We followed the Syrian girl up the sandy road in the Zaatari village in Jordan, passing a cemetery, a mosque and a brief stretch of tents before reaching her uncle’s small, beige-colored house.
In my hometown in Minnesota, when old friends say “you should come over for dinner sometime,” they hardly ever mean it. But in Jordan, if you knock on someone’s door, you should expect to spend several hours drinking tea or eating food with them, no matter how much they are struggling to pay the bills.
That’s just what happened. A man who goes by the name Abu Noman answered and welcomed us inside without even asking why three American college students were on his front doorstep.
“Ahlan wa sahlan,” he said. Welcome.
I took off my shoes. The only furnishings in the room were a patterned rug, some worn-in cushions and a miniature yet bulky tube TV from the ’90s. Five children, mostly toddlers, looked up at me with the biggest brown eyes I’ve ever seen. Three infants were in the arms of two hijab-covered women — Abu Noman’s two wives.
As Abu Noman offered me a cup of steaming red tea, I tried forming sentences in my disjointed traditional Arabic, his wives chuckling at me from the corner. I’ve been studying Arabic for three and a half years, since the start of my freshman year at Indiana University. But most people who study Arabic will tell you it takes much longer to become fluent.
So my friends and I were in way over our heads. We were in our third month of studying abroad in Amman, Jordan, 6,250 miles from my home in Plymouth, Minnesota.
After our class on that Thursday last November, our Jordanian friend, Khaled, offered to take us to the village where he volunteered, about 20 minutes from the Syrian border and just outside the largest refugee camp in the Middle East.
As an aspiring journalist, I had visited Zaatari with Khaled a few other times to interview Syrian families about their lives since fleeing the war. Usually, Khaled sat in on these interviews as my translator. But on this day, my friends and I decided we’d venture into the family’s home on our own, hoping our Arabic was decent enough to carry the conversation.
At first, I felt like we had made a horrible mistake. I could barely understand their fast-paced Syrian dialect. I had so many questions about the strange family dynamic we were witnessing: Why does this man have two wives? How was it that both wives conceived children around the same time? Why did the wives keep deferring to their husband to answer some of our questions? But I knew these inquiries were haram – or culturally prohibited to ask.
My friends and I slowly gathered snippets of this family’s life. I would ask the questions — sometimes repeating myself and sounding like a complete idiot — and my two friends would help me piece together Abu Noman’s words so I could scrawl them down on my notepad.
Story of a refugee
The family members fled their village near Homs in October 2013, escaping through the sewers to avoid being seen, Abu Noman told me.
They stayed in Zaatari, the refugee camp in Jordan with 81,000 Syrians, for a month and a half, until a fire burned down their tent, Abu Noman said. His 2-year-old daughter’s leg and hand were burned in the fire, and she still has trouble opening and closing her right hand.
Since moving to the village outside the camp, Abu Noman has found a job driving a bus of Syrians to olive farms where they work several times a week. He leaves his house at 3 a.m. and comes back after sunset, making about $8.50 per day.
But for refugees in Jordan, working — and getting a driver’s license — is illegal, so police frequently stop him on the road.
“You can’t have a life here,” Abu Noman said. “You’re dependent.”
The minimal food coupons from the UNHCR (the United Nation’s refugee agency) do nothing to offset the cost of rent, electricity and supplies for the infants. Unable to pay this month’s rent, Abu Noman was worried his family would soon be evicted.
Through our muddled conversation, I witnessed firsthand the helplessness of living as a refugee in poor countries like Jordan. Abu Noman has no desire to live in Europe or the U.S., but he would gladly move there, just to get away from this life.
I’ll never forget Abu Noman’s defeated words:
“I would rather die in Syria than stay here and be humiliated.”
I now understood the strife of the refugee crisis in a way I never expected. I never thought a Minnesotan like me would find a way to the Middle East during college, let alone into a refugee home just minutes from Syria.
My friends and I took an uncomfortable and intimidating risk by knocking on Abu Noman’s door. But by taking that risk, and breaking through the language and cultural barriers that made the interview seem impossible, our group of three average Americans was able to get remarkable, up-close insight into one of the greatest calamities facing our world today.
Samantha Schmidt is a graduating senior majoring in journalism and Arabic at Indiana University. She is an incoming James Reston Reporting Fellow at the New York Times, and has previously reported for the Star Tribune and Tampa Bay Times.
ABOUT 10,000 Takes: 10,000 Takes is a new digital section featuring first-person essays about life in the North Star State. We publish narratives about love, family, work, community and culture in Minnesota.