Nearly 5 million Syrian refugees have fled to nearby countries like such as Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt, according to the latest count by the United Nations. About three quarters of those Syrians are women and children.
The vast majority live outside refugee camps; eking out a living however they can.
I spent a week on Jordan, reporting on Syrian refugees there. I worked most days with a male interpreter, so getting women to share their stories was difficult. But during my final two days in Amman, I worked with a female interpreter, which made it easier to have candid conversations with Syrian women about their lives as refugees.
Kawkab asked me not to use her last name. She works illegally as a hairdresser in Amman, and she doesn’t want to get in trouble. Her husband works in construction, but he’s not been able to get many jobs, so her income is critical.
She invites me into her small apartment and we sit on low cushions. Her 5-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter snuggle in close on either side of her as we talk.
“Before I got married, when I was still living in Damascus, I remember hanging out with my friends or going shopping on my days off from work,” she says through our interpreter. “Then, when I got married and had my son, I focused more on my family."
But the comfort and security she enjoyed disappeared after the war broke out, she explains.
“When the bombing started in nearby neighborhoods, you expect that you’re also going to be bombed,” she says softly.
Men in their neighborhood started disappearing.
“That’s what happened to my brother-in-law,” she explains. “He worked for the Syrian government. He went to work one day and never came back. To this day, we don’t know if he’s alive or dead.”
I ask her how she coped with that kind of constant fear and stress, and her eyes fill with tears and her breath catches. She apologizes.
“I didn’t expect all the memories to come back like this,” she says through our interpreter.
Her friend Ahlam, who's been sitting on the couch listening, hands Kowkab a box tissues, and comforts her softly in Arabic. After a moment, Kowkab begins again: “We just continued to hope that the situation in Syria would get better and that my brother-in-law will return.”
His wife, Kowkab's sister, has two children and they went back to the women's parents’ house in southern Syria.
"She went back to work as a teacher,” says Kowkab. “She had to. Life doesn’t stop, we can’t just sit and cry and wait ‘til he comes back ... Life goes on and we have to survive. That’s how we cope. Day after day it gets a little bit easier.”
Kawkab is 27, but she seems older. She wears a black beaded sweater, a long black skirt and a bright red hijab, the only splash of color. Her children stay glued to her side. The apartment is cold and has few furnishings. There’s no central heat, just a portable, propane heater that Kowkab pulls closer to us. A TV is on for the children, but it's muted.
Ahlam walks in with a tray of sweet tea. She, too, is a Syrian refugee from Damascus. The two women have become good friends in Amman. We'll hear more about Ahlam in a bit.
Kowkab takes a sip of tea.
“When we first came to Jordan, it was so hard," she says. "We didn’t have any money or anything to eat. My husband started working in construction and sometimes we had food and sometimes we didn’t. When he had work, we ate.”
To help support the family, she works nearly every day at a nearby hair salon.
“It’s very overwhelming,” she admits. “Yesterday, for example, I came back at 7:30 p.m. I have to be at the hair dresser, but I have to take care of my home, and it’s so exhausting, and I’m getting tired of this. But I have to, because my husband job is not stable — and yeah, we can’t survive if I don’t work.”
"At least we're safe here in Jordan," she adds. "Alhamdulillah ... Thank God."
Kowkab says they left Syria when her son was just a baby. Their journey took months, and started after a particularly deadly bomb attack in July, 2012.
“We saw the rocket coming down from the sky. It bombed everything. The electricity was cut totally and everything went dark," she recalls. "My husband and I had been out running errands. We ran to my parent’s house to get our son. I stayed there and my husband ran out to help the injured people in the streets. And we were just screaming and hugging each other and crying.”
“My cousin was actually killed,” says Kowkab, “but his mother was not able to go and see him because there was no power and the situation was so dangerous.”
“I’ve never seen a rocket like that before,” she says. “And to this day, when I close my eyes, I can still visualize it. I can’t forget it.”
Kowkab says government officials began announcing over loudspeakers that people had to evacuate the city, so she and her husband and young son crowded into a car with three other families and left.
