Mahmoud Masry and his grandchildren fled the restive Syrian city of Dara… (Mohammad Hannon / Associated…)
Reporting from Amman, Jordan — Um Eddine shudders as she describes the icy night she and her four children reached the barbed-wire fence that marks the border between her native Syria and Jordan.
She pushed her two youngest children through and continued to run, hoping that the ordeal of leaving her troubled homeland, where her husband had been jailed for protesting against President Bashar Assad, was almost over.
But she soon noticed that her eldest two children, ages 6 and 7, were no longer behind her.
She suppressed a mother's urge to call out for them in the dark, remembering the family had been warned against making noise during their escape, lest they alert government snipers hiding in the hills who would open fire at any cracking branch. With no choice, she headed back toward the fence, back toward Syria.
She quickly found them, entangled in the barbed wire and too terrified to cry out.
"I'm stuck," one whispered. "I wanted to call out, 'Where are you, Mother?' but was afraid."
After freeing the children, the family continued. Um Eddine, carrying her two youngest, 4 and 5, was so anxious to reach safety she fought her way up a hill until her hands bled.
Suddenly two soldiers blocked the path. The family froze. When one of them reached for her children, Um Eddine said she fought them off.
The men smiled, shining a light on their uniform patch. "It's OK," one told her. "We're Jordanians. You're safe."
As violence in Syria spreads and the death toll rises in the yearlong rebellion against Assad, Syrians are frantically trying to flee the country. But escape is getting harder every day. Syrian officials are closing down border crossings and refusing to issue passports.
"They don't want people to get out because any person who leaves Syria tells about everything that is happening there," said Um Eddine, a thin woman dressed in a black abaya who asked to be identified by a nickname because she is afraid for her family's safety.
A growing number of Syrians, like Um Eddine, feel they have no choice but to try to sneak out of the country on foot, running a gantlet of government sharpshooters toward an uncertain future in neighboring Jordan.
An estimated 80,000 Syrians have fled to Jordan during the last year, although the Jordanian government classifies only about 7,000 as refugees. Many arrived legally when the border crossings were open, but even those families are quickly running out of money, relying on aid groups, friends and relatives in Jordan to support them.
Jordan has hosted its fair share of refugees over the years, including Palestinians and, more recently, Iraqis. But the cash-strapped nation can scarcely afford to take care of its own people, much less its neighbors.
During an interview in Amman, Um Eddine, 32, sat on a small couch, one son hugging her knees on the floor, and described the day she decided to abandon her home.
For weeks, the family had been on the run. Trying to keep one step ahead of police, she and her children moved from house to house, through blood-spattered streets, seeking shelter from the intensified government shelling in the southern city of Dara, where Syria's popular unrest movement was born. The last straw came when a neighbor's son was beheaded by police as a warning, she said.
She tried for weeks to reach the government passport office, but police blocked the roads and turned her away.
She finally managed to telephone a government official, who told her she could get the passports, but only if she came to his office alone. Um Eddine said she understood what that meant. "He wanted to rape me," she said.
Um Eddine had another plan. Unsure whether her husband was still alive, and tired of running from police, she gathered her children on March 17 and joined five other families to make the dash through mountain passes that separate Syria and Jordan.
Warned against carrying too many belongings that might slow them down, they brought only the clothes on their backs. She carried her two youngest, both barefoot, holding them close to stave off the cold.
It was a short but terrifying journey, she said. "We all panicked," Um Eddine recalled. "We thought we were going to die."
Even after the Jordanian soldiers tried to reassure her, she was still afraid they were Syrians in disguise. She didn't relax until the others arrived and the soldiers offered them tea and brought them to a makeshift refugee camp in an abandoned apartment complex now used for fleeing Syrian families.
She recalled the confusion of her eldest boy when the Jordanian soldier offered them tea.
"Should I take it?" he asked his mother hesitantly. "Why do soldiers here give us tea and back home they are trying to kill us?"
The camp brought unexpected news, she said. Someone there told Um Eddine that her husband was alive, but that he had suffered two gunshot wounds and was languishing in a prison.
After three days in the camp, she and her children moved to Amman, the Jordanian capital, where they now share an apartment with another family from Dara. They are being supported by an Islamist charity, Kitab and Sunnah.
Um Eddine said she's unsure what she'll do next but has no plans to return to Syria until the regime falls. Her quiet voice cracking slightly, she said she didn't know whether she'd ever see her husband again.
She added softly, "I'm planning to start a new life and erase the past 32 years."