Samarah's Backpack

Samarahs Backpack

For 37-year-old Samarah* the evening was like many others. She ate dinner with her mother, father, three sisters and three children who all lived together in their home just outside Damascus. She said a prayer for her husband who she had not seen or heard from for the better part of a year. Two years ago he had closed his tailoring shop where he specialized in making and altering pants to join the Free Syrian Army. Despite the odds being that he died in battle months ago, she prefers to believe he's just missing. As the evening grew late, she rounded up her two daughters and son ages, 4, 5, and 6 for bed. As she tucked them in, the sound of planes flying overhead grew louder and louder. Instinctively she threw her arms around them just as the far wall exploded, spraying segments of stone and dust across the room. With another crash composed of boards shredding and metal bending, half the roof came tumbling down. Everything shook. As the dust settled, Samarah took a few seconds to make sure her kids were all right. Once she knew they were ok she raided a collapsed dresser for some clothes, threw them in a backpack and raced outside. As all four escaped to safety, Samarah looked back at the rubble where her mother and father, as well as two of her three sisters, lay dead. With no time to grieve they took off towards Jordan. Several days later they made it to the gates of Za'atari. We came across Samarah when we met her sons filling water containers from a tank just around the corner from their caravan inside the camp. They saw my camera and insisted I come and take pictures of her. We walked back to their place and introduced ourselves. She saw my camera and asked me to please not take photos of her out of fear Assad might see it, put her on a kill list, and hunt down the rest of her family still living in Syria. Nonetheless, she invited us in to her family's tiny wooden box they now call home. We took off our shoes and sat on the floor. She sent her eldest son to retrieve a new teapot so she could serve us tea. We had been told to avoid eating or drinking anything we were offered due to high probability of contracting one of the many illnesses or vicious parasites thriving in the camp. Considering that I had witnessed the water boiling for quite a long time, and that the teapot was brand new, I decided it would be safe for me to have some. When the tea was ready she served it from a tray with pictures of red apples on it, something unattainable for Samarah's family this first week at Za'atari. Due to lack of supplies the UN requires new arrivals to  wait until after their first two weeks  before receiving any fruit or vegetable rations. I placed my right hand over my heart, thanked her, and took a sip. While we sipped our tea she showed us the backpack she brought with her from Syria. With Samarah's permission I took a picture. As I put my camera away I noticed Samarah's daughter mashing chunks of bread in her tea just to change the monotony of the meal.

When I returned to my place on the floor Samarah began reminiscing in greater detail about that frightful night. Her words began to trail off as the sound of a plane flying in the distance grew louder. In one fluid motion Samarah threw her arms around her children, shuttering with fear and confusion. She held her breath. Her eyes clouded over with tears that somehow never washed down her face as she stared at the roof waiting for its inevitable collapse. Her knuckles turned white as the blood ran from her grip. After what felt like the better part of a minute, her hands relaxed. Her eyes slowly return to ours. Her daughter returned to mashing chunks of bread in her tea. "I can't stand that sound." Samarah said, shaking her head as she refilled our cups.

I looked at the mush inside Samarah's daughter's teacup and thought about my mother's cream of potato soup. When I was small it was one of my favorite things she cooked. One evening after we had potato soup for dinner I got extremely ill. I spent the rest of the night making quick dashes for the toilet. From then on whenever I smell the soup, or even think about it, I feel sick. That one experience forever colored my perception of potato soup. Even to this day, with the memory so far in the past that I could probably stomach it, I avoid it.

When some people hear an airplane overhead it's static on the dial. For others it's like a song that takes you back to where you were the first time you heard it. Some people may reminisce of their honeymoon to Hawaii, or that time they drank too many glasses of wine and had an extremely difficult time getting their land legs back. Some may wander ahead to the future, envisioning that trip home for the holidays and the taste of mother's chocolate cream pie. For others the sound of a roaring airplane sparks a fear of flying or memories of that fateful day in New York when the Twin Towers fell. Samarah will always hear her house falling down around her. Such traumatic recollections are far greater than my experience with a particular soup. They throw shadows from objects no matter where the sun is located in the sky.

War alters the physical world far beyond where bombs are dropped. For survivors, all objects potentially take on new identities. This should be no surprise; everyone projects onto objects. After all, a garment only represents what we want it to; there's nothing intrinsically professional about a tie; underwear is only sexy or scandalous because of the part of the body it covers. In reality ties and underwear are simply pieces of cloth. Trauma, however, has a particular way of linking objects and experiences. If a person survives a car wreck it's hard with good conscience to blame them for being a little weary getting back behind the wheel. What makes the psychological imprints of war more difficult to overcome is that they're reinforced through the shared experiences of a community. And sadly, Samarah's story is all too common at Za'atari. Many people here look to the sky with wary eyes.

For those of us fortunate enough, be it by chance or geography, to avoid facing such unpleasant facts, it's hard to remember that freedom is not always simply being graced with an abundance of choices and the ability to choose; it's often being liberated from certain thoughts. As I return to the safety of my home along the shores of California, I could very well forget this myself. However, today when the ocean breeze was blowing through my office window, I heard a plane fly overhead and somewhere in the whir of its engines I heard Samarah weeping in her tiny box on a piece of the Jordanian desert called Za'atari.


* Not her real name. Due to concerns for the safety of her family she asked to remain unnamed and for no photos to be taken.