does he approve of the groom? Mohamed grimaces. “I don’t know yet,” he says. He does think the groom’s family was a little stingy on the bride price. “I would have gotten more money for her if we were in Syria,” he says. I ask Mohamed why he allowed Nada to be married so young. He says he wished he could have waited longer but that she wanted it—she was excited. Also, there was a lot of pressure all around, he says. “Getting married is protection for her,” he says. “Now she’s her husband’s responsibility.”
I ask Mohamed when he would like to marry off his 10-year-old daughter. He laughs sadly, shakes his head and says, “Inshallah, not for ten years.”