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, in long, regular waves, like corduroy—fields of plowed sand. The hills of Wadi Rum, Jordan, fade in iron-colored light. Dusk is falling. It grows colder by the minute. A path leads through the thickening dark to tents that glow yellow from within. They look like jellyfish adrift in a sunless sea. We secure our two cargo mules to large stones. We approach the first tent.

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

The tent, which had been noisy with voices, falls silent. A man throws back the entrance flap, and after a spoken exchange in Arabic that lasts no longer than 30 seconds, he waves us in. Fifteen people sit inside atop foam mattresses. A sad-faced woman layered in 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 refugees shelter and struggle inside two gigantic United Nations Refugee camps. Others drift into city slums, where they beg at potholed intersections. And many more, like the 104 people encamped outside Al Quweirah, rent out their muscles at desert farms. Many Jordanians complain bitterly about these guests. Unemployment is ruinously high in Jordan, where the local poor can’t find work. The small country has been greatly challenged over the years by throngs of Iraqi refugees, Palestinians without homes, and others fleeing troubled Egypt. Syrians are just the latest neighbors to arrive. They are a new wave of war-displaced people that ripples back millennia, to the conquests of Babylon, to the wanderers led by Moses through the wilderness.

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

Bashar al-Assad, the chinless eye doctor who presides over what is left of Syria, sent tanks against his own people the summer of 2011 after the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring. Shells ripped into bakeries, plowed into parks, and drilled into apartment blocks. Soldiers killed livestock. 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—he sweeps an arm around the tent—grabbed 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.

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

All of the tomato pickers came from the same Syrian province, from villages near the ancient city of Hamāh. Poor, star-crossed Hamāh! In 1982, Al-Assad’s father, who was the country’s dictator at the time, leveled the city during a previous protest. 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 executed 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: fine embroideries called sarma, which she has pinned to the inside walls of the canvas. She carried these gold and white remnants of home with her across the Jordanian frontier.

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

“It’s cheese,” he assures her when she stares at the foil-wrapped wedges in her calloused 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 cursed tomatoes. Given the hands that picked them for $11 a day, you would think they would be inedible—too bitter to swallow. Toxic 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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