A State of Suffering

A State of Suffering

Za'atari, a refugee village in Jordan, is home to approximately 120,000 Syrians. Photography by Moises Saman.

More attention to Egypt translates to the further, aching displacement of Syria. This nature-of-things is somewhat understandable—all the while both states continue to weigh dramatically on U.S. foreign policy interests. Not to mention Christian-Muslim relations.

Upon reading David Remnick’s reportage piece on Syrian refugees in the August 26th edition of The New Yorker—“Letter from Jordan: City of the Lost”—this Christian was forced, once again, to confront a lived theology of evil in which no merely philosophical or secular abstractions seem to satisfy the curiosity. Remnick's report provides a raw interaction (albeit over miles, through words) with suffering. If suffering is indeed a consciousness-revealing thing, as Fyodor Dostoevsky says, a thing evidencing a human story that can best be described as “for now we see in a mirror dimly” (St. Paul), then the situation in Syria reminds us, however starkly, that some human mirrors are so dim you begin to wonder if the so-called “for now” will ever go away.

What follows is a sort-of essay, compiled via direct quotations by Remnick from The New Yorker article. Here are glimpses through mirrors which are, surely, unbearably dim.

Inside Za'atari. Photography by Moises Saman. 

Inside Za'atari. Photography by Moises Saman. 


Since the revolt began in Syria, more than two years ago, the death count has passed a hundred thousand. In Za’atari [a Syrian refugee village near Mafraq, Jordan], the dispossession is absolute. Everyone has lost his country, his home, his equilibrium. Most have lost a family member or close friend to the war. What is left is a kind of theatrical pride, the necessary performance of will. 'This place is a graveyard for camels,' a refugee in his thirties named Ahmed Bakar told me one morning. 'Camels can’t even live here. But Syrians can.'



For the first year of the war, the family had lives as before. Fatima and her husband and their children owned a small house in a village and tended their olive trees. The family’s relation to the politics of Damascus consisted precisely of what was expected of them: They had pledge allegiance to Hafez al-Assad, as they had been taught on television and in schools, and, after the old man died, in 2000, they had high hopes for his son, Bashar.

One day this May, shells began falling on their fields, on the houses of the village. Fatima said, 'My husband called me and told me to leave and go with my sons. They were in the eighth and fourth grade. They ran out fast, and I grabbed their shoes and ran after them. While I was running, a rocket came from behind and whistled over my head. And then the rocket came in and hit! It exploded out ahead of me.'

After the explosion, Fatima realized that the rocket had struck her two sons and one of her neighbors. Fatima got up and saw the pile of bodies. 'My neighbor’s body lay over my son. I lifted him off and there was my son with shrapnel sticking out of his back. And the other.'

Fatima wandered through the fields. Finally, she found her husband.

'Where are the boys?' he said.

'Your sons are dead,' she said.


Historically, Syrians are accustomed to receiving refugees: Circassians, Armenians, Palestinians, Iraqis, Somalis. Now the Syrians are the ones being forced into exile. Since the war began, more than four million Syrians have been internally displaced, and more than a million and a half have fled the country, mainly to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq. Given the size of [Jordan’s] population, one high-ranking Jordanian official told me, the scale of the influx is equivalent to thirty-three million Canadians or Mexicans entering the United States.


Ahmed told me a story that has become, at least for the people of Dara’a, part of the revolution’s creation myth. When one of the mothers of the boys who had been arrested [for painting anti-regime slogans], appealed to Atef Najib, the head of security services in Dara’a and a cousin of Bashar’s, he replied, 'If your kids are disloyal to Bashar, the Army will fuck your women, and we will raise children who are loyal to him.' In the days to come, I heard this story a dozen times from the refugees of Dara’a.


Nabegh Srour supplies the rebels with medicine from Saudi Arabia, satellite phones, walkie-talkies, food. In June, he said, he was in the Dara’a region for two weeks while the city was being shelled. There were snipers everywhere. 'You don’t feel the fear of death,' he said. 'It’s become something normal.'

Srour’s hatred of Bashar was matched only by his sense that the rebels were being unjustly ignored by the entire world. 'The West is cheating us,' he said.

Srour said he had been raised to hate the Israelis, but now he was calling on anyone, even Israel, to invade his country. 'I don’t want to pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem!' he said. 'Our enemy is Bashar, not Israel. We want to live our lives in peace. I’m thirty, and I haven’t seen a good day in my life.'


The medical burden in the [Za’atari] camp is incalculable: amputations, tuberculosis, typhoid, hepatitis, malnutrition, and diarrhea. Often, the refugees need series medical attention. Dominique Hyde, who works closely with the refugees in Za’atari for UNICEF, said, 'I don’t get emotional, usually.' But last year she met a couple and their three children. They had come from Homs, where their house had been shelled. 'The mother had just given birth, and two of the kids, their faces were completely deformed—and the father’s arms, too, as he tried to save them from the fire. These children are disfigured and their lives are scarred forever. The mother refuses to let them go near any mirrors.'


UNICEF and other organizations have provided makeshift schools for the tens of thousands of children in the [Za’atari] camp, but barely a sixth attend. Sometimes the parents want the children to work; others think the school certificate won’t be valid when they return to Syria. 'One eight-year-old child, I asked why he left school,' Hyde said. 'He said his last memory of school was when gunmen came in the classroom and shot the teachers.' There were children—older children—who wet their beds; children with nightmares; children who suddenly stopped speaking. They are damaged, Hyde said, 'and a lot of violence and anger is played out in the camp—throwing rocks, pushing, fighting. You look at their drawings: blood, weapons, corpses.'

Frailty Becomes It

Frailty Becomes It

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Numbers Are People, My Friend