Voices defying the siege

Members of Rukban Network tell us why they started their journalism project

28 MARCH 2022

It was not an ordinary meeting, two women and two men in the camp, and over the border were two Syrian journalists, and the conversation was filled with hope, and with grief. They wanted the voice of the camp to be heard. There are many people, even those involved in covering Syria, who when they delve into the details of the camp, respond in shock, ‘We had no idea!’

So it began with the young women and men in the camp, armed with the word and the camera to tell the world, ‘we are here, we deserve life the same as you.’ And after bringing news of the camp, they now tell their own stories.

Fatima Al-Asaad, mother of four children, three girls and a boy, was displaced from Palmyra to Rukban camp in 2016.

Emad Ghaly, born in the city of Al-Qaryatayn in 1993. He got married in the camp. His daughter was born here in the desert, and he named her Sham, another name for the capital Damascus.

Maryam Al-Faisal, from Homs, is twenty-seven years old, married, and has two children.

How did you get here?

Fatima: With the bombing of the regime forces and the entry of ISIS, staying in Palmyra became suicidal, and we decided to seek refuge in Jordan. In a trip that lasted more than ten hours on an agricultural tractor, we arrived at the camp, and found the door was closed towards Jordan.

I was shocked, and cried, and asked my husband to return, even if the price was death, but my husband supported me psychologically, and since that time we have trained ourselves to endure and be patient, even to survive.

Emad: As soon as the revolution started, I decided to get involved. I saw in it the dream of liberation and change. We deserve that, but I had to escape Assad’s security forces, and that was the beginning of a long flight, from Homs to Idlib, and back to Deir ez-Zor, and then to Al-Mayadin.

I tried to return to my hometown, but we were displaced again to Tabqa. I kept moving between cities and regions until in 2015, with the impossibility of finding any safe place, I decided to seek refuge in Jordan.

I got stuck here like the others. Not only did my escape journey stop at that moment, but my life too. Time passes heavy and slow in the camp, and we feel the same as prisoners.

Maryam: With the bombing and then with ISIS emerging, I saw death all around me. In the sky, planes bombed barbarically and randomly, and on the ground ISIS were killing barbarically and randomly, and so personally I was happy when I arrived here. After our dangerous journey to get this far, I felt that the death that had accompanied me for such a long time was behind me.

All the joy left me when I realised that my life was to remain here, in a tent in the desert. We can neither return nor move forward to Jordan. A life of waiting is not much different from death—waiting is a delayed death.

Why did you decide to take on the challenge of journalism?

Fatima: For me, the seeds of this decision came from my feeling that we were all involved, and I decided to do something here, to take part in public affairs, to do something that makes life possible. For example, we saw people helping each other to build tents and strengthening them so that the winds would not blow them down, and then improving the housing, helping build mud houses. We needed schools, and we volunteered and built a modest room that turned into a classroom, and so my view of public affairs developed.

My views were shaped by my own painful experiences, including watching a sixteen-year-old girl who was slowly dying because of the lack of medical care. After the decision was taken to risk moving her to Jordan, she died on the way. At that point I had to do something. The world had to hear the story of that girl who died on a desert road, and so this was the first step.

Emad: At the beginning of our displacement here, we were literally isolated from the outside world, with no internet or communications. So I decided to create a link between us and the world. I opened a humble hall that I equipped with satellite internet, and people came to me asking about news and asking to communicate with their families.

Soon I started photographing life in the camp and posting the pictures on my Facebook account, and the world began to watch closely the situation in Rukban. Some journalists began communicating with me, asking about developments, and asking for photos to complete their reports. I began to notice what effect the coverage has in people’s reality, and I decided to use all journalistic tools as much as possible to deliver news and photos as professionally as possible.

Maryam: Our lives have completely changed since we came here. I was crying a lot. It took me a long time to believe that what was happening to us was real. This is our destiny and there is no other hope. We ran from one death to another, but the transformation began on a personal level when I got involved in awareness work.

With one of the organizations working on the epidemic and personal hygiene, I started to feel this wonderful feeling, that it makes a difference in people’s lives. When I was offered a chance to train in journalism, I didn't hesitate. I wanted to make a bigger impact, people here are isolated and trapped, and journalism and getting our voice out is the best weapon.

Your work is to convey to the world what you see around you, but you are part of this suffering, so what about your own stories? Are there any details about yourselves that you would like to share?

Maryam: It always hurt me to see the condition of the children in the camp, especially among the poorest families, and then one day I returned home to my son Mahmoud, who suffered from an unknown disease—suddenly he fell in front of me. We waited six months for his diagnosis, and later with the closure of the border, the medicine stopped. He suffers from a nervous problem, which often makes him unable to speak and move. My heart hurts when I am helpless. It is the most hideous feeling.

Fatima: Sadness is our companion here. Wherever I look around, I find oppression. We are trapped here. I received the news of my sister’s death over the phone. I am in one place and my family is in another. My children after primary school will not find a school to go to. I despair of our situation, all this hardship and no hope of change, no hope of returning home.

Emad: I have no ability to separate my experience from the experiences of others. What I’ve seen every day over all the years has made me identify with the camp and its people. I have seen cases of a family in starvation, and patients dying because the clinics in the camp are unable to treat them. People are dying here, so when I return home, no matter how hard I suffer, it is enough for my family to be healthy, and I say, another day has passed, we are still alive. At night I can’t arrange the scenes in my head, they crowd in and cause me insomnia. I try to escape to my memories, to my home there, and to my dreams of becoming a doctor one day.

What do you dream about?

Maryam: To wake up tomorrow and discover that everything we have been through is just a nightmare.

Fatima: To save my family and their future.

Emad: That tomorrow there will be no such thing as Rukban camp.

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