Love in the Time of Displacement: Part I

Newlyweds Oudai and Alaa fled the war in Syria together and started a family in Jordan. Then Oudai traveled to Germany alone, hoping to bring his family a few months later. The couple kept a diary detailing their separation; this first installment begins in Syria.

Written by Oudai Al Homsi, Alaa Masalma Published on Read time Approx. 14 minutes
Two Syrian boys walk down a street amid destroyed buildings in a rebel-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa, September 6, 2017. MOHAMAD ABAZEED/AFP/Getty Images

Early into their marriage, Oudai al-Homsi, a 27-year-old Syrian computer engineer, and Alaa Masalma, also 27 and a French teacher, fled to Jordan from the encroaching Syrian conflict.

In 2015, the couple made the agonizing decision that Oudai would travel on to Europe alone, leaving Alaa and their two young children behind in Amman.

This is Oudai and Alaa’s story, as told to the nonprofit, Media Instruction, Resources and Advocacy (MIRA), in a series of diary entries over the last year. The first chapters detail their life in Syria and Jordan; a second installment of their story will be published on Syria Deeply later this week.

i. Life in Syria

Oudai: From the day I was born until 2013, I lived in Syria with my family, a few hours away from the capital Damascus. I studied electrical engineering, but before I got my certificate, my father died from a heart attack. As the eldest of three brothers, I took on the role of the father of the house.

I continued with my studies, but after my first year, my mother became severely ill. The doctors had a hard time diagnosing her disease, and it progressed significantly before she was finally able to receive treatment in Damascus. I accompanied my mother through every stage of treatment, including the amputation of two of her fingers. When her condition stabilized, I returned to school. The time away had delayed my studies, but I finally graduated in 2010 with an electrical engineering degree.

I went to work at a repair shop called the International Center for Computers, which was a 15-minute walk from my house. At first, I was no good at fixing computers, but I soon learned the ropes and became the manager. Home and work were the best memories of my life. My house overlooked a valley, and at the bottom of the valley, there was a small lake, where my mother and I would sit, drink tea and talk.

One day, a young woman came into the shop with a laptop that needed to be fixed. As soon as I saw her, I had a feeling that she would be my wife. When she came back to collect her laptop, I told her I wanted to propose to her. She took some time to think it over. We went on a date and that was the start of our love. It was 2012, and the crisis in Syria was brewing. I was required to join the military service, but I refused because the military was persecuting the Syrian people. This is now a fact well known to the whole world.

Nonetheless, the young woman agreed to be my wife. We got married on April 1, 2012.

Three months after our marriage, my wife told me the best news I have ever received – she was pregnant. Two weeks later, the Syrian government began going after young men who had escaped compulsory military duty. Whenever the army started a search in our neighborhood, the neighbors would warn me and I would escape into the backyard and jump the wall to hide at our neighbor’s house. When the officers asked my mother about me, she would tell them I was in Damascus.

Alaa: I was born in a small house in Daraa, Syria, with my mother, father, three sisters and two brothers: they meant everything to me. I wanted to study international law and become a lawyer, but my mother wouldn’t allow me. She told me to study French instead, as languages were in higher demand in the job market. So I studied French literature at Damascus College.

The first year was very hard. Learning French was not easy. I visited my family every week until they opened a French literature course in my hometown and I returned home. By then I was proficient enough in French to give classes to other students. We were living our lives, but circumstances changed when the war began. There were killings, demonstrations and danger, so I would go to college afraid. My family was scared for me, but they didn’t allow it to stop their life.

I had a problem with the laptop I used for my classes, so I found a place called the International Center for Computers to fix it. When I entered the store, I saw this handsome guy. Of course, I did not show what I thought of him immediately. When he asked me for my number – in order to tell me when he had fixed the computer – I knew he would call me. Because he loved me and, of course, I loved him back, as I later told him shyly. We were engaged on March 23, 2012, and a week later we got married.

I started a new life with Oudai and his family. I moved out of my family’s house to his family’s house. The situation in the area was getting worse by the day. That was when I learned that I was pregnant with my son Samer. I cried tears of joy. He gave us hope amid the destruction and the blood. But it scared us a lot because Oudai did not do mandatory military service. We decided to run from house to house in fear of government raids.

ii. Leaving Syria

Oudai: By the time my wife was eight months pregnant, the situation became unbearable. I did not want my newborn to die from a mortar or unguided missile. So on March 21, 2013, we decided to leave for Jordan and seek asylum there.

We took rural roads to avoid the Syrian army checkpoints – they would have immediately arrested me if they saw me. We traveled by car to a Syrian town called Daraa, near the Jordanian border. From there, my eight-months-pregnant wife and I walked to the border and entered Jordan.

