Abdullah From Daraa

“What changed everything was an incident which threw into sharp relief the untackled problems of his security state. At the beginning of March 2011 children aged between nine and fifteen wrote graffiti on the walls of their school in the depressed southern town of Daraa calling for the fall of the regime – a slogan which echoed from Tunis and Cairo to San’a and Tripoli – or, according to some reports, just “freedom”. They may have been copying events in other Arab countries which they had seen on television, or perhaps they were repeating the discontent which they had heard their parents voice in the privacy of their families on countless occasions. In any event, they were school children, not adults. But twitchy security officials overreacted in a way that showed they had no qualms about brutality and felt no accountability to the people.

The children were arrested and taken to Damascus for interrogation where they may have been tortured. Their families were still unable to obtain their release after two weeks. On 15 March, a protest in Daraa calling for the release of the children and an end to such arbitrary behavior swelled to several thousand. Four demonstrators were shot dead by the security forces. The next day the numbers demonstrating had risen to 20,000. They attacked the governor’s office, the local Ba’th Party headquarters and the premises off the security forces: the three pillars of the regime’s control at a local in each province… But they all (protests) reflected the same underlying problems and ultimately voiced the same demands; an end to the unaccountable security state and the absence of freedom; policies to tackle the lack of jobs and opportunities, and a drive against corruption.

(Hamza) was a thirteen-year-old boy from the village of Jeezeh near Daraa who was last seen alive on 29 April 2011 when security forces opened fire on a demonstration in which he and his family were taking part. The crowd scattered and Hamza was separated from his family. A month later, his grotesquely mutilated body was returned to them. The government denied that he had been tortured, and Bashar al-Assad even visited the family to offer his condolences. But few Syrians outside the regime’s core supporters believed the government’s story. It was all too plausible that the security services had tortured the boy and returned his remains to the family as a grim warning. An autopsy report which the government commissioned claimed to show that the wounds on the corpse were not consistent with torture. This was simply not credible to most Syrians.”

– Syria: a history of the last one hundred years: John McHugo


Loren and I decided not to get anything for each other for Christmas this year. We’re taking a trip to Greece and we thought that was enough. I was relieved I didn’t have to buy a gift. Loren was sad. The girl loves to buy gifts for people. It’s not just the shopping or the gift-giving that she enjoys. She enjoys thinking about people. She thinks about you for months, or even years ahead of time. She buys Christmas presents in February. Everywhere we go, we have to shop, not for her, because she never buys stuff for herself; she travels halfway around the world and the first (and last) thing that we have to do is think about everyone else back home and what object they might enjoy owning from wherever we are. Then she buys gifts for specific and yet to be determined people, and then categorizes those gifts upon returning home trying to think of additional people to add to the list of those receiving gifts. She loves it. Her entire approach, especially the thinking about other people part, is just completely foreign to me.

I’ve never liked buying gifts, but the worst part is the gift-giving process. To me, watching someone open a gift that you purchased for them is about the most excruciating thing imaginable. “I hope they like it. Do they know I purchased this last minute? Why are all these other people watching Loren as she unwraps my gift? They know this was a last minute purchase because I asked them for their thoughts yesterday. What she gave me was awesome. This is going to be terrible. They’re going to think I’m stupid. Please let this be over.” For the socially awkward and overly-anxious among us, thinking about others in relation to our own actions is horrible. Loren always thinks about other people when giving and receiving gifts. Truthfully, my main concern in this has always been myself.

I met Abdullah in Jerash, a city in northern Jordan. Jerash is home to some of the best preserved and most spectacular Roman ruins in the Middle East. Two friends from Texas had come to visit Loren and me, and we were out to explore the country. My friends and I were walking to the ruins of ancient Jerash when we were approached by a young man in his late teens or early twenties. I didn’t see him at first. I was distracted by the fabulous Arch of Hadrian, which dominates the southern part of the city. I imagined the grandeur of the city during the time of Hadrian and was thinking about how much the Romans must have taxed, how many they had to enslave, and how many uprisings they had to put down to build this city and so many like it. Roman politics of economic exploitation has long been an interest of mine. Whenever I go to these enormous Roman building projects I can’t help but think of the cost in terms of human suffering. I was so focused on the terrible human cost that I didn’t see the young man walking our way. He approached us to ask if we wanted to buy one of his flutes.

I politely declined. I’ve done quite a bit of traveling ever since my wife and I quit our jobs to backpack around the world. Politely declining solicitations at tourists sites has become second nature. I do it without thinking and without ever really wanting the conversation to continue. It’s the only way to see more than a single thing in a day in many places of the world. The young man began to ask us questions about who we were and where we were from. I continued with the polite, yet short replies. I simply wanted to show my friends the Roman city.

When I told him we were from America, he told me something that has become all too common to hear when traveling in the Middle East. “Welcome to Jordan! I love America! Barack Obama!” I’ve had this conversation a thousand times. I laughed. I said thank you. I hoped the conversation would be over.

“It is my dream to go to America. But I cannot go. I am living here in Jordan now.”

