Fascinating Ladies: Joy in the eyes of a Syrian woman who has lost it all

Kati Woronka recalls her meeting with a Syrian woman in JordanSyria

We sat in a spacious living room on the outskirts of a town in northern Jordan. It was furnished with nothing but the mattresses that had been donated to her by well-wishers in Europe, through a local church, and the space heater that she’d recently received thanks to a government grant that, in typical fashion, had been processed much more slowly than God processed the weather. It was laughable that she finally had a space heater in mid-February but she was pleased to show it off anyway.

When she learned that I had lived in Syria, we swapped stories about Damascus, where I lived, and Homs, where she is from. She told me which parts of Damascus she had visited and liked. I told her which parts of Homs and its surrounding villages I’d visited and how much I had enjoyed them.

Then she tossed both her arms up in the air, let out a giggle, and said: “Rah.” Which means: “It left.” In other words, her neighbourhood has been bombed to bits and razed to the ground. It’s gone. There is literally nothing for her to go home to.

I felt like I should change subjects to something more light-hearted, but what light-hearted topic is there for a woman like her, mother of many daughters, all of whom are having trouble sleeping at night not so much because of the trauma of what they’ve seen – which is more than any young girl should ever see – but because they are so bored living as refugees in this rented house with nothing in it except for four mattresses, a space heater and a few other items that came to them as charitable donations?

The girls are staying awake all night chatting, or flipping channels on the television (TVs are ubiquitous in all Arab rented houses), then sleeping the day away.

She flew her arms up in the air again and said: “What can we do? The girls are bored.” And she picked up the teapot to refill our cups. The tea was also a donation. She laughed when we said we’d had enough tea to drink, and joked that a combination of Arab hospitality and the fact that one can never drink too much tea meant that we must drink more! I told her that I had missed Syrian tea, and she grinned ear-to-ear.

As I took a sip from the tiny glass cup, I pondered the smile on her face that didn’t fade. Sure, she might be in denial or trying to put on a brave face for her daughters, but to me, the smile looked genuine. I felt that this was a strong woman, somewhat impervious to the nightmares she’d experienced.

Then she turned to me and asked: “When you lived in Syria, did you ever imagine this could happen?”

I said no, never, not at all.

Then the conversation turned to religion, and I discovered that she is a devout Muslim. She is proud of her religion. She may never have attended school beyond sixth grade, but her husband has procured some Islamic jurisprudence books and she keeps herself busy reading them. Her daughters read them, too. As she talked about what she believed, I studied her happy face with curiosity. How could she keep smiling? How did a book of rules give her hope? What could she ever hope for?

But, for her daughters’ sakes at least, I appreciated the smiles and the jokes. As we said goodbye, I told her and her daughters, with all honesty, that it was a happy opportunity for me to have met them.

About Kati Woronka

I am the author of the novel Dreams in the Medina (www.katiworonka.com/dreamsinthemedina) and have worked in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world as a researcher and humanitarian practitioner for more than 10 years, contributing to initiatives in almost a dozen different countries. In my travels, I have become passionate for "culturtwining" - the intertwining of cultures - and blogs about that.