It was evening, just before sunset. As we drove through Jordan, I looked out of the car window to observe this new country where I will be a refugee – a country completely different than my own. I thought I saw a white cotton field, before realizing it was actually covered in tents labeled UNHCR. When we got closer to the entry gate, I saw it was guarded by Jordanian police officers. I tried to escape the vehicle and screamed at the driver to stop. He answered, gently: “Calm down, you are in Jordan now.”

I grabbed my wife’s hand as we entered the big reception tent. Her hand was wet from wiping away tears. “I don’t want be a refugee, I want to stay on Syrian soil,” she had said earlier, as we crossed the border. It was a cold night, with the sound of the wind and rain blurring my glasses. “Where am I and what have I done?” I thought.

I could feel my wife’s hand shivering. We placed one blanket underneath us and two blankets to cover us, in a tent with no warmth or comfort. I would sleep, then wake and have conversations with my wife – my partner in the misery of asylum. Then we would cry once again, our feelings scattered between the end of the danger of war and the loss of our family, our loved ones and our country.

When the sun rose, I woke up determined to start my journey as a refugee. I registered with UNHCR and, by sunset, I had received our tent. I went back to my wife to take her to our new address: a tent in Zaatari camp.

Zaatari refugee camp, located close to the northern Jordanian city of Mafraq near the border with Syria. (KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)

Alaa: One day we decided that we could not live in Syria anymore. Our only solution was Jordan. When I said goodbye to my family, I asked my father, “Do you want anything? I’m going to Jordan for two months until the crisis is over and then I’m going to return.” He answered: “I don’t want anything other than your health. May God bless you, my darling.”

I remembered my father’s words when I was standing at the border between Jordan and Syria, tears running down my face. I was crying for my family, my country and my baby. What do I have to cry about, among all refugees? I tried to hide my tears and be strong, going in front of Oudai to show him that I wasn’t afraid. “I’m holding your hand and whatever happens at this point, I don’t care because I love you,” I said to Oudai.

The Jordanian border police told us not to worry and that this was our second home, the killings and deaths had ended and their weapons were empty. They gave us food and water, but I didn’t want it. I didn’t feel anything. I left all my feelings behind. The only pain and fear were about my son and Oudai, who had opened my eyes to love.

When we arrived at the camp, they guided us to a big tent and asked “Are you pregnant?” I was eight months into the pregnancy. “No it’s just a false alarm,” I joked. “Yes, of course I am pregnant.” There were a lot of people and I felt lost among all these people. Oudai held my hand and asked, “Are you cold?” I didn’t respond because I was shivering, but my tears answered for me. I was scared that we were going to get lost here.

My husband was laughing at me. He comforted me and wiped my tears so I wouldn’t cry anymore. Then he went to register our names so we could take a tent to protect our unborn son from the cold of the winter. After a huge effort from Oudai – I could see the tiredness in his eyes – he secured a small tent for us, because sleeping among people we didn’t know was something strange, which I had never experienced before in my life.

I forgot about the war, the sound of bombardment and bullets, and destruction. All I thought about was Oudai and my son, and how we would live here. Oh God, how hard it is to migrate! How hard it is to move from your country to an unfamiliar country and be with people you don’t know. You don’t have your mother to cook your favorite dishes for you, and no father to return from work with delicious chocolates. There’s even a test to determine your future!

Oudai set up the tent and I helped, but not very much. He told me, “Enough – sit, don’t tire yourself, you’re pregnant.” They gave us pots, two plates and two cups made of stainless steel. They also gave us two mattresses and blankets. It felt as though we were serving in the military. “​What is this?” I thought to myself.

iii. Life in Jordan

Oudai: We stayed in the camp for 11 days. My wife reached out to her uncle, who had been living in Jordan for 30 years, and he agreed to sponsor us so we could live in a Jordanian city. We first settled in an area called al-Bowayda in Irbid. Eventually I found work as a computer technician. My happiness was immeasurable. I was living in a house and had a job. It was all I wanted.

My mother and two sisters later crossed the border in the same way and moved in with us. It was now February and one night my wife started screaming. My mother and I took her to the hospital. It was her first pregnancy and it took all night. In the morning, my wife emerged with a newborn in her hands. A son. My heart starting beating very fast.

Our joy did not last long. The Jordanian government decided to go after illegal foreign workers and I was working there illegally, as we only received around $100 per month in food aid for the whole family. I decided to move our family to the capital, Amman, to find work more easily. I was lucky to land a job embroidering women’s clothing. It had a modest salary, but it would meet my family’s basic needs without having to ask anybody for money. I felt like a human being again with a family, a house and a job. Small dreams fulfilled, but I felt I owned the whole world.

