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Grieving Father Grows Hope in Zaatari Garden

Zaatari Camp, Jordan -- Mohammad Al-Hariri ushers me into his small convenience store, adjusting his hearing aid.

"It's too loud out there," he says, nodding at the children running out of the school gates near by. The trailer turned store is dark but for some light coming in from the open door; the camp only has electricity from 8pm to 4 am. Zaatari Camp is home to almost 80,000 Syrian refugees, approximately half of whom are children.

"You want to talk about my garden? May God deprive them like they deprived us of the color green, of our paradise in Syria," says 51-year-old Al-Hariri, pulling out colorful plastic chairs, gesturing for me to sit down.

I go crazy when someone messes around with my garden. I feel like someone is stealing something from my body, Al-Hariri said. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

Two trailers form Al-Hariri's home and store, located outside a polyclinic in Zaatari Camp. His property breaks the monochrome of surrounding white trailers, tents, and rocks with its small but bright garden, boasting a fig tree among the yellow flowers and mint.

Like many stories in Zaatari, Al-Hariri's begins with recounting how his family had to leave Syria abruptly, and the insistence we have something to drink. He pours little plastic cups with orange juice from the store's shelves, and takes out a pack of cigarettes.

Al-Hariri is originally from Daraa but lived his whole life in Damascus, where he raised his five children and worked as an electrical technician and plumber. In Zaatari, he only has his wife and his oldest son, Qasim, with him.

His son Yaqub was drawn to the peaceful protests that spread throughout Syria in the spring of 2011, demanding the ouster of President Assad. Detained during a demonstration, Yaqub has been missing since.

"We have no word on where he is, if he is dead or alive," Al-Hariri said.

A report released by Amnesty International this week, "Between Prison and the Grave," sheds light on systematic enforced disappearances in Syria since March 2011. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) has documented the names of 65,116 persons, 58,148 of them civilians who have been forcibly disappeared by a number of actors associated with the Syrian government. Like Al-Hariri, the families of disappeared persons have no information on their loved ones' whereabouts or status, and are often exploited by state actors to obtain information in exchange for cash in a burgeoning black market.

The family moved to Jordan three years ago seeking medical care after Qasim was injured by sniper fire that left him paralyzed waist down. Muwaffaq, one of Al-Hariri's four sons, decided to stay in Syria, joining an armed opposition group. He was detained by regime forces soon after, and like Yaqub, the family has no information on his whereabouts.

"My daughter went to Ireland with her husband through UNHCR," says Al-Hariri, waving his hand away from him as though to signify somewhere very far away. "And there is Bilal. He was 17."

Mixing past and present tense, Al-Hariri reaches into the almost empty pack and lights a cigarette, looking away.

Bilal moved to Zaatari Camp with his family in 2012, but he almost immediately asked to return to Syria. Restless, he dropped out of the camp's high school, saying its conditions were abysmal. With violence plaguing the unpaved streets of a still new Zaatari, and the Syrian border nearby, Al-Hariri was worried for his youngest son.

"I opened this shop to distract him, to keep him busy so that he wouldn't go back to Syria," said Al-Hariri. "I wanted to distract him in any way possible."

However, Bilal was unyielding and soon returned to Syria to follow in the footsteps of his brother and join the armed opposition in Daraa.

"It was 10 am when I got the phone call," said Al-Hariri, the lines in his face deepening as he lit another cigarette. "I knew it was bad news."

Al-Hariri rushed to Ramtha, a Jordanian city near the border with Syria whose hospital receives war-wounded patients. Relatives had gathered at the hospital, but Al-Hariri could not find Bilal among the wounded. Admitted under a different name because he had no ID, Al-Hariri found his son in the morgue.

"I kissed him goodbye, then sent him back to be buried in Syria, in the land he had died fighting for," Al-Hariri said.

He puts out his cigarette, and we walk back outside to the garden. Al-Hariri tells me about the different plants and flowers he had in his garden in Damascus while offering me some basil.

It brings relief for my soul, there is a spiritual secret in the color green, Al-Hariri said. Photography by Hiba Dlewati

He started gardening two years ago, after Bilal left for Syria. Transforming a gaping hole in front of the trailer into a small green haven, Al-Hariri tells me, brought him peace. His Jordanian colleagues at the polyclinic next door, where he words as a security guard and landscaper, bring him plants he cannot find inside the camp's market.

"You renew hope with the plants, you feel you are living a new life. Just like the flowers that continue to bud, I keep hope that I'll return home, that my children will be released from prison. Without hope, life would end," Al-Hariri said.

After going through physical therapy in Amman, Qasim can now walk using a walker. Al-Hariri smiles in front of his garden as neighbors pass by, greeting him, then frowns a little.

"I really wanted a jasmine plant. In Damascus I had four, but I can't seem to find any here," Al-Hariri said.

Hiba Dlewati is a Syrian American journalist and writer moving throughout Jordan, Turkey and Sweden to document and narrate the stories of the Syrian diaspora. Twitter: @Hiba_Dlewati

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