Defiance in Exile
Syrian Refugee Women in Jordan
134 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in
- Published: September 2021
- ISBN: 9780268201173
- Published: September 2021
- ISBN: 9780268201166
- Published: September 2021
- ISBN: 9780268201180
- Catholic Media Association Book Award: Immigration, Second Place
This book offers a glimpse into Syrian refugee women’s stories of defiance and triumph in the aftermath of the Syrian uprising.
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.
Waed Athamneh and Muhammad Musad began collecting the testimonies of Syrian refugee women in 2015. The authors chronicle the history of Syria’s colonial legacy, the torture and cruelty of the Bashar al-Assad regime during which nearly half a million Syrians lost their lives, and the eventual displacement of more than 5.3 million Syrian refugees due to the crisis. The book contains nearly two dozen interviews, which give voice to single mothers, widows, women with disabilities, and those who are victims of physical and psychological abuse. Having lost husbands, children, relatives, and friends to the conflict, they struggle with what it means to be a Syrian refugee—and what it means to be a Syrian woman. Defiance in Exile follows their fight for survival during war and the sacrifices they had to make. It depicts their journey, their desperate, chaotic lives as refugees, and their hopes and aspirations for themselves and their children in the future. These oral histories register the women’s political outcry against displacement, injustice, and abuse. The book will interest all readers who support refugees and displaced persons as well as students and scholars of Middle East studies, political science, women’s studies, and peace studies.
Introduction: A Mission Is Born
1. A Chance To listen
2. How It All Started
3. Reaching The Camp
4. Memories And Tribulations
5. Saving The Children
6. Rising Amid The Pain
“The stories found within Defiance in Exile are an altogether human story of our species’ ability to enact unimaginable harm and suffering, while simultaneously illuminating the human capacity for hope and empathy. Athamneh and Masud are masterful storytellers, and they narrate the lives of the individuals they encounter with an emotional richness that brings the reader into the experiences without any hint of voyeurism.” —Hillary J. Haldane, co-editor of Applying Anthropology to Gender-Based Violence
“Defiance in Exile provides compelling first-person testimony of Syrian women’s experiences in the al-Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. The accounts are vivid and well-presented, and we need to hear such voices to counteract the often hostile rhetoric about Syrian refugees that one hears in North Atlantic countries.” —Kim Shively, author of Islam in Modern Turkey
"If there is a 'must read' book inspired by what has happened to Syria and Syrians over the past decade, this is it. In telling the gripping stories of Syrian refugee women dealing with dispossession while leading their families and affirming themselves, Defiance in Exile speaks with penetrating insight and jarring directness to each one of us. No one will come away from reading this book unmoved or unchanged." —Ambassador Frederic C. Hof, diplomat-in-residence at Bard College and former US special envoy to Syria
"This hortatory collection of Syrian women refugees’ stories, this j'accuse against the evil Asad regime and a willfully oblivious world, is a call to awareness and action. Can you read these stories of loss, madness, despair, claustrophobia, and resilience without screaming that something must be done?" —Miriam Cooke, author of Dancing in Damascus
"Defiance in Exile is a powerful testimony of hope despite war, unimaginable heartbreak, and economic hardship. It is a book that delivers on its promise to truly reveal what it is like to be in a refugee camp. And it closes with a profoundly moving message of the need to care for and be in solidarity with the oppressed." —Dawn Chatty, author of Syria: The Making and Unmaking of a Refuge State
"If you want to be aware of the desperate life of Syrian refugees living in camps outside their lost home country, this book is a must. Defiance in Exile reflects an urgent call to do something about the Syrian refugee crisis." —Nikolaos van Dam, former ambassador of the Netherlands and special envoy for Syria and author of Destroying a Nation
"This slim volume by Athamneh and Masud movingly portrays the tragic condition of the millions of Syrians uprooted from their country because of the ongoing civil war that began in 2011. In particular, the authors focus on the impact on women living in the Zaatari refugee camp, located in the Jordanian desert." —Choice
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.