A woman named Muna carries a goose across the border between Syria and Jordan. She has just watched soldiers execute four of her children, ransack her home, burn her land, and slaughter her animals. The officer in charge of the operation has instructed her to flee, so she runs, carrying all she has left: her two surviving daughters and one goose. During her flight from her home in Daraa and the Jordanian border, she stops only to remove the bullet lodged in the goose’s side. She cleans its wounds and resumes her journey on foot, eventually reaching a resting point near Madaba, Jordan. “I brought my goose because it’s the only family I have left,” she explains.
Muna’s story is just one of the countless many that compose the incredible exodus of Syrians to Jordan—and she is among the more fortunate, having settled in a place with access to basic necessities. Others have settled in makeshift camps, eking out an existence unaided in Jordan’s sparse landscape. Somewhere outside Sahab, a medical mission encounters around 650 Syrian refugees who have lived for three years with no access to food, water, or shelter. They live in improvised tents made from posters, scraps of cardboard, and their own clothing. Their poor condition—with many suffering from skin diseases, intestinal diseases, and severe malnutrition—seems unfathomable, even for those who have come prepared to see the worst.
For the three days she spends distributing food, water, and milk, building latrines and tables, and planting a vegetable garden in Sahab, volunteer Soulaf Abas does not sleep. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” she says.
However, It’s not just the destitution that Abas encounters that affects her so deeply. It is the profundity of the refugees’ isolation, their helplessness, and their desperation for any human contact. It is Muna’s drawing of soldiers executing her children, destroying her property, and slaughtering her animals, which she hands to Abas with the simple explanation: “my heart is full.”
Though she has received food and material aid in Madaba, Muna has continued to bear the memory of her flight from Syria without any external recognition of its significance. As Abas approaches Muna, asking her about her drawing and listening attentively to her story, she offers her the opportunity to release it from her sole containment. And as Muna finally unburdens herself, Abas, too, experiences a moment of catharsis that continues to affect her daily. “There is a person with that much humanity in them, although they had taken everything she ever cared about . . . she would not leave that goose behind. And that meant the world to me.”
Syria I, 36X60, Oil
Mass Burial, 14X18, Oil
Soulaf Abas, a Damascene art educator based in Indiana, is spending the summer developing an arts education program for Syrian children in Amman. She has painted murals with residents of the Spinal Cord Injuries Hospital and teaches children receiving mental health therapy at the Salaam Cultural Museum. Art, she says, can help heal by exercising and releasing memories, while also opening communication and building trust. She uses the properties of the art materials to spark discussion: “When we’re mixing paint, how do we get a third color? Mixing two colors . . . they have to preserve some of their qualities but they have to give up something so they can create something new. And then, colors can be like people. So in order to create something beautiful that is partially who you are and partially something new, you have to compromise.” The children, she says, understand immediately.
Yet even as the years pass for Syrians in Jordan, even as they heal, grow, and create here, Amman is not a home for them. The city that developed haphazardly around the influx of Palestinian refugees after 1948 only begrudgingly extends a weary hand to its troubled neighbors. Abas has seen Jordanian children bullying Syrian children, telling them to go home. And in their artwork and their words, the refugee children reveal a persistent fixation upon Syria—upon their past there and their future there, disregarding their present in Amman. It remains to be seen whether the fate of so many Palestinians here will be replicated with these most recent arrivals, but Abas believes in their return: “It’s ingrained in their minds that this is temporary—and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
Unlike those receiving treatment in Amman, others have been deprived of the most basic semblance of stability in Jordan. At four in the morning on the eve of Ramadan, Jordanian soldiers arrive in tanks to evict the refugees from Sahab without warning. After subsisting for three years on nothing but the shreds of community they are able to establish, the refugees are uprooted yet again, boarded on busses and presumably relocated to the Zaatari or Azraq camps. Rumors in the volunteer community suggest that the Jordanian government acted out of its fear of radicalism in the area. Abas says that she now has no way of finding the people she worked with in Sahab, and that the garden, which they had planted together in the shape of Syria, has been destroyed.
