“I used to feel sad because God didn’t give me any children,” said Siham, looking out onto the dusty street lined with well-watered trees.
“My brother used to try and make me feel better and say: ‘Don’t be sad. My children are yours if you want them. Have them all!’ And we used to laugh.”
That was before Syria’s civil war claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, including those of her brother and sister-in-law, and his words proved prophetic.
A rocket fired from a government tank hit the van in which they were fleeing with their six children from their village in Deraa, southern Syria, in late 2012. The parents were in the front of the van with their youngest child, a boy aged two, while the five older children were in the back.
Siham, who had been staying with her brother nearby, heard what had happened and quickly rushed to the scene. After rescuing five of the six children, all she found in the wreckage of the vehicle was her brother’s house key, which he always carried in his pocket.
Her brother, sister-in-law and two-year-old nephew had been completely obliterated.
“There was nothing left of them, only ashes,” Siham said, tears streaming down her sallow cheeks. “The youngest, a little boy, was burnt with them. They were trapped in the front seat. Here he is,” she said showing a photograph on her mobile phone of a boy with blond curls and blue eyes. “We used to call him our angel.”
As she talked, she gently cradled the bare foot of five-year-old Sidra – the youngest of the five children who survived – as she lay on the mattress beside her.
God saved me these children. They still have shrapnel in their bodies, but they're alive.
“God saved me these children,” she said, stroking the little girl’s leg. “They still have shrapnel in their bodies, but they’re alive”.
Overnight she had to learn how to mother them: Falak, 12, Mohammad, 10, Hamouda, 8, Asma, 6, and Sidra, all housed in a tiny, bare apartment in an affluent suburb of the Jordanian capital, having arrived from Syria as refugees in December 2012.
I had recently moved to Amman myself with my husband and our two young children who were three and one. I was only three years ahead of Siham on my own motherhood journey – making it all up as I went along; strolling the streets of a new city looking for play parks, and; wondering if I would ever find friends and work.
It was 2013, and Syria’s brutal conflict had been raging for two years. My career as a freelance filmmaker and photographer was just getting started and I was constantly wondering how I could make sense of the Syrian tragedy for myself and those further away. How could I find the individual stories to show the universal tragedy that was unfolding just over the border, and as I discovered, on my very doorstep?
From our window, I watched the formerly deserted four-storey building a few blocks down fill up with people. A few weeks before I met Siham, I saw streams of women and children carrying mattresses and bedding into the lobby. From a distance, their home making looked ant-like in its organisation. Their multi-coloured mattresses and bedding stood out in an ironically bright and optimistic fashion against the beige buildings.
Within hours there were washing lines slung between windows, the clothes flapping in the dry breeze.
When I met Siham, I learned that all of the 24 women in the building were widows, with more than 70 children in their care.
I was soon visiting them regularly. Rand Dalgamouni, a talented junior reporter from the Jordan Times, would come with me to translate.
As we closed ourselves inside a disused boiler room – the only quiet place in the building for an audio interview with Siham – I could tell that Rand was as nervous as I was. There is something visceral about hearing someone tell you of their deepest pain. You want them to know you feel it with them, but it is their words you need. And you want them to know you will handle these words as gently as you would a newborn child.
I still don't know whether my brother, his wife, and the little boy died instantly, or whether they burned to death as the van caught into flames. It is a thought that follows me everywhere.
“I still don’t know,” Siham told us, each of us breathing each other’s air in the tiny room, “whether my brother, his wife, and the little boy died instantly, or whether they burned to death as the van caught into flames. It is a thought that follows me everywhere.
“But now I have the children they give me strength and they keep my mind off all this. I cook for them. I bathe them. They are more important to me than my eyes.”
When I look back at the time I spent with Siham and the children, I realise that theirs was the door that first opened for me in that city; theirs were the stories I was first able to tell.
As my Arabic improved, I would visit them alone. And as we got to know each other better, the laughter was soon more plentiful than the tears.
The last time I visited Siham was to say goodbye, as my family and I were moving away. As we sat chatting and drinking her delicious cardamom coffee, she plucked idly at the top of my shirt. “You’d look so much nicer if you had a little bit less neck on show. Why don’t you try this on?” she asked, holding up her niqab. I could see she was stifling a giggle.
“Well, why not?” I volunteered, squeezing myself into the tight, black fabric. And someone took our photograph. “I look like your handbag in this shot,” Siham said. This time, they were tears of laughter running down her cheeks.
The next time I was in Amman I went back to find her. But the apartment building was empty: The flapping washing and children’s voices gone.
I never found Siham and her children again. I do not know where they went. But the photographs I took of them in their apartment are those I hold dearest among the thousands I have taken since.