I have several friends who have had babies in the past year. These babies are beautiful — a couple of them boys, a couple of them girls. I watch in amazement as they grow week by week – one week soft, sweet-smelling lumps that look around at the world they came into in wonder; the next week smiling, laughing, interactive personalities. It is a miracle, this human growth and development.
All of these babies have something in common – they were born into families that had homes and jobs, friends and family. They were born into place. None of the couples are migrants or refugees, they are not displaced.
But babies don’t choose when and where they come into the world. Babies are born into the best of circumstances and into the most difficult of circumstances.
This is what I think about as I hold Om Ali’s tenth child, a little girl named Salaam. A little girl she has named Peace. Traditionally, women are called by the name of their oldest son, so Om Ali literally means “Mother of Ali.” It was easy to guess the name of her oldest son.
We pulled up to the set of tents around noon time. “They won’t want early visitors,” said our Jordanian friend. I smiled – I’m the same way. Don’t come early. I won’t be ready.
Om Ali came out to greet us, a bright purple turban around her head. In any language or culture, this woman would be a strong, vibrant force.
The group of five or six tents could hardly be called a camp. They stood, haphazard, some of them with large UNHCR emblems, others with billboards providing shelter. Like many of the Syrian refugees we met in Lebanon, this group were also Syrian farmers. They had come from Syria and settled outside of Amman with hundreds of others. At some point, the government made the decision to move all the refugees to a camp in the middle of the desert, a camp called Azraq. Om Ali said it was terrible. A camp in the middle of the desert, the sun beating down all day, no running water, no electricity. So this group took it into their own hands and moved back to Amman. They set up near a factory where the men could occasionally work for one Jordanian Dinar an hour. That’s the equivalent of one dollar and forty cents. Other men found work in a market near by.
Om Ali had delivered baby Salaam just a month before. As I rocked the baby, she told us the story of coming from Syria. “The Jordanian government has been very good to us. We have not gone hungry and we have been safe. The Syrians at Azraq Camp are not happy. But we are happy.” We asked her about the tent –when the rains and snow come, does it keep dry? “Mostly. There is a thick cloth, then plastic, then another thick cloth. It mostly leaks in the corners.” Her tent was like so many others. Clean and simple, thick carpet on the floor and cushions around the sides. Blankets were piled in a corner, pulled out every night to keep the family warm. An old television sat on the one shelf in the room, it’s antenna reaching up toward the ceilin. A lone light bulb hung down from the middle of the tent. “Mostly we have electricity in the winter. It goes off in the summer.” Like the refugees in Bekaa Valley, they too pay for the land that their tent sits on. They pay for the electricity and water that they use as well. Because this group of tents is not an official camp, Om Ali says they get no refugee benefits. “We lost our papers because we moved back to Amman.” But what to do? There is no work in the desert. There is no future in the desert. In the city, at least there is hope for the future.
Baby Salaam woke up in my arms and looked at me in horror as if to say “You’re not my mother!” Om Ali expertly lifted her up and began to breast feed, immediately quieting her wails. Om Ali’s oldest son, Ali, lived in the tent next door with her daughter-in-law. A baby had been born early that morning and her daughter-in-law was already back in the tent. When they have to, they seek care at a hospital near by but it costs and so the sooner the new mom could get back to her tent, the better. The new baby had joined a one and a half year old girl – Maryam. Maryam came to my lap, sitting contentedly, blissfully unaware of the new-born bundle of competition next door.
Babies were born at Azraq camp too, Om Ali told us. And they don’t always live. It’s hot and sometimes the mothers can’t nurse so the babies die of malnutrition and dehydration.
I thought back to my own experiences of giving birth, in beautiful birthing rooms with rocking chairs and wall paper; in a clean, well run hospital in Pakistan; in a hospital on the Nile River in Egypt — all so different from what I knew of this new mom’s situation. I longed to go next door and check on her, make sure she was okay, that her uterus was going down appropriately and that she was safe. But if there is one thing I know, you respect the privacy of those you don’t know. I was a stranger to this extended family.
Our Jordanian friend indicated it was time to go and so we asked how we could pray. How could we remember them? How could we pray for them?
Pray for safety. Pray for peace. Pray that we can return to Syria. Don’t forget us.
The same prayer request outside of Amman that we heard in the Bekaa Valley. A prayer that echoed from Syria to Iraq to Lebanon to Jordan and back to Syria.
We had brought baby kits, blankets, and hygiene kits so as we left we asked them to come out to the car. There we loaded their arms with the little we had brought. I hugged and kissed Om Ali – first one cheek, then the other. And then again. As though we couldn’t get enough of each other.
Pressing my cheek against hers, I repeated over and over “Allah ma’ak. Allah ma’ak.”
God be with you Om Ali.
Note: If you are just coming by, this week I am writing stories from our time in Lebanon and Jordan. If you would like to give to refugees in Jordan, we are working with Conscience International to send funds.