“There was terrible screaming in the middle of the night,” remembers Ishmail, a husband and a father of five. “I feared snipers so I didn’t go out.” The threat of snipers may have saved Ishmail’s life.
When dawn broke, he went to investigate the commotion that had woken him. Inside his neighbour’s house, he found the bodies of his neighbour’s six children still lying in a pool of their own blood. They had been killed in front of their parents.
That nightmare convinced Ishmail to leave his villa with its garden and roses, fountain and ducks. His wife didn’t want to go but that night changed everything. Now, two months later, she is glad they left. She has heard from friends who stayed how bad it is to be living under siege in their home village, just outside Deraa.
Their three youngest children, between 18 months and 11 years old, were sent away to the bedroom while Ishmail told the story. The rest of the time, 11-year-old, Mohammed, sat listening with wide, sad eyes while his younger sisters played together. The two eldest boys, ages 15 and 17, were out walking the streets in Irbid, where the family now lives, looking for work. “They are both big for their age and I feared they would be forced into the army” said Ishmail.
Ishmail’s wife, Manal, took out her phone to show pictures of the roses that grow in their garden. It is a place that is important not only for the beauty and scent of the flowers, but also because Ishmail’s recently deceased mother is buried there. The bombing in Deraa made it too dangerous to use the cemetery.
His locksmith’s store had already been destroyed along with $200,000 of stock and his car. “Rockets were being fired from behind my garden,” he remembers. “I was afraid our house would be bombed as a consequence,” noting the many reasons he had to leave Syria, even before the incident at his neighbour’s house.
Before the civil war in Syria, Ishmail had been a successful businessman. He and his family enjoyed a prosperous life Now the seven of them live in two rooms that are usually used by students. Over 100 Syrian families live along the rubbish strewn back street lane Ishmail and his family now call home.
There was a sadness in the room with us, a sense of loss so strong it was like an extra person.
Ishmail himself was keen to talk. He is a big man with well-cared for hands, neatly trimmed nails and well-groomed hair. Yet he is a fish on a beach, gasping for air.
Years of dedication to his business and his family left him little time to socialise. He is depressed and does not seem to know how to go out and talk to strangers. Manal also stays in the house, she says she has nothing in common with the Syrian women around her, except for the loss of all they have each left behind.
I asked Ishmail if he would start a business again. He looked deflated, shrugged his shoulders and said that he has no money to invest in stock. He left in such a state of shock at what he had seen in his neighbour’s house that he didn’t even bring his locksmith’s tools.
Some other Syrian refugee businessmen I met in Irbid had a different story to tell. One has started a shop selling sweet Syrian confections of pistachio and honey. He left his home and four shops in Damascus two months ago. Here, in Jordan, he found himself a Jordanian partner who makes the business legitimate and shares the profits. A few doors down on the other side of the street, a sandwich shop is bursting with customers. Here, another Syrian businessman paired up with a Jordanian investor a month ago. Already, he is employing Jordanian workers and making a reputation for his Syrian food. While employment helps, this is still not home, agreed both these businessmen.
Syrian sweets are not a new thing in Irbid. On the road that leads to Ishmail’s lane there is the Damascus sweet shop. It has been a local landmark for years reminding residents how close Irbid, Jordan is to Damascus, Syria.
Distance isn’t measured in miles though. When he led me down the squalid lane where he now lives, Ishmail’s broad back seemed bent and old as if he was a million miles from home. It doesn’t matter how close you are if you cannot go back.
Mike Bailey is World Vision Communications Manager in Jordan