A humanitarian aid shopping voucher is seen at a distribution center of the World Food Program (WFP) organization in Amman on April 11, 2013. The UN refugee agency and the WFP are distributing shopping vouchers to 170,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan every month. (Reuters/Muhammad Hamed)
Sometimes it takes a refugee who has lived through war to speak the truths that world leaders and government officials can’t, or won’t.
“The international community can’t help Syria,” says Abu ’Adhab al-Dara’awi* from the small fruit and vegetable shop in a village in northern Jordan where he works. “It’s impotent. Even for the Syrians outside the country, it can’t do enough.” Abu ’Adhab, 40, hails from Dara’a, a rural area in southern Syria where he used to work as a substitute teacher. He fled to Jordan a year ago and has settled in this quiet hillside village, which he did not want named, with his wife and six kids.
On August 21, a chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus killed more than 1,000 Syrians, according to US officials, leading the United States to announce it would strike Syrian government targets to punish President Bashar al-Assad and his regime for using chemical weapons. According to Secretary of State John Kerry, responding to the use of chemical weapons is critical for the sake of American credibility and interests. “Our concern with the cause of the defenseless people of Syria is about choices that will directly affect our role in the world and our interests in the world,” Kerry said on August 30.
The president backed down from imminent strikes amid crumbling congressional support and the emergence of a Russian proposal that would require the Assad regime to hand over its arsenal of chemical weapons, but strikes are not entirely off the table. “This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective: deterring the use of chemical weapons, and degrading Assad’s capabilities,” Obama reiterated in an address on September 10, the day he endorsed Russia’s proposal.
Although stated reasons for American intervention—defending American credibility and making the example of Assad that chemical and other weapons of mass destruction may not be used with impunity—contrast sharply with the goal of many Syrian refugees in Jordan to return home, the possibility of intervention in Syria nevertheless sparks hope for some refugees interviewed. Others are set against the idea. I spoke with urban refugees living in Jordanian communities, such as the area around the capital, Amman, and the cities and villages north of it. Their views seem shaped more by individual experiences and beliefs than by where they are from or where they live now. Yet suffering drives the logic of both groups. Those favoring strikes hope they will reduce suffering and those against believe they will do just the opposite.
Abu ’Adhab embraces both perspectives. He is a well-informed and conflicted blend of hope and pragmatism, with the reality of war tempering his dream of going home. With the timing, location and scope of potential strikes by the United States unknown, he isn’t quite sure about the utility of such strikes, and so his support is conditional. “I am 40 percent for strikes, 60 percent against,” he declares. “Limited, light strikes will not help. They’ll make Bashar [al-Assad] stronger than before, and instead of firing one or two rockets per day, his reaction will be to fire ten per day in retaliation.”
“If they hit [government] airports, airplanes, military bases, that would help,” he allows, but he also worries that strikes would ultimately lead to more violence and instability such as in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. “I don’t want Syria to reach this stage,” he says, “but it’s been destroyed. It’s done.”
He pauses when an old woman, her head wrapped in a colorful scarf in the style of many older women in Jordan and Syria, stops in for cabbage and .25 Jordanian dinars ($.35), or a fist-sized dollop, of labneh, extremely thick yoghurt. She is also Syrian, and she and Abu ’Adhab reminisce about bygone days in Syria when people made their own labneh by the tubful. She pays, then asks a favor—she lives in the next village over but has no bus fare. Could she borrow some change? Abu ’Adhab wordlessly dips into a plastic container of coins and passes some to her.
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There is a word in Arabic, ghorba, that Syrian refugees often use. It means expatriation, or separation from one’s native land, and it evokes of a sense of restlessness and longing after extended time away for the place where one belongs. The human cost of the war in Syria has been captured in staggering numbers: in two and a half years of war, over 100,000 killed, 4.25 million displaced within Syria and more than 2 million refugees in neighboring countries. More than 500,000 Syrians now officially live in Jordan after fleeing violence and trauma, the depths of which only they can truly fathom. For these survivors, such horrific memories and sorrow cannot be measured or erased.
Basma*, a mother of five, has been in Jordan since February and lives in southern Marka, an area in East Amman. Seven months in, she is struggling to place her children in school and says that despite registering in March with UNHCR, the United Nations agency overseeing the refugee crisis, she has received no aid or cash from the agency.