I first meet Abas on a Thursday evening exhibition of her artwork at Jadal Café as part of a fundraising initiative called Seen for Syria, which also features four Syrian boys performing Andalusian chants. Throughout the performance, the youngest member, who appears to be about 8 years old, struggles to sing his part loudly enough for the audience to hear it over the drumming. Before their last song, however, the stage becomes silent as the boy stands up for a solo. His voice, quiet and chillingly beautiful, commands the space with a fragile persistence that seems ever on the edge of faltering. But he sustains the melody and as the others begin drumming softly again his brother holds up a second microphone, helping him to project his voice through the end of the song.
Through a Bullet Hole, 6X8
Hanging in There, 18X14
After the performance, I ask Abas if she’d like to collaborate on an article to promote the fundraiser, but she responds that she would rather share something she considers much more dire. She’s tired of the politics in Syria, she says, and she knows that everyone else is too. We’ve run out of patience for death tolls and images that mean nothing to their audience but an allusion to overwhelming but generalized agony. What we are missing are narratives—stories like that of Muna and her goose that remind us of the individuality of each person hurt by this war. So over the past two months, she has been witnessing, listening, and recording. But she doesn’t believe she has the right to own these stories; her charge has become to nourish them and pass them on.
Our media suffers from no shortage of war narratives, which flood our cinema, our literature, and our features sections. Like every tragedy, however, the ongoing war in Syria has undergone alternating periods of notoriety and disinterest across global media. After its initial romance wore off and the outrage sparked by chemical weapons subsided it gave way to seemingly more pressing regional issues, from the growth of the Islamic State to Israel’s siege on Gaza. As these crises continue and multiply, numbers inevitably subsume their constitutive individual experiences. Yet why should we feel compelled to hear and share Syrians’ stories, when they would have remained out of our sight if not for the statistics and reports folded into our papers every morning? What reason, or right, have we to imagine an empathetic connection with people we don’t know, whose suffering has been exploited as a media spectacle? How can we appropriately sympathize without contributing to the demeaning glamorization of exilic grief?
The brutality of war is manifested not simply through the injustice of suffering and death. After all, people die painful and undeserved deaths every day, and if we are to resist the preponderance of statistics, scale should make little difference. But war also smothers voices, severing community pathways and the cradle of the collective memories from the people it afflicts. As war alienates people from the makings of their society and the context of their livelihoods, it inhibits them from creating a collective legacy.
Abas describes the experience of a group who has fled Daraa, one of Syria’s most fertile regions, for a dry, sparse desert camp in Jordan. “That alone can cause someone to be really depressed. Along with the fact that they have lost all sense of role. What their roles are as parents, as spouses, as brothers, they don’t have any—they can’t function psychologically.”
Syria’s war has disrupted the lived stories of its people and has negated the value of their individual spirits. It has appraised the meaning of their lives according to statistics and death tolls, reducing their ends to little more than mere survival; and survival is temporary. The overwhelming transience of a refugee camp can produce a profound sense of isolation within the individual who has been stripped of the tangible things that situate him or her within a community, within time and space. And when one’s heart becomes full, there is often nowhere to let it overflow.
Displaced people still possess their own stories, their memories, their ideas, and their emotions. But when deprived of a means to express them, to see them reflected outside of themselves, they risk withering within their forced isolation. Perhaps, then, the best defense we may offer against war’s brutal negation of their individual spirits is receiving and affirming the expressions of their humanity. This is why Abas has devoted herself to nurturing refugees’ memories. “Any time you’re writing down a story, you are recording those memories, and you’re giving life—you’re giving value to the life of the person telling you the story.” And in turn, we may stand beside them, helping to project their voices, perhaps thin and wounded, but unfaltering.
Art has been essential to Abas' project, for where words may often fall short drawing offers a more subtle form of therapeutic release. She explains that “with children, their language doesn’t really help them to express what they had been through.” Through the process of making art, one can access the past without dwelling on it, articulating an experience by mixing hues, orchestrating their compromises, and producing a catharsis through creation.
Without an outlet for expression, refugee children are particularly vulnerable to the exilic isolation so violently imposed upon them. Even the youngest of survivors, Abas says, has something powerful to share. She tells me of a session with refugee children in Madaba in which she asks them each to draw a human figure, adding as many details as possible, and to share a story about the person they draw. When one five-year-old girl from Homs draws an empty house on her paper, Abas asks her where the person is. “They’re all gone,” the child replies. “That broke my heart,” Abas tells me. “That made me feel like I had just arrived to a different world, where a child is bearing way too much pain, and not even realizing how that pain is forming them.”