A year passed, my job improved and my son turned a year old. He started saying mama and papa. When he started walking, my wife surprised me that she was pregnant again. We had fun guessing the gender of our new baby. We didn’t have that luxury during first pregnancy as all our concerns in Syria were about survival. When we learned that the newborn would be a girl, our joy was complete. To have a girl is “sweeter than honey,” as we say in Arabic.

My dream of establishing a family had come true. Now I had to think seriously about the future of this family. The children will grow up fast and will need go to school and then university. My salary will never be able to cover their education expenses. How can I secure their future?

Alaa: Fog, dust, rain and mud. One morning, I woke up to the sound of loud banging and a ruckus outside our tent. I started crying, but I didn’t know if it was from the pregnancy or maybe memories of the bombing. Oudai went outside to see what was going on and they told him to secure our tent so that the rain wouldn’t flood it. He put sand and gravel on the edges to hold it down. I helped as best as I could.

I always had a feeling of guilt that everything that was happening to Oudai – being tired, being taken away from our families and houses – was because of me and my son. I don’t know where this feeling came from, or maybe it is just the way of human nature; you love someone so deep inside your heart and you want to see them comfortable.

We got out of the camp with a guarantee from one of our relatives who has been living in Jordan for many years. We got out, not knowing where we were going or what was awaiting us. We rented a place near the Syrian border in a village called al-Bowayda. Later, Oudai’s family got out of Syria the same way and lived with us.

One night, I woke up from my sleep at 3 a.m. with a pain in my stomach. I woke Oudai up to tell him that the baby was coming. I cried and he laughed with joy. My pain was increasing and I could not take it anymore. These were the hardest moments in my life. The pain was immense and I believed that life had closed all its doors. After seven hours of continuous pain and with my last scream, I heard the scream of the newborn.

When I first saw my son, Samer, I started crying. I told him: “Do not cry my, baby, I am here next to you.” I hugged him and started nursing. For the first time in my life, I felt as though I was fully grown up. I am a mother, responsible for helpless baby who could do nothing without me. Hours later, we were home. I had all the mixed feelings of motherhood: love, joy and sadness. They all seemed the same. (I am now in tears while writing this.) Oudai’s mother, as well our neighbors, were so happy for us and helped us a lot and took good care of us.

A month later, we moved to Amman. We settled in a building downtown adjacent to the Roman amphitheater. My son grew up playing among the ruins of the amphitheater, which has witnessed so many civilizations. When my son was a year and a half old, I became pregnant with my daughter, Meeral. Our life was very simple. Oudai was working at a traditional Jordanian clothes factory and I was at home with the family. When I found out that I was pregnant with a baby girl, I was so happy to have a sister for Samer. Nothing is better than having two children filling your life with joy.

One night, the same pain came back again. I called Oudai at work because I was afraid to be alone. When he arrived after 30 minutes, I felt as if I had been in pain for 30 years. I was in labor for nine hours before our daughter Meeral arrived to join our life in exile. I looked at her beautiful, fragile face and she immediately stole my heart. It was a big surprise for my son Samer – a baby sister who would share his toys. It took him awhile to make peace with this.

As the months passed, Oudai was getting tired from the endless demands of life. He took a second job to take care of us. I could not finish my studies as it is was too expensive, and I could not work to support Oudai and leave my kids alone. However, God was watching over us.

iv. Goodbye

Oudai: It was 2015 and all the TV stations were filled with news about Syrians crossing from Turkey to Germany. The coverage showed people both making it to Europe and people drowning in the Mediterranean. I thought: I’m a good swimmer, I won’t drown. My wife insisted on coming with me. “We can all go together with the kids and face the same destiny with you – to die or have a brighter future,” she said.

So I prepared to take my family on “the journey of death,” as Syrians call it. Then I saw the picture of a toddler named Alan Kurdi, lying lifeless on the shores of Greece. He was wearing a red sweater and jean shorts and looked just like my son. My kids do not know how to swim. After seeing that image of Alan, my wife and I decided I should travel alone. I got all my papers ready, including a permit from the Jordanian authorities, which stated that if I leave the country I would not be able to come back.

October 15, 2015, was my last night in Jordan. My close family came to say goodbye. We stayed up late – it was a sad night. When my friend came to take me to the airport the next morning, my family started crying hysterically. I kissed my mother’s head and asked her for forgiveness and her kindness. I wanted to say goodbye to my wife, but the look in her eyes would stop me from traveling. I hugged my kids as if I would not see them again.

The second installment of Alaa and Oudai’s diaries continue here.

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