“You just feel like it’s a nightmare that you want to wake up from. You remember all the people killed, all the violence and you tell yourself it’s a dream and that you just want to wake up.”
We stop to sip our teas and give Kowkab a break. I give her children maple candy from Vermont, which they devour eagerly. The 2-year-old does something funny, and everyone in the room laughs, and the mood is suddenly light again.
We visit for a while, but the toddler needs a nap, so we say our goodbyes and head to Ahlam's apartment, a fourth floor walk-up several blocks away.
Ahlam also lived in the suburbs outside Damascus, and she too remembers that deadly bombing in July, 2012. Speaking through our interpreter, she says her husband Mohammed went out that night with other men to help bury a man who had been killed earlier in the day.
She remembers the loud explosions and the darkness when the power went out. She says she tried to call her husband’s cell phone, but it was turned off.
Someone ran to their home to tell her Mohammed had been badly hurt in the attack and that police wouldn’t let him into the hospital. Ahlam says her husband died of his wounds at a nearby mosque.
"His brothers brought his bloody body back to our home," she says, recounting that night. "He would have turned 30 a few days later."
She says her son started crying and crying. He wouldn't stop, she says, and then they heard the officials announce over loudspeakers that everyone had to leave the city.
“It was surreal,” she says.
I asked her what she managed to take with her.
“I felt numb, but I took the cash my husband and I had hidden away, all our family photos and the shirt Mohammed had been wearing earlier in the day, she says. He’d taken it off before going out and it was laying on the bed."
"It still smells like him,” she says, smiling sadly.
Remembering back to that night, she says, “We started walking, and we walked by the place where the massacre took place, and we saw body parts and blood all over the place. It was awful."
Then her son pulled on her arm and said, “Look, those are father’s shoes.”
“We saw his shoes,” Ahlam echoes softly.
She said they traveled to a farm outside Damascus where they stayed with many other families for 17 days. They tried to go back to their home in the city, she says, but there was no power and it wasn't possible to live there any more.
She and the children lived for several months with her brother, but he was arrested and nearly hanged, she says. Thankfully, he managed to escape and they all fled to Jordan.
Speaking through our interpreter, Ahlam says it nearly killed her to leave Syria.
“When I got to the Jordanian border, to the people around me, I said, 'Is Syria over? Is that it?' And they said, 'Yes.'"
She says leaving so many people she loved behind, her other siblings and parents, it felt like she was losing her soul.
Ahlam’s two daughters, who are 10 and 12, sit silently nearby as she recounts all this. Her 7-year-old son plays quietly with her phone. I’m amazed at how patient and well behaved they are.
To help support her family, Ahlam works as a school bus monitor for a nonprofit affiliated with UNICEF. On school days, she rides back and forth to school with sixty Syrian refugee kids.
She lets me travel on part of the route with her, and I'm struck both by the poverty of the neighborhood and her upbeat, playful mood. She teases and jokes with the bus driver and points out the various streets where she picks up children. She waves to several people we pass.
On the way back to her apartment, the bus driver plays a favorite pop song of hers and she asks him to turn it up. Music fills the empty bus, and watching Ahlam laugh and sway to the beat, I'm reminded of how young she is.
The bus monitor job pays her about $350 a month, she tells me. That, plus the $150 in aid money the family gets from the United Nations, just about covers all her monthly bills.
"Alhamdulillah," she says in Arabic "Thank God."
I ask her if she would like to be resettled in the U.S., Europe or Canada, and she shakes her head. "I don’t want to be so far from Syria," she says, "and the children on the bus need me."
She says she's also made many friends in Amman — people who understand, like Kowkab.
Her dream, she says, is to return home one day. “I haven’t seen my family in four years,” she says. “I miss my parents. I miss my five siblings and I miss my country.”
Earlier, when I asked Kowkub if she’d like to be resettled somewhere, she told me maybe.
"Would you want to live in the United States?" I asked.
"I don’t think the United States wants Muslim refugees like me," she says. "Your president has made that clear. Why would I want to go to a country that doesn’t want me?"
“I’ve lost everything, my home, my family, my country," she adds. "I don’t need to lose my dignity too.”