On the Border

Share on

Refugee camps, sandals heavy with mud, dust, blue scrubs, a pen of goats, native-speaker translators, a patch of zinnias, a hundred blue-white shards, dishdashas, untranslatable words & the Jordan-Syria border.


I’m sitting in a tent on the Jordan-Syria border, translating for an American doctor who does not yet trust me. Her name is Holly; she wears powder-blue scrubs and running shoes and has blonde hair tied back with a scrunchie. Her face is all sharp lines.

The moment she saw me back in Amman—judged I wasn’t Arab, and probably guessed me a decade younger than I am—she told the Egyptian interpreter beside me that we needed more native-speaker translators. Today is my first day translating, which I do not tell Holly, but first days have to happen. And today she can’t do her job without me.

“Can you ask her to take this off?” Holly tells me. “I can’t take her blood pressure with the sleeve tight on her arm like that.”

“Can you take this off?” I ask our middle-aged patient from Damascus. I’m careful to use the correct verb in Arabic—“to undress,” rather than “to remove.” The woman peels the abaya from her arm and shoulder, revealing a flowered nightgown. Holly wraps a cuff around her arm, filters out sounds of wind and children, and listens.

When the charity I volunteer with asked if I could interpret today, they said we’d be going to a refugee camp near Mufraq, one of Jordan’s border cities. Not Za’atari, home to around eighty thousand Syrians, but a small camp “on the border.” I honestly don’t know how close we are to the border, or the name of the camp we’re in. But I do know there are twenty-five children and their mothers sitting around us, and that outside a dust storm has engulfed the camp.


“Tfuddalo,” she tells me, an untranslatable word that means, “Welcome, please come visit us.”

The tent we’re in—striped red, green and yellow from the inside—seems sturdy enough, but wind is tearing down on us. We need ventilation, so the flaps covering the tent’s mesh windows are loose. Ties and sections of fabric flap and clang on the tentpoles. A blue flowered carpet covers the ground of our pop-up clinic, lit by lightbulbs hanging from a cord looped around the central roof pole.

Holly removes the blood-pressure cuff from the woman’s arm, then listens to her lungs and asks more about her symptoms before diagnosing her with pneumonia. I take a stab at the Arabic word for pneumonia, guessing “lung infection.” Holly writes a prescription for antibiotics and we send the patient to our pharmacy, a set of tables six feet away near the table where the Egyptian interpreter sits with a nurse practitioner.

A young mother wearing a pink flowered headscarf sits down, tells us her name and age (twenty-four)  and says she’s taking birth- control pills, but still has period-like bleeding at times. Holly wants to know how many children she already has, and when she hears the answer, six, she’s surprised. I have ceased to be surprised at numbers like this, and the ensuing calculations of teenage marriage, but I do thank goodness I learned the clinical expression for “birth-control pill” last week. (A Western doctor friend who works in Amman teaches me all kinds of medical phraseology. He has misgivings about partnering with teams like this, because he could just treat people directly, and what if he disagreed with the visiting doctor’s diagnosis, and are short-term groups like this really helping anyway?)

“Explain to her there are two kinds of birth control,” Holly says, “one that makes your period go away completely and one that doesn’t. And she has to take it every day at the same time if she wants it to work.”


I think of forms I signed when working with refugees in the US. This is not a field trip, I think. This is their life.

I start in. “There are two kinds of pills,” I say. “One that…”

A woman in black approaches and sits next to us. She listens to me for a few seconds, then slouches toward the young mom and talks under her breath. The mom’s eyes dart between me and her, and I catch the woman-in-black’s meaning: how can you ask about such a trivial matter when there are sick people waiting?

I’ve lost mom-in-the-headscarf’s attention.

“We want to see you,” I tell woman-in-black with a manufactured smile, “but you will need to wait your turn.” Don’t shame her, I think. Don’t make a scene. She shoots a few more comments to mom-in-the-headscarf, mostly words I don’t understand. I hear the verb “control,” and suddenly the young mom stands up and walks away. Woman-in-black slips into her chair.

“What just happened?” Holly asks. “Where did she go?” I realize I haven’t translated anything—words, body language, insinuations.

“I think she just kicked her out,” I say. An older woman in line tells me woman-in-black is very sick, justifying her cutting in line like that. Everyone stares as I follow mom-in-the-headscarf and tell her to come back. “This can’t happen,” I say to woman-in-black. “You must wait your turn.”


