In the Desert

by Radayna Thabata

The second day of my trip began with a two hour drive from Amman to Al-Mafraq, the desert outskirts of Jordan bordering southern Syria. For anyone who is unaware, when individuals flee to Jordan from war in Syria, specifically from targeted areas by the regime, the Jordanian government registers them as refugees. When they establish a tent in Al-Zaatari Camp in Al-Mafraq, one of the largest refugee camps, the refugees discover the difficult living condition and may decide to leave or settle elsewhere. However, once they leave they basically have no identity. I ask that you prepare yourself mentality because hearing about this day will break your heart.

It all consisted of a desert area, one tent, and a Syrian family that barely escaped danger. A small caravan seated thirty other girls, Helping Hand for Relief and Development (HHRD) personnel, the five members of the family, and myself as we listened to the mother in her sixties tell their story. For some background information, this family was from Hama, Syria and the children inherited a genetic disorder from their deceased father causing blindness following a certain age, specifically 8-10 years old. Back home in Syria, the family was financially stable and owned many acres of land. However, during the war, they lost everything and were fleeing for their safety as both ISIS and the regime attacked them. The mother described how her children were unable to even see the bombs that were targeting them and how they couldn’t protect themselves from anything because of the state of their condition. They fled overnight to Jordan in an escape car barely making it out alive. This particular family, like many others, has endured some of the worst possible living conditions.

Facing such tremendous hardship, these families struggle to live but persevere, doing whatever is necessary to make ends meet. The mother of this family essentially built the caravan we were sitting in with scraps of anything she was able to find around them. Here is a woman who lost her husband, her home, and her wealth but never gives up, doing everything she can for her children. She is forced to make long trips to get basic necessities, such as food, and supplies. One statement made by the daughter stuck out and resonated deeply with me. She told us, “You girls don’t realize how blessed you are to help your mothers with anything they need. I can’t help my mom. I can’t even see my mom. I hate having her struggle through all of this alone. I do not even have the blessing of seeing my mom. I can’t help my mom who’s aging. My only living parent, my everything. I can’t even help her.” At that time, sitting in the back was the best decision I made because I couldn’t hold my tears back. I can’t imagine life without my mom and here, this daughter and these sons are deprived of even serving their mom when she’s alive. On top of war, on top of living in a tent in the desert, on top of being older in age, their circumstances also deprived them from helping their own mother.

The mother went on to tell us about their conditions and how she’s so blessed because they’re still alive. She emphasized how everything is a test from Allah, and she accepted it even in the worst of times. There was not a single person who was not left in dismay and in tears. I remember after she finished speaking, everyone went to greet her and when it was my turn she saw me in endless tears and told me, “Sweetheart, please don’t cry. Praise be to God for everything. Praise be to God for everything good and bad.” I recall telling her, “Auntie, please forgive me” and her response astonished me when she replied “No, my love, you forgive me and my kids. You came all the way across the world just to see us. I’m sorry we’re the burden.” I reciprocated saying, “Auntie, we’re the burden, not you. I’m so sorry for everything.” and then we cried on each other’s shoulders.

Allah says, Verily, We shall put you to test with some fear, and hunger, and with some loss of wealth, lives, and offspring. And (O Muhammad) convey good tidings to those who are patient, who say, when inflicted by hardship, “Verily we are of God and verily to Him shall we return;” upon them is the blessings of Allah and His mercy. (Qurʾān 2:155)

What HHRD does aside from other humanitarian relief organizations is that they aim to support the families who don’t have any assistance, are in the worst conditions, and have been there the longest. The family we visited was one such family, so we went in to take her and the children to show them their brand new micro home. In severe weather, especially the rainy and muddy winters, and in dangerous situations, such as getting bit by snakes and scorpions, these micro homes are a safe haven. Oh, the tears of joy. She was ecstatic, as if all her problems were erased. At that moment, I truly understood all the simple things we take for granted every day, like having a roof over our heads. I was left speechless. My mentor saw me in such an emotional state and tried to console me. I remember telling her, “She’s so happy she got this micro home, but I don’t want her to endure anymore pain. I don’t want them to stay in this horrible circumstance. I wish I could just take them out, protect them all, and provide everything for them. Why isn’t this fair?” She hugged me tightly because we both were at a loss for words.

Next we went to visit another family living in a caravan in Al-Mafraq. This family had a frail father who carried his paralyzed twenty-year-old son on his back as him and his loved ones walked for miles trying to escape Syria. All the families in the camp walked countless miles for days, feeling starved, tired, and hopeless. The families endured critical health issues, severe living conditions, and yet, they showed such optimism and gratitude for simply being alive. Observing the children there who aspire to be successful in their future aspirations, looking for a way out, had such a strong impact on me. I truly wonder if it’s a question of confusion as to why the world is so cruel. These same people who have been raped, burned alive, attacked, punished, all paid a price for something they didn’t have anything to do with. On top of all of that, the girls and I just looked at each other with such disappointment and questioned ourselves as to how these people are even alive in these harsh conditions. To be brutally honest, it’s times like these that would cause many to contemplate suicide. These same people were living quite well back in Syria, attending schools, having professions and bright futures, and yet, this is their reality now — a reality of endless calamity.

We went outside the tent to distribute toys to the children living there. The joy on these children’s faces were luminous beyond words. Soccer balls and dolls barely worth two dollars each were given to these children who have been robbed of their innocence. We live in a society where children routinely request iPads and iPhones, but at the refugee camps these simple toys are considered a luxury to little kids. Afterwards, we went back to the Al-Mafraq office to distribute food packages to some of the refugee families. The packages, I believe, usually last them for two weeks or a month. These families are such people with dignity and no one ever wants to feel like they’re being pitied. All the families that we met throughout the day shared the same desire: to go back home. The refugees are deprived of basic necessities, yet they are so positive that they’ll be able to return to a sovereign Syria. They kept emphasizing how dying in their own homes would be preferable to dying in a place they’re not wanted.

Reflection upon reflection, there is no doubt we live such privileged lives — an education, a home, loved ones, freedom, and everything in general. Absolutely everything. I look back on these memories and question all the things I take for granted. I’m stunned when I imagine how these families were once very wealthy and secure, and then suddenly their circumstances changed 180 degrees. These are the ones who are oppressed, their faces alone portray the pain they’re in. I recall later that night, calling my mom and just telling her how much I love and appreciate her. That night I cried myself to sleep. I will never forget how faithful these people were. I kept reminding myself that these are the people who will enter Paradise easily.

Narrated by Abu Saeed Al-Khudri and Abu Hurairah: The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “No fatigue, nor disease, nor sorrow, nor sadness, nor hurt, nor distress befalls a Muslim, even if it were the prick he receives from a thorn, but that Allah expiates some of his sins for that.” [Al-Bukhari, #5641]