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Buried in foreign soil

Ramtha Cemetery

On the first morning of Eid al-Adha, one of the most important Muslim holidays, families are scattered across the Ramtha Cemetery.

Almost all of them are Syrian, visiting relatives who died as refugees — buried in foreign soil, exiled even in death because of the war raging in their homeland.

Some sit silently. Some read the Koran. Some stand before a grave, eyes closed, palms open. Some plant flowers. Some weep quietly to themselves. Others wail inconsolably. One sobbing woman pushes the fresh dirt on a grave around in circles with her hands, an act of connection with the body beneath.

Children play among the graves, eating from bags of candy and chips.

One headstone is decorated with a pretty red scarf. Many graves are planted with flowers, but the vast majority have turned brown and died in the relentless sun. It is nearly 90 degrees on this autumn day.

We wanted to bring her back to Syria to bury her, but all the routes were closed.

Two women sit on a grave in a corner of the cemetery where the flag of the rebel Free Syrian Army is painted on the wall. They are here to mourn their mother, a Syrian refugee who died of liver disease in May at age 56.

“We wanted to bring her back to Syria to bury her, but all the routes were closed,” says Khetam al-Zoubi, 37. “So we buried her here. What could we do? This is our fate.”

They fled their home two years ago when the Syrian government bombed their village and killed several members of their family. Their mother already had liver disease, and she was so weak that her son had to carry her much of the way to the border.

She went downhill quickly in Jordan.

“We’ve been crying since the first day we left Syria,” Zoubi says. “There is no Eid for us.”

The Ramtha Cemetery started taking Syrians for burial in 2011, but it stopped this summer because they were filling the cemetery to capacity. City officials opened a second cemetery to accommodate the flow of Syrians.

The old cemetery sits at a busy intersection, across the street from a gas station, about 100 yards from the main border crossing into Syria. It is little more than a few acres of urban wasteland, set next to a dry, trash-filled riverbed gouged into the brown earth.

Ahmed Mohammad al-Awereh, 44, came to the cemetery with his family to mourn his 17-year-old son, Hossan, who died March 28.

Awereh says Syrian government forces were attacking the town of Daraa, where he lived, and came to his house. The family tried to flee out the back, and Hossan was shot in the head.

“My son was supposed to grow up to be 70 or more,” says Awereh, who has his son’s name tattooed on the inside of his left forearm. “They robbed me of 53 years of my son’s life. How can I ever get that back?”

He and his wife and their five remaining children now live in one room in Ramtha, with no electricity, “only mattresses and God.” They brought plants with little purple and red blossoms and planted them on their son’s grave.

“If I could take just one little bone from his body, I would bring it to Daraa and bury it,” Awereh says. “I will not be able to rest until he is in the Syrian soil where he belongs.”

Every day, about 3,000 Syrians leave the country.

Since you started reading, roughly ## Syrians have left the country.