The Syrian civil war, now in its seventh year, began when a group of young people spray painted anti-regime graffiti on the walls of their school. Their arrest, detention and torture let to protests and a violent crackdown by the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The series of actions and reactions has led to the deaths of an estimated 115,000 Syrians and caused two million more to flee the country. More than 500,000 of these refugees have headed south to neighboring Jordan. Most Jordan-bound refugees pass through the Zaatari camp, whose current population of 113,000 makes it the second largest refugee camp in the world. The rest have spread throughout Jordan, settling in for what they believe to be a long separation from their homes and communities as they wait out a war with no end in sight.
By The Olive Trees was produced as a newsprint publication in collaboration with Benjamin Rasmussen and distributed widely through exhibitions, artist’s talks and partners.
Abdul Rahman Mounir Al-Zalem
"I have been working in Kuwait since 2004 as a car air conditioning specialist. I went back to Syria to visit, and I got stuck there because of the conflict.
Getting to Jordan was dangerous and difficult. I hid in a hole for two days with no food, only water, and then I escaped. It was all walking, because there are no cars and no gas. I would find a house, go inside, get food and get out. There were no people in them. They were all hiding in the basement. I wouldn't walk on the streets, instead I would walk in the fields and dirt so that the government forces wouldn't see me.
We have no house now in Syria, because the government airplanes shelled it. There is no trace that it existed. We had a small orchard with 24 olive trees and 5 lemon trees and 3 grape vines.
I planted an olive tree here so we could feel like we were in Syria. Every week we say the next week we will return, we will go back to Syria. And now it has been two years. Maybe the same thing will happen to us as it did to the Palestinians and we will wait for 60 years. Or maybe we will go back tomorrow, or maybe today.
If Bashar goes away we would go to Syria, sit by the olive trees and we would sleep and eat and drink there."
Mohammad Mounir Al-Zamel
"I defected from the military and joined the FSA because of the killing, the crimes and the destruction. When a protest would start the regime would start firing and arresting people. I was serving in Aleppo, but when I went on leave I just stayed home in Dera’a. My friends in the military defected as well. Nearly 80 or 90 percent of the people I knew in the military defected.
There was a siege on my town that lasted for five days. On the fifth day I was hit. I stayed there for two days without getting medical treatment, until the FSA could retreat. There were field hospitals. We stayed with the FSA wherever they went, but there was no more ammunition, and I had relatives and my brothers with me.
Three days later I came to Jordan.
The bone in my arm was shattered. I steadied my arm with a splint and I tried not to move it, but when I moved it the pieces of bone would start rubbing against each other. It was coming out of my flesh. The doctors didn't know what to do with it so they cut it and they sewed it up. There was shrapnel in it but doctors said it would be dangerous to try to remove, so they left it in.
If the regime falls I would go back. Now in our area there is a government base, and the FSA wants to liberate the area. Once they liberate it and the brigade is done, then it will be finished and the people will begin to return.
I was there fighting for a year and a half. If I wasn't hit I wouldn't have come here, and I will go back."
Zidan Abdullah Zidan
"I've been here in the Za'atari camp for three months. Back in Syria I was fighting with the rebels. I came because I was injured and lost my leg after being hit by Assad’s forces. My house was totally destroyed with the rest of my neighborhood. Men, women, children, old people and animals were all destroyed without mercy. My brother was killed as well. We buried him and came here.
It is expensive to live here in the camp. What we're given is not enough for us to live on. I have a small grocery store, and I try to earn money for our daily expenses from it from it. Before the revolution I was a construction worker, but here this is the living I make.
The only solution is that we are patient until we can be rid of this tyrant. That is it. Otherwise, where would I return? To destruction and fire? It’s Impossible. I must stay here until the end of Assad. And Assad’s end will come from America, exclusively. Once they say, "Leave", he will leave. Other than that there is nothing.
We lived in a tornado. At one point we thought that Assad may be gone in a month or two and now this is the third year and he has yet to go, because of the lack of assistance from all the Arab and foreign nations to the rebels."
Mohammad Al Hariri
"I'm known as Abu Hussein the Leader. And we are known for goodness.
I was one of the first people to enter into Za'atari When we first came here, not only was there nothing, there wasn’t even life itself. There weren't flies, there weren't ants. There was no life here, not even ghosts.
Look, a Herculean effort was made here by me and all of the brothers towards a unified aim. If it weren't for them, I wouldn't have become the “community leader”. We fight for social justice in the camp and are facilitating any issue for the refugee, regardless of whether they are a man or woman and from which province they hail. There is no personal interest or gain.
