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Syrian Refugees' Faith and Narratives Endure Despite Intensified War and Displacement

Miles from the Syrian border, refugees fight to maintain spaces of community and healing.

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Mar 5 2018, 10:00pm

Wikimedia Commons

This is an opinion piece by Mohsin Mohi Ud Din from refugee storytelling initiative #MeWeSyria and his experience at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, one of the largest refugee camps in the world.

Allahu Akbar!”, which means, “God is great,” reverbs off of pieces of scrap metal now sheltering tens of thousands of Syrians in Jordan's desert. I am walking towards a local mosque. This is a city of children absent of trees and grass. “lLa ilaha illa'llah!” a man proclaims on a loudspeaker. It means, “There is no God but God.” The call to prayer bounces off rocks and tin, inviting people to pray.

I am guided by friends and Syrian teammates from our #MeWeSyria program. We reach the mosque — a trailer —and I am immediately struck by hundreds of shoes parked outside. Some are torn. Some without soles. Some are broken sandals. Some are new. Some are stitched or taped back together. All are dusted with the desert’s foundation.

Our narratives for this day carry us on to the next stop.

Each pair wears a different narrative at any given moment, on any given day. Some days people are a narrative journey of loss, maybe guilt, but also there are narratives of resilience, and defiance. Each day any of us walk this Earth, the narratives we carry within us, and choose to believe in, shape who we are.

We are all the narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves—and don’t tell ourselves. This is the premise of my work with Syrian youth: In the process of reauthorizing and reclaiming control of one’s narrative, it is also possible to grow self-awareness in how one’s mind and body respond to change.


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I wade into a sea of what seems a hundred more shoes, into a large container carrying soles black and blue. It’s Friday prayer in Zaatari refugee camp.

In this setting, and in any context related to Syria these days, the word “Allahu Akbar” is synonymous with either protest, violence, or extremism. These represent the trifecta for media and political applications that have come to hijack a religion.

I am here to pray. I am some kind of Muslim after all. But why do I feel like a fraud here... in this makeshift container of faith surrounded by hundreds of Syrian men?

But here, in this trailer, brothers repeat to themselves, “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar,” searching for a drop-off point for their pain, or hopes. This is the real application of “Allahu Akbar” repeated by more than a billion people, five times a day. It’s not the 6 o’clock news.

A man at the front assumes the role of an usher, and orders the young attendees to make more space for those of us walking in. Space is scarce.

The fragrance is of dry human feet forced to walk this desert that is not their home. They can’t use up all their water rations in one day. How they do wuzu—the habitual wash before prayer—with such limited water is a game in and of itself.

The imam stands tall at the front, rapping his sermon into the mic. I sit amidst this sea of hundreds of Syrian men, trying to listen in to the performance bringing us all together today. I wonder, how can the imam maintain carrying this fragile container of faith for the hundreds of refugees sitting in silence before him?

I am here to pray. I am some kind of Muslim after all. But why do I feel like a fraud here... in this makeshift container of faith surrounded by hundreds of Syrian men?

Perhaps it’s because I am humbled by what real faith looks like, and smells like, and feels like.

Every single person in here has every reason to give up on faith because the world outside this trailer is one that imprisons them.

“Allahu Akbar” repeats in whispers across the room. Men stare into the carpet for answers, signs and feelings. I am in awe of this scene, this moment. This is a landscape absent of freedom, of trees, of grass. What is it in the human spirit that physically and mentally pulls a young kid in this space of collective prayer and faith in a world so wrong? Why am I so surprised? Healing cannot happen among siloes, after all.

Every single person in here has every reason to give up on faith because the world outside this trailer is one that imprisons them. And yet, they are defiant to what is expected of a people ripped apart by war and injustice. Eating a meal together, taking a class, cracking a joke, praying together every Friday—these are all beautiful acts of defiance repeated by millions of people each and every day.

They check their shoes at the door. Physically they cannot travel where they want, but here they are traveling without moving, forced to go places where most of us don’t go. Their minds are filled with trauma, anger, isolation, and loss that threaten to colonize their identity each and every second. They remain defiant.

Humbled, I close my eyes, and bow my head with the rest of them. I turn my head to the right. I turn my head to the left, in unison with the hundreds around me. “Salam,” we say to one another. “Peace.”

These are heroes that every day resist the temptation to give up.

We all walk out together, slipping back on our shoes. Hundreds of shoes and sandals once peppered on top of each other now disperse back into the desert, as if blown away by the wind. Our narratives for this day carry us on to the next stop.

The destination for these Syrian men? To breath and live another day within a world on fire. For some, it is to reach a goal, any goal. For most, it is to keep breathing out of a responsibility for the ones they love and who may depend on them for care and comfort.

These are heroes that every day resist the temptation to give up. Their soles are fighting to keep walking another day. I bow my head to them, and their enduring narratives.

If you're interested in helping out Mohsin's efforts, contact #mewesyria or volunteer your time and skills to supporting the team to host a #MeWeSyria session in your home or community. Or follow updates from #MeWeSyria youth teams on instagram and twitter.

#MeWeSyria is both a methodology and youth platform built in collaboration with local community-building NGOs (such as DARB and Questscope) and technical partners, and Beyond Conflict.