She Was Forced To Leave Her Family & Her Home — But She Hasn't Lost Hope

Photographed by Tanya Habjouqa/Noor Images.
Salaam at the rehab center after peering out a window.
Editor's note: The heartbreaking conflict in Syria has been dominating headlines and news feeds again in recent weeks, as advances by government forces worsened the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo. Throughout the years of war, millions of Syrians have been forced to flee their homes. Salaam, a 15-year-old Syrian refugee, is one of those people. Ahead, Tanya Habjouqa, an award-winning documentary photographer, shares Salaam's story of loss and resilience. This story contains details that some readers may find disturbing.
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Her gray eyes widened and she grasped my hand.

“Please, can you get me back to my mother? Can you help me?”

With her striking beauty, 15-year-old Salaam, (whose last name was withheld because she is a minor), would grab your attention on a crowded street. But here, in the rehabilitation center for Syrian refugees in Amman, Jordan, all her energy was focused on me.

I realized that she was referring to the humanitarian name badge I was wearing while on assignment as a photographer. To her, that meant I had power.

But I wasn't in a position to help in that way. At the time of our initial meeting last year, I was visiting Souriyat Across Borders, a respected rehabilitation center run on donations and volunteer support from Syrians in diaspora. I was there to capture her images, her story.

A Jordanian nurse, who handled her with the tenderness of an adopted mother, helped steady her (she was still learning to use her prosthetic leg), and asked if she wanted to talk. Tears welling in her eyes, she insisted on telling her story.
Photographed by Tanya Habjouqa/Noor Images.
A Jordanian nurse looks on encouragingly from the side of the couch as the rehab center's Syrian "house mom" comforts Salaam in this 2015 photo.
Salaam arrived in Jordan in an ambulance two years and 11 months ago. Her family had become accustomed to living in Dera, Syria — one of the most dangerous locations of the civil war, and the place they'd always called home. After a deceptively quiet few days, she had set out on a mission to buy a hat for her cousin’s birthday.

She was walking with her little brother and the 13-year-old birthday girl, when she blacked out in a barrage of pain and confusion.

The medics and doctors who treated her believe a barrel bomb, a prominent weapon used by the Syrian army, fell overhead. The improvised unguided bomb packed with nails and other shrapnel, dropped from a helicopter or airplane, doctors believe.

Her brother was thrown under a car, her cousin torn to pieces and barely alive. Her own leg was gone.

Syrian doctors sent them to the Jordanian border, as they were not medically equipped to save her. Her mother got word of what happened and rushed to the local hospital, then to the border. She had just missed them and was not allowed to follow into Jordan. As Salaam's cousin lay dying and her young brother lay unconscious, she remembers being in a hyper-alert state.
Photographed by Tanya Habjouqa/Noor Images.
In this 2015 photo, Salaam and another young patient who lost limb function, along with his entire family, in a barrel bomb attack. Salaam has become a de facto big sister to the boy, who trails her constantly.
She knew her leg was gone. Amid the shock of watching her cousin die, she focused on her fear about what would happen to her brother. Would he live?

He did survive and has made a full recovery. Salaam is in treatment to learn how to walk again. Despite the war, she wanted to return to her mother and family. On the rare occasion that the phones worked, her mother would call from Dera and beg her to accept that she is safer in Jordan and must wait there in safety.

A major humanitarian organization that could facilitate a return told me that international law wouldn't allow a minor to return to a war zone on her own. So Salaam and her brother must remain at the rehabilitation center that takes in those who have fallen through the humanitarian cracks and need pysiotherapy — and in many cases, a home and a foster parent.

As Salaam shared her story, her attending nurse burst into tears.
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Photographed by Tanya Habjouqa/Noor Images.
Salaam and her new best friend, Sarah, take a selfie this year.
“She just started her period. It tears my heart, her first period, all her firsts; when she calls for her mother, she can’t be there for her," she said.

Salaam asked again if I could help her. I meekly admitted that all I could do was record. The disappointment was tangible, even though she politely nodded and said goodbye.

A few months ago, I returned to Souriyat Across Borders.

It was with mixed emotions that I saw Salaam was still there.

My heart ached that she was not with her mother, but of course, I knew she should not go back.
Photographed by Mira Habjouqa.
Salaam and Sarah play with Snapchat, putting cartoon characters on their face.

She greeted me warmly, and proudly demonstrated that she had mastered walking again, an amazing feat considering her internal injuries and initial prognosis that she would never be able to walk again.

Today, she is a serious student, thriving in school.

And at the center, she had found a soulmate, a foster sister, who was always by her side. I watched as they giggled and whispered, taking selfies with Snapchat filters.

Sarah, 26, is a fellow patient who also lost a leg in an air strike that sent her flying off her roof in early 2013. She and Salaam have developed an intense relationship that speaks to family being more than just blood.

Their relationship inspires them to try to recover and, most importantly, to hope.

For more on Souriyat Across Borders, including how to donate, click here. Additional options for helping people affected by the crisis can be found here.
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