Stick to the polite, short replies, Craig. I couldn’t help myself. “Where are you from?”

“Syria. I am from Daraa. My father is dead. He died in the fighting. My family is here. I want to go to America. I love America. It is my dream to go to America.”

“Have you tried to go to America? Or to Europe?”

I’ve never been good at reading other people’s emotions. I couldn’t tell if he was sad or embarrassed or annoyed or angry. He looked down at the ground.

“I cannot go.”

I asked him his name. “Abdullah.” I told him mine. He couldn’t pronounce it. People outside of the English speaking world can never pronounce “Craig”. He enthusiastically shook my hand. He shook the hands of my friends as they told him their names, as well.

He opened up his bag filled with cheap, wooden flutes that he sells tourists traveling to Jerash. He told us that he sells flutes to survive. He began to play one of them. He was pretty good, but the flute sounded just as cheap as it looked. “No thank you”, I said as I looked forward to where we would go next. The polite, short replies were back.

Abdullah handed me the flute and told me it was a gift. I told him that I couldn’t take it. That was a mistake. I know better. I should have taken it immediately and thanked him so that I didn’t offend him. He insisted. So I took it. I was the proud owner of new wooden flute.

He then turned to my friends. He pulled out two more flutes and gave one to each of them. He was insistent that they take it. They felt guilty for taking a gift from him, but he wasn’t going to let them leave without it. He forced the flutes into their hands.

Abdullah then took us to the map of ancient Jerash a few meters away. He told us where to walk. And what we would see. He told us the history of Jerash. It was word for word with what was on the sign, but he was looking right at us. He had memorized it. He was obviously proud of the city, even if it was his adopted home, and I’m fairly confident he was trying to show off his knowledge of the English language to a couple Americans. Like so many people I have met throughout the Middle East, he was hospitable – nearly to a fault. He was polite. Kind. Proud.

We thanked him. He told us goodbye. I told him I would see him again when we left the city on the way back to Amman. I’m not sure if I meant it or if I was just using one of my standard, polite conversation enders.

By the time we exited the city, Abdullah was gone.

Encountering refugees like Abdullah is an everyday occurrence while living in Jordan. But, as my wife told me, “It’s not like they’re wearing a ‘Scarlet S’ on their chests.” There are more than 630,000 Syrian refugees living in Jordan, a country of around 8 million people. There are up to 1.5 million Syrians in total living here, according to some sources. Some are refugees. Some unregistered. Some fled Syria before the war. Some were living here before and cannot go home. And for most, there’s no home to return. Daraa lies in ruins and is an active war zone. The same is true for dozens of other cities and villages. It matters little if the city was destroyed by Assad’s bombs, by ISIS, by al-Nusra, by the French, by the Russians, by the Americans, by Hezbollah, by the Iranians, by the British, by the Turks, by the Canadians, by the Australians, by the Jordanians, by the Gulf states, by any of the countless rebel and terrorists groups operating in the country, or by the next group that decides to bomb the country believing that just one more set of hostile actors or one more set of bombs will bring order, stability or peace. One bomb is the same as the next.

Abdullah grew up under a violent, oppressive, authoritarian regime. And when people from his city began to peacefully protest, demanding political and economic rights, they were shot down in the streets. Assad responded by putting snipers on rooftops, tanks in the streets, and secret police in the crowds. Children were arrested and tortured. One tortured child’s body was returned to his family as a warning. King Herod Bashar al-Assad even visited the family of one of the tortured, dead children who undoubtedly died at the hands of regime security forces. Assad offered his condolences, words of grief as empty as the statements from the west led by the United States of America who stood by, and said much, and did little.

Abdullah’s country is torn apart by war. His hometown is destroyed. His father is dead. His family is living as refugees in a new country. He is legally barred from working, which is a nice way to say that he is legally barred from meaningful work protected either by market competition or government regulation and is forced into selling cheap flutes to tourists out of his backpack under the threat of deportation back to Syria if caught. He undoubtedly sells very few.

Nations in the west are terrified of him. They want to block him from entering their borders. They say he is a threat: “a male of military age” so the scripted line goes. They say he’s a possible (or probable!) terrorist – a trojan horse waiting to invade America. They say he belongs in the camps of Jordan out in the desert, in the shadows of its streets or in Syria with a gun. The west’s promised refugee assistance to his host country has fallen dreadfully short and as a result he and his family have inadequate food, shelter, health care and education along with no job prospects (outside of illegal ones) and no chance of going home. They don’t want to spend money giving Abdullah humanitarian aid while living in Jordan, but they are eager to spend money to give him a gun to fight in Syria. Citizens simultaneously call for cutting aid, dropping more bombs, arming more “moderate rebels” (an Orwellian phrase if I ever heard one), invading yet another country, supporting another terribly oppressive and violent dictator and for Muslims to unconditionally renounce violence.

“I love America. It is my dream to go to America.” To this American, he gives a gift without expectation of anything in return. He welcomes me to a country that isn’t even his. He gives me direction so I won’t lose my way.

I gave him nothing.

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