AMMAN — While the prospect of marriage is usually accompanied by feelings of joy and happiness, this was not the case for Joud’s family, who felt almost entirely the opposite. Her father’s last words still echo in her ears, she told Syria Direct: “We won’t stop you, this is your choice. Watch out for yourself, and I wish you goodness and safety.”

Then, as though paddling against the waves of a rough sea, Joud set out for al-Rukban in August aboard a truck loaded with food supplies for the desert camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) on the Syrian-Jordanian border. She was accompanied by two women from the camp who had been receiving treatment at a hospital in Damascus.

While some 75 percent of the population of al-Rukban left last year due to poor living and humanitarian conditions as a result of a tightened blockade by government and Russian forces, Joud chose to live in the camp for the sake of her husband, Said. "I told him 'I don't have a problem with where I live, as long as I am with you.'” 

Although she was aware of the camp situation while in Damascus, “seeing is different from hearing,” Joud said. In addition to “the ruggedness and dangers of the road since it is only possible to reach Rukban by smuggling routes,” she felt “dread” when she arrived at the camp. But that disappeared upon “meeting with Said,” she added.

Said al-Homsi was anxious to meet Joud but did not hide that he was struggling internally, fearing that his wife would regret having come. “I went through hard days here, and witnessed the suffering of the camp’s residents when medicine or baby formula was cut off,” he told Syria Direct, and “I didn’t want Joud to suffer this.” Thus, “I used to send her daily news of the camp,” he added, “and attach pictures about the nature of life here, so she would not feel that I had hidden anything from her, or that I didn’t show her the truth of our lives here.” 

A marriage story

Said, a 25-year-old originally from the countryside of the central Homs province, had been in contact with Joud’s family for more than a year over the internet. He later sent one of his family members living outside al-Rukban to visit Joud’s father in a regime-controlled suburb of Damascus. “I entrusted him with proposing on my behalf, and he signed the marriage contract,” Said said. “He also gave them the dowry [mahr] we agreed upon.” 

Said and Joud’s love story took root and grew from afar, as in the famous Kurdish tale of the star-crossed lovers “Mem and Zin.” But as the two did not want it to end like that story, with a love that only bore fruit in the sky, their fear began to grow, especially for Joud—who is five years younger than Said. “My family threatened to annul the marriage contract if the engagement went on much longer,” she said. Although “the hope was for us to marry outside the camp, Said’s inability to leave it led us to decide to marry in al-Rukban.”

At first, her family rejected the idea of marrying in al-Rukban. “If I were leaving for another Syrian province or another country, then it would be no problem for them. But they rejected the idea of the camp,” she said, “until my father agreed to fulfill my wish.”

Meanwhile, Said worked hard to create a unique atmosphere for his bride coming from the city to the desert. However, his efforts remained, inevitably, hostage to the camp’s circumstances and the materials available in it. On the outskirts of the camp, he built a sixteen-square-meter mudroom with a wooden ceiling. He also made a wooden bed and decorated the room with fabric, he said. When Joud came, a small wedding was held, attended by Said’s relatives.

Said and Joud’s mud room in al-Rukban camp, after it was furnished and decorated

Joys that circumstances can’t kill 

The story of Joud coming from Damascus to marry Said in the desert camp where residents lack the most basic rights of living conditions and health certainly appears to be an exception. But this does not mean that life has stopped in the camp. Rather, “people still get married, and hold their weddings and receptions in an attempt to create an atmosphere that makes up for what we have lost,” media activist Emad Ghali told Syria Direct from his residence in al-Rukban. 

“We insist that life must go on, whether there is a war or not, regardless of how hard life in the camp is,” Ghali added. “Those who remain in al-Rukban have made a decision not to return to their cities so long as the Syrian regime kills and arrests [people there] with Russian and Iranian support. But at the same time, we have chosen to live in this desert and settle it,” he said. Today, according to Ghali, “there are those who marry, who build brick houses, who plant.” 

Because the camp’s local council has paused its work due to financial difficulties, there is no census of the number of marriages in al-Rukban, the head of the council, Abu Ahmad Derbas, told Syria Direct. However, “each month, there is at least one marriage. Sometimes, the camp might see one or more weddings in a single week,” he added. 

In another indication of the desire to continue living despite the desert’s cruelty, the Palmyra Clinic, run by the Tribal Council of Palmyra, saw seven women give birth within 48 hours this month, despite the minimal capabilities available in the camp and increasingly difficult conditions. 

Alongside the blockade imposed on al-Rukban by the government and Russian forces, precautionary measures against the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) caused the closure of the UNICEF medical point on the Jordanian side of the border in March. The point was the only medical facility serving al-Rukban camp, which has no doctors. 

The camp has also been affected by Syria’s current economic crisis. The deterioration of the Syrian pound (SYP) is reflected in the prices of basic goods that are smuggled into the camp from regime areas. “The price of a bundle of bread has reached SYP 1,000 [$0.45 according to the current exchange rate of SYP 2,190 to the dollar],” Khader Abu Muhammad, who works at one of the local relief points in the camp, told Syria Direct. “Goods are available in varying quantities these days and enter through smuggling routes,” he added. 

With their determination to resist the current harsh conditions, camp residents—including Joud, who has become one of them—remain hopeful that “things won’t stay the way they are now,” she said. “I expect that we will return to our land and live out our lives the way we want.”


This article was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson. It reflects minor changes made on 29/09/2020 at 12:40 pm.