Is the thief who comes from Syria going to come here and become the imam of a mosque? "
Abdullah Ahmad Al-Heraaki
"I've been here for six months and thanks be to Allah, we don't need anything here. The world outside the camp works and inside the camp we also work. We opened up a barbershop, but since people here have little money, we only charge 25 cents for a haircut.
I saw people putting up corrugated metal sheets and so I did the same and set up this shop. I don’t pay rent, but I paid US$75 get electricity."
"The situation at home is terrible. There is nothing left there… just war. It is shooting 24 hours a day and at any moment a battle can start, so what can we do? I have children and they are scared from the shelling and the bombardments, the tanks and all the shooting.
It is not good to leave your hometown, but we were forced to because of the war. It is hard to find work here and hard to support my family, but it still better to be here.
The regime made a big mistake and they used violence, so we have to be against it. A government sniper killed my brother and the army killed my uncle, my cousin, and... who else can I count ? There are so many that I cannot count any more.
I am afraid for my children and that is why I won’t go in front of cameras. The regime has eyes everywhere, and you just never know.
My daughters are frightened because of all that they have witnessed. They feel scared at night. When they hear an airplane over our house, they tell me “Dad, they are going to hit us with bombs!” When they hear fireworks from a wedding, they ask, “Is that the army, are they coming here?” And when they watch TV, they ask who every character is. They ask, “Is he with us or with Bashar?”
We must get rid of him; there is no other option. Too many people have been killed, including children. Forget about the damage that has been done and the money spent, what about the people we lost? The houses can be repaired and replaced, but not the people who have been killed."
Muhmoud Ali Abo
"My family left our home when our town in Palestinian was occupied by Israel on October 28, 1948. I was six years old. When we left I saw the Israeli army that was occupying my town. They had many men and many guns. I saw that all that could mend the situation is praying in the mosque on Friday.
We all went to the caves in the mountains outside of to the town and stayed there for about 3 months. Then we left the caves and went to Jericho in tent camps for refugees. We lived like that for almost 20 years.
Since then I have moved to Jordan, where I am a citizen, and to Syria, Libya, Lebanon, Tunisia, Yemen, Sudan, and Yugoslavia. I lived in Syria from 1991 until 2012 in the Yarmouk camp for Palestinian refugees. But then it became a war zone, with the FSA and the Syrian army fighting over control of the camp. Many people were killed by mortar attacks.
I am very tired, very, very tired, because I am without documents, as are my son and the son of my son. We are three generations without documents. The Jordanian government took them when we entered the country. They say that I am no longer Jordanian because I have Palestinian roots."
Nasser Haamed Abdul Fattah
"As Palestinians in Syria, we had no proof of identity. And whenever you crossed a checkpoint with no ID card they would instantly arrest you, you would be put in the prison for a month or a year, no one knows.
I was imprisoned for a year under a false charge. Someone who said hello to me at the door of the mosque, and he was being monitored by the Syrians because they claimed he was with Fatah al-Islam (a militant Islamist group). They thought I was with him, and they arrested us. So if you grow a beard and go to pray in the mosque, then they arrest you. We didn't have any connection to such things, we were just workers but they will find some charge against you because of your religion. Every now and then the Syrian forces would do a raid in the town and round up large numbers of people. Then they would imprison and torture them,
Life here, compared to the other camps, is like a thousand blessings. There are restrictions and noise, but we are comfortable and there is no harassment. But the living situation is still a bit bad. We get a coupon from the UNHCR for US$34 per person for the whole month. Meaning that each person’s daily expense is assumed to be around US$1. This is not enough and it doesn’t last the whole month. I ran out of coupons a couple days ago, so I'm taking loans so I can afford to buy food for the rest of the month."
"We came from Dera’a with the FSA and have been here for four months. We decided to leave when the regime started to enter houses to forcibly recruit men for the army. The government security forces had an appointment to search our house, so we fled.
Everything changed in Dera’a during the first two years of the uprising. People were afraid and wouldn’t go out for anything. It would be quiet and we would go get bread and then an air strike would start. You would hide anywhere you could, in any home or neighborhood, until you could get home.
Our neighborhood was in the center of town and was full of people. It had the court, the national hospital and much more. Out of everyone who lives there, the only people who remain there are my cousin and four young men who are taking care of the houses.
Everything has changed. In your own house you feel at rest, but here is not our home. The neighbors are good, but it is different in your own country. We miss our family and our homeland."
Eyad and Mo'ayd Ghuzlaan
M - "I used to work in my father’s car shop, but he died eight months before the revolution started. So I went to work with my brother."