Today is my first day translating, which I do not tell Holly, but first days have to happen. And today she can’t do her job without me.

Once we finish our birth-control explanation, I take a sip of water and call our next patient. Her name is Khadija. Holly can’t hear the heavy kha, doesn’t know this is the name of the prophet’s first wife. She marks her down as “Ha.”

While we ask basic questions, a photographer circles around. I tug at my headscarf, which I wore today out of cultural sensitivity, and try not to feel self-conscious. It feels wrong—a man in a tent full of women, taking pictures of people who are unwell. He began taking photos the minute we climbed off the bus—lined up a few women, threw in a doctor and a translator and took their picture, before names were exchanged or basic information shared. I think of forms I signed when I started volunteering, about not taking pictures that could compromise refugees’ dignity. I think of forms I signed when working with refugees in the US. This is not a field trip, I think. This is their life.

It’s started to rain.

Woman-in-black has returned. I welcome her, apologize, try to make her feel comfortable. Compared to the other women her age, she is very thin. She tells us she went to the hospital a couple of days before, got IV fluids. She has pain in her stomach and back.

“Does her urine have a bad smell?” Holly asks. The answer comes: Yes.

“Ask her if it hurts when she has sex.”

I pause, collect the sentence in my mind, then back up. “Are you married?” I ask.

“I’m a widow,” she replies.

“She’s a widow,” I say in English.

Holly meets my eyes with a half-smile. “Well, I guess that’s the end of the conversation?”

“Yes,” I say, relieved she understands. We prescribe antibiotics for a urinary tract infection and tell woman-in-black to drink more water.


I know what the nurse wants me to do, and I don’t want to do it. 

Rain drums on the tent. The nurses at the pharmacy pack away the medications they brought, dozens of small boxes, wiping the dust that’s settled on them. The pharmacist has dusty shoulders; one of the guys who came with us to haul supplies looks like he powdered his hair. It stands up stiff.

I ask the Egyptian translator how to say pneumonia. “Infection of the lungs,” she replies. Inwardly, I cheer. Just a few letters off.

As everyone loads into the bus, I walk a few meters into the tents, tiptoeing through the mud. Standing on a rock in a clearing, I see four outhouses on the camp’s edges, like points on a compass. There are about twenty UNHCR-issued tents, a pen of goats, a patch of zinnias. Someone said the owner of the olive orchard next door employs the refugees.

“Are you finished?” a woman calls to me, breaking the post-storm quiet.

“Come!” I wave her over, and she picks her way across the mud with her daughter in hand.

She wanted her girl to see the doctor, she explains, but she was waiting out the storm. Her daughter is coughing and has a runny nose and a fever sometimes. I tell her it’s probably allergies, that we didn’t bring any allergy medication for kids. I think of my son in Amman, how he has the same symptoms as all these children, without the ridiculous dust and lack of indoor plumbing. How his coughing would keep me awake at night if I didn’t give him liquid allergy medication, if I had to sleep next to him on a mattress on the ground.


Don’t shame her, I think. Don’t make a scene.

One of the nurses approaches and, without waiting for a pause in conversation, tries to put a bag in my hand. There’s a white bun with eggs inside, wrapped in a napkin, squirrelled away from her hotel’s breakfast buffet. It’s been sitting in her purse for eight hours. I know what the nurse wants me to do, and I don’t want to do it.

So the nurse gives the woman her sandwich directly. The mother from Damascus says thank you, as she would no matter how she felt. “Tfuddalo,” she tells me, an untranslatable word that means, “Welcome, please come visit us.”

“Inshallah,” I reply, which literally means, “If God wills,” but in this context means, “I’m sorry, I can’t.”

I turn to the bus and climb on, my sandals heavy with mud. The camp’s leader, a middle-aged man in a long, brown dishdasha and red-and-white-checkered headscarf, waves us good-bye. The sky lies on the ground around him in a hundred blue-white shards.


Heather M. Surls’ creative nonfiction and short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in places like River Teeth, Cordella, Ruminate and Silk Road. She regularly contributes journalism and essays to EthnoTraveler magazine and Anthrow Circus. She lives in Amman, Jordan, with her husband, a college professor, and her two sons. www.heathersurls.com

Lead image: Tobin Jones

Share on

Submit a comment

Your email address will not be published.