“I’m against strikes in Syria,” Basma starts. She begins to add that enough people have already left the country, when emotion takes over and tears spring to her eyes. She pauses and looks at her lap. “I don’t have a tissue on me,” she whispers, choked and half to herself. She wipes her eyes and nose with the back of her hand and then slumps back in her chair, silent.
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“Syrians have suffered from far deadlier mass atrocities [than the August 21 chemical attacks] during the course of the conflict without this prompting much collective action in their defence,” declared the International Crisis Group in a statement issued September 1. It spoke fiercely against military strikes in retaliation for chemical weapons use and called for a cease-fire and a political settlement to end the war. “The priority must be the welfare of the Syrian people,” it stated, before cautiously suggesting that strikes “could trigger violent escalation within Syria as the regime might exact revenge on rebels…while the oppositions seeks…to make its own gains.”
Carsten Hansen, Jordan country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, which is one of the leading organizations responding to the refugee crisis, finds the prospect of military intervention “very concerning” from a humanitarian standpoint. “Access for humanitarian actors to provide needed assistance to people inside Syria is very limited” already and bringing aid to civilians a complicated and challenging operation. “That situation is just going to be so much worse if a military attack happens,” he says.
In the event of strikes, more Syrians may try to leave—according to some reports, fear of strikes has already pushed people to leave Damascus—and if they are unable to leave the country, they may become “congested in areas which can become the next area for fighting,” Hansen believes. “Do we fear a mass influx [of refugees]? Of course we are concerned, but it’s our job to respond to that. If 20,000 people come tomorrow, we have to respond.… It may not be top-dollar intervention, but we are ready.” (Despite the dangers of remaining in the war-torn country, the best thing for Syrians to do is often receive aid in Syria, rather than leave, says Hansen. But many can’t avoid it. “We don’t encourage people to flee but people are fleeing…from Syria because the situation is so terrible,” he says. “It’s security, it’s basic livelihood, it’s water, electricity, food, healthcare.”)
Melissa Fleming, a spokesperson for UNHCR, wrote in an e-mail that the organization would not extensively comment or speculate on the possibility of military intervention but that “we are prepared for all kinds of scenarios which could result in more displacement, inside and out.”
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“If there’s a result—if we can go back to Syria—I’d agree with strikes. But I don’t want us to become another Iraq,” says Mohammad, a 33-year-old Syrian father of two. But Ziad, a 43-year-old Syrian who has been in Jordan for about seven months, was less discerning, emphatically saying he supported strikes.
Back in Abu ’Adhab’s village, the street near the mosque at the center of town is filled with the sounds of fruit vendors haggling over pomegranate prices. Another Syrian, who asks to be known as Abu Firas, comes into the store and briefly trades refugee tips with Abu ’Adhab, such the logistics of cash assistance from UNHCR, before eagerly sharing his opinion—he is firmly against—on possible strikes.
“Syria can’t benefit from strikes anymore,” he explains. “By now the Syrian army will have had time to withdraw and hide all its weapons. If [the United States] is going to strike, they will need to do it on a specific day, without prior announcement.” In keeping with his 40/60 stance, Abu ’Adhab agrees, “If they’d struck the day after the chemical attacks, that would have been better,” he adds.
After Abu Firas leaves, Abu ’Adhab takes out a medium-sized knife usually reserved for slicing off spoiled parts of vegetables. He clicks his lighter beneath it, letting the flame lick the tip of the knife. “You know when you have a disease, like in your skin? And to heal it you have to do this?” He mimics pressing the knife into the side of his thigh and contorts his face in mock pain. “It’s hard to do, but then it gets better.” Such is the situation in Syria, he says.
A young man comes in to buy cucumbers and siniora, a processed meat similar to bologna. Excusing himself, Abu ’Adhab springs out of his chair and grabs the roll of siniora, weighing out .6 JD’s worth ($.85) before walking to a machine where a humming blade shaves off thin slices into his outstretched hand. Coins clink, and Abu ’Adhab has earned another dinar. He returns to his chair.
“Bashar can hop on a plane and leave Syria. The people are the ones who stay and die.” He cannot guess how many more people will be killed or driven out of Syria, but he has to keep hope. “In the end, people will return to Syria,” he says, “and they will rebuild it.”
* Names have been changed upon request.
Max Blumenthal reports from inside Zaatari refugee camp.