One hazy afternoon in March, four of us Americans, along with two translators, visited the home of a beautiful women from Syria who has been living as a refugee in East Amman for the past four years.
As she opened the door, her face beamed with love. Her smile communicated welcome. Her eyes revealed pain, but equally so, determination and resolve. She wore a black floor-length dress with sleeves down to her wrists. Black beads and sequins were embroidered into an intricate pattern down the front of her dress. Her entire outfit was accented by her light pink, grey and black chenille hijab. She welcomed us into her very humble living room with a hug and a kiss on each cheek for the women, and a gentle nod with her hand over her heart for the guy on our team.
We hadn’t exchanged any words, but already I admired her.
We sat in the two small couches and two small chairs placed one right next to the other around the perimeter of the room. One small table sat in the middle of the room. The walls were light cream and two small square paintings in Arabic hung on one wall. The floors were covered with tan heavy-duty carpet. I wondered how this house compared to her home in Syria, what her floors were like there, and if she felt at home here.
She never spoke about a husband as she shared with us how she’s living in Jordan now with her daughter and son, how she was also raising her two nephews, whom she referred to as her sons, back at home in Syria. One day, one of the boys went out to the store and didn’t return, so his brother went look for him. Neither of them came home.
Syria is currently the primary battleground of very confusing war that started in 2012. The aftermath is resulting in buildings, homes and entire cities destroyed into piles of rubble, forcing the separation of families and communities as people are fleeing for their lives. In the midst of this, when boys are captured, they have two options: fight or go to jail. Her sons were both imprisoned.
Soon after, militants took her two year-old daughter, one afternoon.
Listening to her describe that day brought a pit to my stomach and a lump in the back of my throat. I didn’t understand any of the words she was saying as she recalled it all in Arabic, but I could see the terror replaying in her mind as I looked in her eyes before any of her words were translated into English.
We may not share the same language, but we didn’t have to. There are some aspects of motherhood that don’t require words.
Something happens to your mama heart when someone takes from you the very life you brought into this world, and for this beautiful, incredibly compassionate woman, that was the final straw.
Three hours later, her daughter was returned. She has no idea what happened to her during that time. Gripping her then toddler in her arms, she gathered what she could, took both of her children and fled the only home she had ever known for safety in Jordan.
On the afternoon we were with her, some four years after that fateful day, she told us about her current life in Amman, where her children go to a not-so-great school because the only house she can afford is in a not-so-great part of town. Her daughter wanted us to know that the men in the neighborhood are scary when they get drunk. Her young teenage son came out briefly to say hello and shake our hands. He had stayed home sick that day, but he answered a couple of our questions with a smile on his face, all while resting his hand on his mom’s shoulder. His face lit up like a sunny day when the guy in our group tossed him a small bouncy ball to keep.
She had recently learned that one of her sons had been released and fled to the closest safety he could find in Turkey – a place nearly impossible for a person living as a refugee in Jordan to get. Her other son is still in an unknown prison. She doesn’t know if…or when…she’ll ever see them again.
“I don’t have friends or family here,” she said. “Just my children. When I go out, I walk along the wall and hope no one notices me,” she explained, using a saying in Arabic we understood as someone trying to be a wallflower.
“You’re welcome here,” she said to us, extending her arms out wide. “My living room is always your living room. I’m happy today having you in my home.”
I bit my bottom lip.
As we listened, I felt like I had to keep pushing down parts of her story in my heart to make room for more. I couldn’t imagine the moments when she first realized her nephews weren’t coming home, how the three hours without her daughter must have felt like lifetimes, what she felt as she gathered only the most important items to leave her home, not knowing if, or when, she would ever return and how she currently manages to make it through one tough day after another in a country that doesn’t feel like home.
I want to remember how welcomed I was into her home. I want to remember how gracious she was in insisting we have a cup of coffee. I want to remember how vulnerable she was in sharing some of the most painful parts of her story with us, strangers to her. I want to remember how kind she was to her children. I want to remember how brave she is, how patient she is, how vibrant she is.
She holds on to hope that she and all of her children will return home one day. And yet in the midst of so many circumstances outside of her control, through slow conversation made possible by translation, she offered us everything she had.
As we left her house that afternoon, a group of young boys wanted to practice their English. “Hello,” they called down the narrow sidewalk, giggling and proud of themselves.
I turned around and pulled out the three remaining bouncy balls I had in my pocket.
“Hello,” I replied, bouncing the balls to them as fast as they could scramble to catch them.