February 2, 2014

Neighbors of Za’atari Part One: Um Ali

During the past week we have been invited into countless caravans and tents in Za’atari. Every encounter starts with a shared cup of tea in the Syrian style – 1 part tea, 2 parts sugar. During the 30 minutes that it takes to make, serve and enjoy the small cup, we have heard unimaginable stories of hardship and incredible stories of resilience and ingenuity.

We are still getting to know our neighbors but we want to introduce you to some of our closest friends in the camp.

Um Ali is the first woman who has really opened up to us here

We have had a much more difficult time meeting women in the camp than men. For many Syrians, it is considered culturally unacceptable for a woman to spend time with unfamiliar young men, especially foreigners. Speaking with only men would, of course, severely limit our understanding of life in the camp.

Luckily, we have been invited to visit a women’s center run by the International Rescue Committee. As we walk into the small fenced courtyard and enter one of the six caravans, we immediately notice a change from the drab white tents that fill Za’atari. We are surrounded by brightly colored decorations and smiling women. At the center of activity is Um Ali, a small grandmotherly Syrian woman with the energy of a teenager. She is currently teaching a circle of girls how to make beautiful paper flowers. We immediately want to talk to her.

Um Ali is working with a young girl to make tissue paper flowers

To our surprise she immediately invites us to her caravan, only a couple minutes walk from the center. She is bursting to tell her story.

Inside her caravan, one wall is completely covered by Arabic writing. Even without knowing what it says, it’s striking to look at. We ask her about the wall and Um Ali tells us that when she first came to Za’atari she knew no one and was deeply depressed. She had lost a son, her home and everything she once knew and loved back in Syria. She felt physically in pain from the grief of losing her child. In the depths of this darkness, she began to write everything she remembered on the wall. Her husband thought this was the work of lunatic but she told him “You can erase these writings from the wall but you will never erase them from my heart.”

At this point we are all quietly crying with her. How could anyone overcome such tragedy, let alone while living in a refugee camp? But Um Ali’s story didn’t stop here. At the market one day she walked through the gates of the women’s center only by chance. A women’s group was taking place where they were sharing stories very similar to hers. She came back the next day and shared her own story. Over time, this place became her refuge and in her words “saved her from darkness.” Um Ali thrived at the women’s center and was eventually hired to teach women the countless arts and crafts she had mastered back in Syria. This was the first job she had ever held and she became an important provider for her family. We ask if she likes to work and she proudly tells us, “In Syria working wasn’t necessary so it never crossed my mind that I would enjoy it. Here it started as a necessity but has become something I am proud of and would never give up. My eyes are open and will forever stay open.”

Um Ali welcomes us into her home

Um Ali’s emotional wounds are clearly still very raw and she wishes none of this had happened. But she also sees this crisis as an opportunity to empower others just like her through the women’s center. Feeling overwhelmed but inspired, we leave her caravan with new eyes. How many of these caravans have an Um Ali inside, just waiting to find their own refuge so they can unleash their creativity and find purpose in this madness?

If you were inspired by Um Ali’s story, please consider donating to our humanitarian partners working on the ground with all our neighbors. Thank you!