We were caught in No Man’s Land. Men, pregnant women, and children were all on their hands and knees, crawling across the Jordan and Syrian wilderness as rebel bullets whizzed over our heads. We just had to reach the Jordanian military vehicles. If only we could get there, we would be safe.
There is something about Arabic that enraptures me, or maybe it is the quiver in his voice and the shine building up in eyes, or maybe it is the pale, solemn look of his second wife as she hears, eyes bent toward her baby girl, the story of her husband’s near death experience once again.
Gray walls, gray floor, gray sky. Yes, the sun was shining that day – it is the desert – but just not in that room. The distance between the floor and the ceiling, the distance between the four walls, seemed to expand with every new detail of Mohammed’s story. The Syrian soap opera blinking on the TV shrunk away from the corner of my eye the longer we were there and listened. The gulf between us and them, the gulf between him and the opportunities of the world, the gulf between his fear and a potential inner peace, ostracized all parties, theologies, and experiences involved. We were exiled among the only things that seemed to unite us – the gray and the gulf.
We lived on the outskirts of Allepo. I worked in the clothing industry, and since there were 700,000 people living there before the war, I always had a job. I loved working with clothes – whether it was factory work, cleaning, or shipping, it didn’t matter.
When the war broke out, we weren’t originally effected or concerned. It wasn’t near us, so we just went about business as usual. Pretty soon, though, the gun and mortar fire we imagined from news reports was now being heard and seen in the distance, and the next thing we know, MPs and tanks are on our streets and in our neighborhoods. To leave the house and travel to Allepo for work wasn’t safe anymore.
A friend of mine who fled to Jordan needed help finishing a construction job he left behind which was close to my home. While the danger was still present, I needed to work, so I took the offer to finish it for him.
I was on the 6th story balcony finishing the drywall for the floor when an MP came up to me and told me I couldn’t be there. I tried to convince him I would leave once the job was finished, but the MP didn’t have any of it. He drew his gun on me. With unfinished work behind him, and a gun to my head, I left the worksite with the intent to leave Syria for good.
When I got home, I told my family it was time to go to Jordan. We planned and discussed our next course of action. Confirming our need to leave, that very next night, the fighting had come even closer to our home. The building next to us was shelled and the walls fell down on the people inside. No one survived. At this point we knew leaving was our only option, so we informed our families of our decision. When we called my father-in-law and told him we were moving to Jordan to flee the danger, he was furious. His daughter would not leave Syria, and would not leave him!, so he said. My wife and I heeded his instruction and decided to move to a village, still near Allepo, but with her family. With my wife and family “safe,” I would have to go into the city, with the help of my cousins, and try to find work.
Within one week of looking for work in Allepo, the city turned into the wild west. The entire population fled and had left the city empty. If you were to come across someone in the deserted streets, you had one course of action — kill the person you see or be killed by them.
Moving to my wife’s family village didn’t provide the safety we hoped for either. During our first week there, mortar and gunfire fell upon our city. My wife lost her mind. We couldn’t live in this state of fear and desperation. It was too much for her, so therefore, it was too much for me.
At this time, there were buses taking people to Jordan to escape the chaos. The night the mortars reigned on our family’s village was the night we arranged for us to flee. But, there were a few problems:
Military checkpoints laced the road south. I was concerned about these checkpoints – not because they might be corrupt, but because I was a wanted man. Not only was I wanted by the Syrian military for skipping my mandatory service (I missed my call to service when I lived abroad in Jordan as a 20 year old [Author’s note: the situation was almost cleared up, but some unfortunate circumstances occurred. For another time.]), the Jordanian government had a warrant out for my arrest, as well. When I lived there as a young man, I was illegally married. In places like Syria, to be married, you just had to announce it in front of a religious leader and a handful of friends/relatives. But in Jordan, to be married, it had to be approved by the government. While living in Jordan, I was married in the Syrian way and not the Jordanian way. At any point, if I was caught by the Syrian police or the Jordanian police, I could be put in prison and/or deported back to war-torn Syria.
Being put into jail, at this point in my life, seemed like a better alternative (if I was caught) than my family dying because of the war. So, we took the backroads to avoid the checkpoints and arrived at the wilderness of a no-man’s land between Syria and Jordan. This is a place where, if the Jordanian military finds you as you are trying to cross the border, they are required, by law, to pick you up and take you to safety in Jordan. As we reached the wilderness, the military stopped us, made us abandon our vehicles and walk to Jordan.
Even through the use of a translator, I could hear the bullets carom through the barrels of the rebel artillery and scream toward the fleeing Syrians – dirt caked in sweat on their forearms and chin, tears whimpering in streaks through the dust which was kicked up on their cheeks as they crawled on their belly. I leaned toward the man I couldn’t even understand.
Into the vehicles we crawled as fire and cross fire rained down from above. We were sent to Zaatari. During our 5 days in the Zaatari refugee camp, an uprising of Syrians began because of the harsh living conditions. We had a choice to make. Stay and risk being lumped in with the dissidents – which means falling into the hands of the police in either Jordan or Syria – or escaping without the proper, legal paperwork from the UN indicating we are refugees. We went with the latter.
We have been in Jordan now for 4 years. I still don’t have my paperwork from the UN. If I approach the authorities and try to get my status, will I be thrown in prison for the crimes of my past? I don’t know.
I work small construction jobs under the table, here and there, but I walk the streets with the ever present fear that today may be the day that I am caught. Today may be the day I am deported back to Syria. Today may be the day I am sent to prison. Today maybe the the day I abandon my family. Every day of my life, I am burdened with this fear. It presses down on me. One day, I believe it will crush me. All because of a few small mistakes – mistakes I made unknowingly and even tried to rectify – as a young kid. It is a terrible way to live.
On August 8th, I have an interview with the UN. It is the first of three. These interviews will go a long way into determining whether or not my family and I are eligible for immigration. Hopefully to Dallas where some of my family is. By the grace of God, I will be able to see my family again. Maybe I will even be able to work in the clothing business. I hope so…
Yes, the gulfs seemed insurmountable. Yes, the gray-ness seemed to take a harsher tone the longer we sat and listened.
But not to Matt.
Matt, one of the team members with me, asked Mohammed if he could pray for him. Mohammed, a Muslim man, obliged. Matt rose from his darkening corner of the vast room, and got on his knees next to our seated, weary friend. He placed his right hand on Mohammed’s shoulder, and Mohammed placed his hands on his folded legs and turned his palms toward the sky.
In Isa’s name,
If you had the patience to make it thorugh this long story, I would ask that you please pray for this man and his family as August 8th draws nears. Of all the people I met, he carried the most fear and pain. Because of many of your generous donations, you were able to help him practically with his rent this month, and I hope he experienced a bit of the relief Jesus brings from your kindness. But, he needs a miracle, and I would ask that your join me and asking God for that miracle in expectation that he will provide it.