I slide into an open spot at the table of women, their chatter loud and laughing. On my right is a young short-termer without Arabic or Turkish but with a very big heart. To my left is a Syrian Kurd with uncovered hair and a big smile.
"What are we talking about?" I ask in Arabic as I pull up my seat. The ladies are all chatting hard and fast and sometimes my Arabic needs a bit of help to catch up before I can understand at speed. My Syrian Kurdish friend grins and explains, simplifying her vocabulary several times until it's at my level.
"They are discussing the things that are good and bad about their husbands!" she tells me in the end. I finally understand and burst out laughing, then turn to the short-termer -"They're discussing their husband's pros and cons..." I translate, and she too laughs.
"I can't think of any pros for my husband," my Syrian friend says with a cheeky twinkle in her eye, and smirks, "but I'll ask him in the morning!!"
I pass this on too, and my friend laughs in wonder - "They seem so happy!"
"Well," I explain, "being a refugee doesn't remove your capacity for happiness. It just means you have a deep undercurrent of sadness, that you carry with you."
This is the Arab Woman, then - or more specifically, the Syrian refugee woman. I explain to my friend what I think – from my limited experience - are some of the things these women are going through.
It's not just the horror of war, you see. It's not just the fleeing from violence and death that is hard. It's the loss of identity, of community, of an entire paradigm to tell us how the world should be. It’s the utterly deadening frustration of uncertainty - the not knowing if or when they will get the call from the capital city to come down (5-6hrs by bus) for their UN interview- some wait over a year for that call. It’s the not knowing if this place is where they should put down roots, or somewhere else. Perhaps Europe will have work for their husbands, or for their sons? Perhaps in America their children will be able to go to school? Or perhaps- and here is the deepest ache - perhaps Syria will heal and they will get to return and start back in to life as if this whole war was just a nightmare... And oh, how they grieve over Syria.
It's the memories, the childhood places they will likely never see again- even if they return, there may not be much left. And it's not just the places they may never see again- it's the places their children will never see at all- many of them were only a few years old when their family fled, or not even born. So their grandparents' orchards, their summer picnics, their covered markets and coastal trips are all memories that may never be made.
The war often impacts the amount of children a family will have. I have heard several times of newly married couples that delayed having children, or stopped early, because of the war. Back in Syria, they tell me, they might have had 5 or 6 - but here one or two is enough. Still, even those one or two bring joy- "Children bring joy to a home", one mother tells me, soothing the curly-haired and boisterous one-year old on her lap as he messily chews a biscuit.
The kids who were old enough to be aware of the impacts of the war may be worse off though. They are resilient, of course, laughing and arguing and running around with a vigorous playfulness, but the violence of the little boys' games is sometimes more than is natural, and hints at trauma. Another aspect comes up as a tearful mother tells me how her three very intelligent girls (no idle boast, I've met them) were the top of their class back home, but are no longer able to go to school. Technically there is some schooling available here but in practice it's often not feasible, so the older kids and teens go to work instead, and their education is put on hold.
The hardest example, I find, of trauma's impact is the 12 or 13 year-old that has developed an eating disorder. There is, of course, no way of knowing if it's specifically due to the war, but as a fairly common response to trauma or instability, the chances are pretty good that the reason this beautiful girl has upper arms I could probably close my hand around, is in part at least due to the volatility and insecurity of life as a refugee. Her family and the team have tried to get her to see a counselor, but at this stage, she's refusing. So we keep praying.
And here we are, sitting and laughing about husbands. Tea is drunk and biscuits are eaten and God and childbirth and grief and children and what used to be and what might yet come to pass are all discussed. The younger children play in the Kids' room, getting paint everywhere and smooshing playdough into pizza shapes and building with (or more often, throwing) toy blocks. Meanwhile their older siblings play chess or Jenga, and sit laughing with the team members who they see each week and count as dear friends. And I have conversation of my own, in my faltering Arabic, or try to translate a discussion, line by line, pausing every little while to ask either party to rephrase their sentence till they come up with one I can work with. Translating prayer is my favourite.
And I keep thinking, as I see my friend the young mother of four who looks older than her years and has the saddest eyes I've ever seen; "God, give her Your joy"... I'm praying and waiting for those eyes to shine. Because it is in Him that peace is found, no matter what used to be, or what might yet come to pass.
Hannah Carmichael is pseudonym. The author's real name has been changed for security purposes.