Thursday, December 26, 2013

Seeing skin in a Syrian refugee camp

Seeing skin in a Syrian refugee camp

Debra Kamin

This was before the snow fell, before the record-smashing winter storm covered our entire region in ice and reminded us, from Jerusalem to Ramallah to the tents of a Syrian refugee camp, that there are forces in the universe still more powerful than the searing blaze of human conflict.

All day long in Mafraq, an impoverished corner of Jordan that has been swarmed by Syrian refugees, women kept pulling me aside and unzipping their abayas. They spotted me amid the male aid workers, grabbed my hand and pulled me to a corner to reveal the scars on their necks, their stomachs, their hips.

I’d crossed the Jordanian border from Israel earlier that morning, on assignment for this publication to report about Israeli aid to Syrian refugees. I was ready to see hunger and homelessness. I hadn’t expected, however, to be shown so much skin.

One Syrian woman named Asma revealed a gash along her belly that I thought was a scar from a caesarian section. “Baby?” I asked her, hooking my arms into an imaginary cradle to compensate for my lack of Arabic.

“No, not baby,” she said. Then her fingers waved desperately and she lifted her arms above her head. “Boom!” she said. She pulled out a cheap cell phone and showed me a grainy video of her dying husband writhing on a Syrian street. She couldn’t have been more clear.

Syrian refugees in Mafraq. (photo credit: Debra Kamin)

At a tiny desert refugee camp of Syrians who had fled the crowding and disease of the larger tent cities of Zaatari and Mreijeb Al Fhoud, a teenaged girl named Firdous dragged me to semi-privacy behind a van and carefully unwrapped her hijab. On her breastbone, she showed me a smattering of thick purple bruises. They looked like berries, the kind that bleed into pancakes and turn the batter blue, but they were burst blood vessels. I told her in English that I would help her find a doctor, knowing that she couldn’t understand me, which gave me an excuse to lie.

Our translator had been detained on the Israeli side of the border, held back from crossing with us thanks to an unpaid cell phone bill, which in these parts is enough to put a freeze on your passport. The Israeli aid workers who had brought me were pressed for time and walking a tenuous line in their coordination with Jordanian groups on the ground. I was an untrained witness to a chaotic dump of dried lentils and laundry detergent, with no medical skills and only a smattering of Arabic vocabulary. All I could do for these women was be a witness to their wounds.

A Syrian mother and child in Mafraq. (photo credit: Debra Kamin)

Hours later, when I was back across the border in my clean, light-filled Tel Aviv apartment, eating takeout Chinese on the sofa and watching “Homeland” with my husband, I began to think about those women’s bodies. My assignment that day had been to write about the food parcels the refugees were receiving from Israel, and I had gathered enough information to do so. But the nakedness had been so unbridled, and worst of all, it had been so very easy to leave behind.

It’s simple in Israel to get into a car, cross a border, and in a matter of minutes find yourself in an alternate universe. For Americans, such culture shock usually takes a jet plane. Here, where the conflicts are compact and the borders more pockmarked, the world’s headlines are always just a short drive away.

Syrian refugees in Mafraq. (photo credit: Debra Kamin)

And I had a ride right to them. I was picked up in Israel at 6 a.m. by a carload of aid workers, and by 9 a.m. we were at the Beit Shean border crossing, our passports being scrutinized by a surly Jordanian customs officer. It wasn’t even lunchtime yet when Asma unzipped her robe and pulled up the shirt beneath to show me her belly. By dinnertime, Firdous and her family were probably still huddled in their tent in an unmapped swath of Jordanian desert, gnashing out that afternoon’s sandstorm while I was back home in Tel Aviv slurping wonton soup.

In early October, while U.S. President Barack Obama wavered over whether or not to exact revenge on Syrian President Bashar Assad for dropping chemical weapons on his own people, Tel Aviv braced itself. We are close enough, we know, to be the first line of attack. We are a western enclave in a region turning more and more eastern; the sacrificial lamb in a den of spring-stoked wolves. I love Tel Aviv because it is like a nation unto itself; a city of beaches and bohemians and non-kosher bistros that is my sanctuary from the Israeli headaches that beckon the moment you reach its outskirts.

An elderly refugee in Mafraq. (photo credit: Debra Kamin)

So it made sense that I would touch the broken nerves of the Syrian conflict in neighboring Jordan and make it home to my Tel Aviv oasis in a handful of hours. That is the irony of life here; to live in Tel Aviv, one must stoke a willful ignorance of the ugliness of the Middle East. But our sanctuary is imaginary. After I had showered away the day’s grime and joined my husband on the sofa that night, I spied the unopened cardboard boxes containing our gas masks stacked in the corner.

We will never have to open them, he had assured when he brought them home after hours in line at the distribution center. And we can always run to the shelter.

Better safe than sorry, I said in return, because there is strange comfort in adages.

Two young Syrian refugees in Mafraq. (photo credit: Debra Kamin)

Coming home from Jordan, however, those silent cardboard boxes seemed to mock me. Tel Aviv remained secure, our gas masks mere props in someone else’s war. And I was left with the unsettling realization that I went to that refugee camp to take home a story, but brought nothing to give.

Syrian refugees in Mafraq. (photo credit: Debra Kamin)

Maybe it was because of the shame that I lay in bed that night, straining my ears for the air raid siren. It’s easy to say I was simply on edge after a long day, but I think a small part of me was hoping to hear it. Its wail would rise up in the night, shattering the silence like a gash across skin.

But the night remained still, and I, wishing for absolution, curled into my clean sheets and waited for sleep.

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