E – "I worked with surveillance cameras and alarm systems, so Mo'ayad came to work with me. We worked together for about eight months, but then the area became too dangerous because of the fighting."
M- "When the revolution began, there was no ability to work."
E – "I then opened a small shop in our neighborhood selling biscuits and potatoes and ice cream and juice."
M – "We finally left Syria in early 2013 because there is mandatory military service, which meant that my brother and I would have to serve in the regime’s army. We wouldn’t do that, and because of this, we would be sentenced to death if we stayed in Syria. Also, women and children were being raped and I have two younger sisters and two younger brothers, so we had to leave."
E – "We had many relatives killed in Syria. A government sniper killed one cousin while he was in the town square and a sniper killed another as she was standing outside of her house. Another cousin was kidnapped and then killed at a military checkpoint and another was killed after defecting from the Syrian army.
When we fled we took only what we were wearing and one change of clothes. The FSA took us to the border and then the Jordanian army brought us in and registered our names and took us to the Zaatari camp."
M – "I only stayed in the camp for a week before I left illegally. I am a man and I couldn’t take being in there. Can you imagine what it is like for families living there?
I was in a really bad way when I first came out, but then, thank Allah, I found work in a stone quarry. They bring us a massive stone and we break it into three smaller pieces. But recently, one of the pieces fell on my leg so I can’t work."
E – "And I am working as a carpenter, making household items from wood."
M - "This is a strange country and every day is the same, there is nothing new."
E - "We hope that things will calm down and go home. We don't want to live in Jordan. There's nothing like home."
M – "All we do is work to make money for our family. On Thursday we get our salary and go to the store and get what we need, that is it. We try and spend time with our family, but are living in a house in the countryside, which is far away."
E - "I hope that Bashar Al-Assad will fall, and that we will go home. Go back to how we used to be."
"We came to Jordan because of all of the violence and strikes by the Regime. My nieces and nephews were very afraid when the shooting would start so we left and have been here since February 2012.
The camp was very strange to me. People surround you and you can’t leave. It is like a prison. I was very sad, and so I escaped and went to live with my family.
I want there to be safety and security in Syria. I want to return to my homeland, have no one attack me, and not hear guns firing. But there will be no security until the regime falls and this regime will stay a long time.
I will give birth this week and I think that by the time my unborn son is able to return to Syria, he will be aware of the world and at least 4 or 5 years old. I will name him Mohamed after my brother, who was martyred while fighting with the FSA."
"I was living in Latakia where I was a student at Tishreen University, a school of mainly Alawites. For the first 6 months of the uprising we were all convinced by the regime’s story that everything was being caused by gangsters and terrorists coming in from outside of Syria. I would call my family back in Dara’a, but they were scared of telling me the truth and would just repeat the regime’s story and so I believed it.
After that there was the holiday in between semesters, so I went home to Dara’a. I was so surprised with the reality of what was going on there. I didn’t know that people, my people, were revolting and demonstrating. Then the town was besieged by the regime and it took me 20 days to escape and return to university.
When I finally arrived I started telling the truth to everyone and posting what I had seen on Facebook. Because of that, all my friends rejected me. I would walk alone in the university and nobody would talk to me.
Then I showed up for an exam and there was a note on the board that said, ““Wajed, go to the administration office as soon as possible.” When I arrived there was a man from the secret police there. He asked me to come in the next morning. Since he had asked me so nicely I figured that it would be fine and they would ask me a couple questions and they would let me leave.
When I arrived they took my phone and wallet and blind folded me. I was led into an office and there a man started questioning me about what I had posted on Facebook. He started to read my posts to me and said that they were against Assad. But I was just describing demonstrations that I saw and I was quoting from the songs they were singing there, I wasn’t saying anything against Assad. That made him laugh and so I laughed too.
“I’m not making you laugh, you bastard!” he said. “Go and kneel on the ground.”
Then they brought in the flying carpet. It is a wooden board with straps and a joint. They tie you to it and then bend you until you can’t breath. Then they took off my shoes and socks and beat my feat with a metal rod until they were both broken.
At first I made no noise, but finally I screamed.
“Stop screaming like a bitch!” he yelled at me.
“You are the bitch,” I told him. “You are not a man. If you were a man, you would have beat me while I was standing, not while strapped to a board.”
Then they beat me for three more hours and then kept me in prison for 11 days. When I was released I had lost almost 30 pounds. I went home to Dara’a and two weeks later the secret police called saying they had more questions. I fled to Jordan the next day."