Paul Salopek visits with refugees from the Syrian war in Jordan, where they live with their families picking tomatoes. Content warning: the following text contains references to war and displacement.


5 - 12


English Language Arts, Social Studies, Anthropology, Storytelling, Geography

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In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of Paul Salopek's first steps on his Out of Eden Walk journey, this dispatch is now available for educational use in fifth- and eighth-grade reading levels. The original text is available as the default reading level, as well as on the Out of Eden Walk website.

By Paul Salopek


We walk out of the desert and come to where the earth rises and falls beneath our footsteps. It’s like fields of plowed sand. The hills of Wadi Rum, Jordan, fade in the reddish light. Dusk is falling. It grows colder by the minute. A path leads us to tents that glow yellow from within. We tie our two cargo mules to large stones to keep them from wandering. We approach the first tent.

Salaamu aleikum,” calls Hamoudi Enwaje’ al Bedul, my guide.

The tent, which was noisy with voices, falls silent. A man throws back the flap at the entrance. The man and my guide speak in Arabic for about 30 seconds. The man waves us in. Inside, fifteen people sit on foam mattresses. A sad-faced woman in layers of sweaters loads more sticks into a small woodstove. Blue tribal tattoos dot each of her wrinkled cheeks and her chin. She beckons us to sit near the heat, in a circle of staring, wild-haired children. She pours us glasses of syrupy tea. She serves us a platter of fresh tomatoes, pickled green tomatoes, and fried broccoli.

“There is no meat,” the man apologizes. “Here, we only dream of chicken.” Everyone in the tent laughs.

They are tomato pickers. They are Bedouins from Syria.

Officially, there are 550,000 Syrian war refugees in Jordan. But most people know better. The true number might be twice that. Tens of thousands of people shelter and struggle inside two gigantic United Nations refugee camps. Others drift into poor city areas where they beg on street corners. And many more, like the 104 people living here, do hard work at desert farms to earn some money. Many Jordanians complain bitterly about these guests. Unemployment is very high in Jordan. Even the local poor can’t find work. Over the years, the small country has taken in great numbers of Iraqi refugees, Palestinians without homes, and others fleeing troubled Egypt. Syrians are just the latest neighbors to arrive. Over thousands of years, people have sought refuge in Jordan to escape war at home. This patter goes back to the conquests of Babylon, and to the biblical wanderers led by Moses.

Our host, a small, friendly, energetic man, tells this story:

Bashar al-Assad, the chinless eye doctor who rules over what is left of Syria, sent tanks against his own people the summer of 2011 after popular protests. Syrians were asking for fair treatment. Bombs ripped into bakeries, plowed into parks, drilled into apartment blocks. Soldiers killed farm animals so people couldn’t eat them. Wheat crops were torched. “We burned our family papers, our shoes, to survive the winter,” the man says. “There was no bread. We tried grass to try to stop our hunger.” Then one night he and his family took their chance. They slipped through the army lines and crossed into Jordan. The snow on the mountain passes reached their knees. They carried the smallest children. As he speaks, he sweeps an arm around the tent to show the family that came with him.

“War, war, war. Syria goodbye.” He slaps his palms together, cleaning off the imagined dust of Syria. “It’s finished!”

All of the tomato pickers came from the same Syrian province, from villages near the ancient city of Hamāh. Poor, unlucky Hamāh! In 1982, Al-Assad’s father, who was the country’s dictator at the time, almost completely destroyed the city during previous protests. Hamāh fell to Tamerlane in 1400. It fell to Crusaders in 1108 and before that to Muslim armies in the seventh century. Almost 3,000 years ago, an Assyrian conqueror named Sargon II captured Hamāh and killed its king.

About 120,000 people have died in the current civil war. I ask the man if he has lost any family members. He nods. A brother. A son. The woman gets up and leaves the tent. She doesn’t come back. We all sit quietly for a moment under her beautiful handiwork. She has pinned fine embroideries called sarma to the inside walls of the canvas. She carried these gold and white reminders of home across the Jordanian border.

In the icy morning, Hamoudi and I lift our saddlebags onto the mules. The animals fed overnight on too-ripe tomatoes. The fields around the camp are full of them. Hamoudi is a tribal man, a Bedouin. He gives the woman, who has reappeared to brew tea, the jacket off his back. He gives her our cheese.

“It’s cheese,” he tells her when she stares at the foil-wrapped wedges in her rough palms. She raises the cheese to her forehead. “Praise God,” she says.

We walk on.

“Solvatur ambulando,” Diogenes, a Greek philosopher, once proclaimed: “It is resolved by walking.” But do you actually believe that grief can be walked away? It is like all these tomatoes. Knowing that they were picked for $11 a day, you would think they might be too bitter to swallow. Poison with pain. But they aren’t. They are good tomatoes. They taste just fine.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Oliver Payne
Text Levels
Web Producer
Bayan Atari, National Geographic Society
Instructional Designer
Dan Byerly, National Geographic Society
With help froms
Claudia Hernandez-Halper
Kate Gallery, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

January 22, 2024

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