An Excerpt from “Defiance in Exile” by Waed Athamneh with Muhammad Masud

The al-Zaatari Camp in northern Jordan is the largest Syrian refugee camp in the world, home to 80,000 inhabitants. While al-Zaatari has been described by the Western media as an ideal refugee camp, the Syrian women living within its confines offer a very different account of their daily reality. Defiance in Exile: Syrian Refugee Women in Jordan presents for the first time in a book-length format the opportunity to hear the refugee women’s own words about torment, struggle, and persecution—and of an enduring spirit that defies a difficult reality. Their stories speak of nearly insurmountable social, economic, physical, and emotional challenges, and provide a distinct perspective of the Syrian conflict.

From the Introduction: A Mission is Born

The children worked in silence. They worked without speaking to each other. They handled the hazardous products with their bare hands. They worked with no gloves or masks, no protective gear of any kind. They just worked.

An old radio played in the background, interrupted only by a commanding voice that came from the corner of the shop. The man gave the children instructions from time to time. He was the proprietor of the shop, and they were his workers. He rarely spoke, but when he did, the children listened. They also obeyed. They obeyed without delay, without question, without uttering a word. They obeyed without eye contact.

The three boys were Syrian refugees.

The shop was on the outskirts of Irbid, Jordan’s third-largest city, a mere twelve miles from the Syrian border. It’s also where we grew up and spent most of our young lives. After spending years abroad, we were just beginning to realize the effects of the Syrian refugee crisis in the city.

The scorching July sun, blended with the smoke and smell of burning gasoline from half a-century-old cars, made this rough and industrial part of the city particularly unbearable. This was no place for children.

We inched closer to the owner, trying to get a sense of why this was happening. He finally pulled out some rusty old chairs and offered us a seat.

“It seems he knows what he is doing,” we said, pointing to the older brother, who was applying black polish to the body of the car with his bare hands.

“Yes. This is American polish. It’s the best in the market. Top quality,” the owner answered and took a loud sip of his coffee.

“But this boy. He seems focused. What’s his story?” we asked.

“He is maskeen, you know. I gave them a job. I did it for God. I am just trying to help them. Their father died in Syria. Their mother is sick. They have nobody here to look after them.”

The three boys earned a total of fifteen U.S. dollars a day: five dollars each for a day’s work. The availability of such cheap, expendable labor made it possible for businesses to take advantage of the situation. Some employers also exploited the initial lack of regulations dealing with Syrian refugee workers. The country’s lawmakers had struggled to deal with the influx of refugees in the country.

As time passed, the government allowed some Syrians to obtain work permits and introduced a regulated leave system for refugees living in camps. However, new regulations could not fix Jordan’s already frail economy, which could not create enough jobs for citizens and refugees.

Cities such as Irbid witnessed a major change in the wake of the Syrian crisis. Urban centers became key hosts for refugee communities. Many refugees arrived in search of employment, hoping to find a job—any job—in major cities during such difficult times. But when there were not enough jobs, Syrian refugees often had to take difficult and hazardous jobs at low wages. Low as it may be, if you did the work, you got the pay, right? Well, sometimes you did.

Syrian refugees were in a gray area in Jordan—many not legally permitted to work. This left them at the mercy of employers. When Syrian refugees went unpaid, they could not report it to the authorities. Oftentimes, employers simply terminated workers and brought in new ones without consequences. Law and decision makers in Jordan have given much needed attention to labor conditions of Syrian refugees in Jordan, which has resulted recently in institutionalizing new regulations allowing Syrian refugees to work providing they adhere to these regulations.

The constant threat of being deported made things worse. As we came to learn later in al Zaatari Camp, there was a specific expression used there to describe this threat: “We’ll hurl you” back to Syria. The word literally means “to swing or launch,” as one would a shell or a missile.

When we talked to the eldest of the brothers, he was understandably reluctant to give any information. Why should he trust anyone? Adults were carrying on this atrocious war and causing children like himself to suffer. Even then, as he worked in that awful body shop, an adult was exploiting his hard labor.

But, that young boy emphatically told us, “Al-hamdullilah, at least we’re not in the camp.”

It was not the first time we had heard this. We had been speaking to refugee families in the city of Irbid and the surrounding villages. The one sentence echoed so many times was, “We are thankful we are not in the camp.” When we asked what that meant, we often heard, “You have to go there and see for yourselves.”

Umm Omar had told us so.

Umm Omar was a seventy-nine-year-old Syrian woman who had seen it all. She had lived under the Assad regime’s tyranny since the 1970s. At her old age, Umm Omar had made a difficult journey to seek refuge in Jordan.

Umm Omar was also our neighbor in Irbid. She came out to her apartment’s balcony early in the day and sat there, observing the busy streets. Things that sometime bothered us did not seem to even cross her mind. The screaming kids who played soccer until 2 a.m.? Well, they were just fine.

We greeted Umm Omar every morning and secretly waited for her well-wishes and prayer of tawfeeq. She had the warmth and kindness of a grandmother, one who had seen it all but was still smiling. That was powerful to us—that whatever Assad took away, he failed to take that.

We asked Umm Omar about al-Zaatari. She had a few words to say, but for us, these words were enough: “Ya Khalto. The injustice we saw in our lifetime cannot be described. We could not think of who we are or what we wanted. Thoughts scared us, but not anymore. We paid the price, and there is no going back. God help the women in this war. They have to act strong and listen to everyone else’s concerns, but who listens to them? It’s a long story that you have to hear from those who own it.”

That day, we made Umm Omar a promise. We would find these women and listen to their stories, and then we would then tell them to the world.