Other widows in the street, like Hayat Hariri, 33, have large family support networks in the camp, but she still faces difficulties. Her troubles are less about food and shelter than about dealing with the loss of her husband — Mohammad al-Masry, a 40-year-old former livestock trader turned Free Syrian Army commander who was killed in battle in their province of Daraa on May 5.
Masry took his wife and their young twins to Zaatari camp about a year ago, when the children — a boy, Ismael, and a girl, Hiba — were just a year old. “The children were very dear to him. He feared for them. He wanted to make sure they were safe,” Hariri says.
Dressed in a black abaya and a black niqab that conceals her hair and all of her face except her honey-colored eyes, Hariri twists a tissue around in her fingers, crying, as she recalls how it took her and her husband 11 years to conceive the twins. “They look like their father,” she says.
Rather than stay with their precious children, Masry returned to Syria to fight with a rebel battalion. He visited his family only once, spending December 2012 in Zaatari. “He used to say that he had many sins and that martyrdom would clear them,” Hariri says. “He would say, ‘If I sit and everybody sits and does nothing, nothing will happen. Nothing will change. We will not sit.’”
Hariri lives in a trailer with her mother, Em Ziad, an older woman with Bedouin tribal tattoos inked on her chin, forehead and hands. A bunch of soft toys lie scattered in a corner, including a Wellington bear and a monkey wearing a white T-shirt that reads ‘Against animal testing.’ A TV in the background is tuned to an Arabic children’s channel.
Em Ziad listens intently and dry eyed, puffing incessantly on Jordanian cigarettes as her daughter cries and shreds tissues between her shaking hands. Em Ziad tries to calm her by interjecting with the occasional “God is merciful” or “This is God’s will.”
“He was supposed to come here. He said he would after five days,” Hariri says quietly. “Instead, he was martyred.” Her voice cracks. “He wasn’t even buried. They took his body,” she says, referring to Syrian government soldiers.
Her children, who are still breastfeeding, are too young to leave for hours, she says, but she’d like to “learn something — a trade, a skill.” She doesn’t have any photos of her husband in the trailer, just on her Nokia phone. Ismael says he wants to see pictures of his father. She flicks open the phone. “Yes, this is baba,” she says, until the picture fades from the screen.
Back home in Syria, Abu Zayd was a farmer who had a side business making floral arrangements for weddings. Now, as a street leader in the camp, he feels responsible for the well-being of hundreds of people. He’s especially concerned for anyone deemed vulnerable, such as those who, unlike 90% of the camp’s residents, come from areas other than Daraa.
He doesn’t allow single men to live on his street unless they’re part of a household with parents or other relatives because he fears they might cause trouble or harass the women. “A single man shouldn’t be alone among families,” he says. “They should be in a separate section.”
The most common request he faces, he says, is for help finding employment. The most common complaint: poor hygiene in the camp. Communal toilets were removed by an NGO three months ago after complaints about their condition, but the promised replacement facilities have not yet been installed. Many of the families on his street have installed toilets in their homes, at their own cost, with underground sewage pits that are routinely emptied into trucks. “What are women supposed to do?” Abu Zayd says, lamenting the missing new communal toilets. “It’s the most basic thing.”
He taps his cigarette in a homemade wooden ashtray crudely carved by his younger brother. His eldest daughter, Dhikra, 13, sits by his side. The women of his family — his mother, several sisters, some sisters-in-law and his wife — move in and out of the trailers, one of which they’ve converted into a kitchen, where they’re frying frozen fish purchased in the camp’s market.
He proudly introduces his sister Amana, who teaches English in the camp and has a degree from Damascus University. “We are farmers from a small village,” Abu Zayd says. “People said my sister shouldn’t go to Damascus to study, but I said I would not forgive myself if I didn’t help her go. Now she has a skill that helps pay the bills. Her degree is like a weapon, to protect her.”
At one point, his wife makes a comment about politics. Abu Zayd playfully chides her, telling her she shouldn’t discuss such things, but it’s clear that he’s joking. Almost as a point, his mother and sisters seamlessly continue the political talk. He contributes to the conversation rather than telling them to talk about other things.
He says he thought about joining the Free Syrian Army, but then thought about his children and his wife. He didn’t want to make her a widow, a woman who might one day rely on a man like him, somebody she is not related to, in a foreign land, to help her. “Who would look after them if I am martyred?” Abu Zayd says. “They need me here.”