This girl’s story calls for some somber consideration; it is a testament to an immutable tragedy and a profound injustice. And yet, the focus of the therapeutic art programs at Salaam and the hospital have been primarily positive. Recognizing someone’s humanity means beholding all of the complexities of each individual, beyond the incredible dolor of their losses, and Abas says she is constantly amazed by the humor and joy of the children in her classes. While the refugees may each have a story of unbearable loss to share, they may also inform us, as a spinal cord patient tells Abas: “Butter: you should never eat butter from the store. You should always eat homemade butter.”
By selling her own work at affordable prices in order to support the children's program, and by celebrating and sharing the fruits of each child’s creation, Abas has established a positive cycle of reciprocity through art. “Everything I’ve learned to do on canvas is finding a place in life. The complexity of oil paint and how you have to be patient and sometimes you have to flip it upside down, sometimes you have to walk away from it—all these things become metaphors for what you do in real life. Those kids are your canvas, and you are their canvas.”
In most cases, after listening to refugees’ stories and attempting to comprehend their experiences, we must come to terms with our inability to enact any sort of tangible change in a situation that is wholly outside of our control. And we must continue living our lives, enacting our own stories. We are left with a lot of numbers, a lot of stories, and a lot of unknowns to sort through. But in acknowledging our own humility we can delicately cradle each memory and embrace each expression and assertion of humanity we encounter, allowing its emotive impetus to move us.
Participation in this project of memory sustenance allows us to begin to combat the numbers that have constrained our understanding of human suffering. By acknowledging the dynamism of the individual, we can refuse to allow a statistic or an image to transform a person into a symbol and reject the representative control of forces that have already physically subjugated the body. And while this process necessitates an apprehension of our own smallness and ineptitude, it frees us of the compulsion to seek answers for the unanswerable. And perhaps through this acceptance we can begin to fathom the exigencies that compose mass human tragedies.
Mother and Child, 6X8
In Syria, 30X30
Our commitment to behold humanity in all its elaborations extends beyond resisting the totalizing spectacle of mass media, for it is a manifestation of collective interpersonal shortcomings. We can begin to apply this diligence more broadly, for every time we underestimate the complexity of another person, we force an abstraction upon them, debasing their genius in favor of a human metaphor that substantiates our individual egocentrisms. And through this, we reinforce our own isolation. In order to breach the constraints of our helplessness, then, we can embrace ambiguity rather than seek definitions. By practicing such humility, we can bring our own individuality more honestly to meet another’s, giving and taking to the end of collaborative compromise. By recognizing the humanity of those who have been stripped of all of its manifestations, we can perhaps exercise our own more fully.
Abas channels her experiences, as a Syrian who has mourned her country, as a part of a family that has suffered indelible losses, and as an educator who has beheld the beautiful resilience of those who have lost so much, into her own artwork. She hopes her images will compel people to slow down, invite them to let the stories work within them. “You gotta look, and you really have to let the lines kind of go through you and imagine the story, and even if you don’t do anything about it, but if you just give a little bit of time to compassion and empathy, collectively, it’ll do something.”
Muna’s story returns to Abas' thoughts at some point every single day. We may never know if she will have the opportunity to share her story again, but it has already seeped into Abas' soul, and into mine. To allow this to happen is often the only thing we can do. She says that this project has taught her to exercise her love and empathy to its fullest capacity in every situation she encounters, even where she and the refugees are equally as helpless in the face of their losses. “I’m going to listen to you for the next hour, and when you cry I’m going to cry with you, and I’m going to hug you, and I’m not going to pretend I can change anything. I’m just going to sit and listen.” So as we move on, as we live and create, let us remember to stop, let us listen, and let Muna and her goose come back to us from time to time.
Melissa Smyth is an Associate Editor for Warscapes magazine. She is currently pursuing a Masters in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, with a concentration in visual culture and photographic representation. She holds degrees in Middle Eastern Studies and Visual Arts from Fordham University. Her photography work can be seen here: http://melissasmyth.4ormat.com/