It’s been so mean lately.

Oh, I know it’s always been mean. “Off with their heads!”; machetes removing limbs; “We will kill you for dancing”; waterboarding a workaday torture; “Tell us what you heard your father say about our glorious leader”; pogroms; labor camps; piles of bodies.

It’s always been mean.

The current mean is insidious as much as shocking, though, during this era when well-off people wrap themselves in privilege and self-righteousness to deflect from the tight bitterness of their begrudging. The current mean erodes my belief in foundations, makes it impossible to feel easy, causes me to yell at phantoms in my head when I’m out for a run. 

I don’t know how to write when the only thing I have to express is an extended scream down an open neck as I nestle a bloody head into the crook of my arm. I don’t know how to write because boundaries and tone become impossible to manage, drowned in a deluge of anger and disappointment.

So I try, very deliberately, to focus on the flashes of pure and good — a fine encounter with a stranger, a happy wave across the yoga studio, a student excited that she gets to take a trip to Greece. I try to open a channel and let the good stuff flow in. 

I started this essay one year ago, a month after my dear friend Virginia died; the opening sentence about “It’s been so mean lately” popped out of my fingertips then, as did the subsequent paragraphs. Even then, I was struggling to stay right as people got meaner. 

Then life reared up, and the essay draft languished. There was too much else to do, not enough time to sit and focus on one of the pure, good things that had saved me from complete disillusionment. 

But now I’ve recently returned from a trip to Europe with Virginia’s widow, Kirsten, an ashes-scattering jaunt during which we not only left bits of bones in places that had been special to Gin but also took her to some new venues, whisking that intrepid traveler on one last journey. Along the way, as the bitter and self-righteous sloshed in their own sourness, we were reminded again, through Virginia’s lasting impact on a crew of devoted friends in Germany, that mean frets itself into unyielding little knots, but goodness turns its face to the sun. 

I’m being cliche and mixing metaphors here, of course, but the sentiment is true: people have been making me sad, yet the person Virginia chose to be in the world gives a powerful lift.

When I started this essay a year ago, I wanted to share the contents of a small red volume found after Virginia’s memorial service in a desk drawer in her basement — in the “museum” of Ginnie’s Stuff. 

Feeling tired and sad these past few days, I suddenly remembered that tiny journal she’d kept and realized I do have something to say that isn’t an extended scream down an open neck, dismembered head stuffed into my elbow — “Oh, I should scan those pages and write a blog post!”

Today, when I sat at the computer, I found a folder containing images I’d forgotten I scanned after her death. Today, when I came to the Dashboard of this blog to begin a new essay, I found a post I started in June of 2018. 

In looking at the scanned images and re-reading the notes Virginia jotted in 1984 about a Cambodian family she was sponsoring during their relocation from the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields to a small Minnesota town with a kill line, I fell in love with my friend all over again. 

And I fell in love with Hieng and Sakun and Sokong and Soksan. (In particular, I really, really, really fell in love with Soksan on March 31, 1984.)

Looking at the notes Virginia dashed into a little book during the months when she poured time and money and love into a traumatized family, I remembered not everyone sits in their houses where they have too much and complains about brown people showing up where they don’t belong. I remembered that some people live according to the Law of Abundance, some people start and end with the principle that all human beings deserve an equal chance, some people don’t complain publicly about things they don’t acknowledge privately, some people check and challenge themselves: “Am I embodying graciousness? Am I truly living with grace?”

Virginia’s notebook, as it tracks purchases and errands with not only the Hao family but also other refugees being absorbed into her beloved town, provides a snapshot of genuine grace in a mean, mean world.

Virginia was not a saint. After these initial months of language learning, household establishment, health worries, and friendship joys, she left the Hao family more and more in the hands of others. Like me with this blog post, she had other priorities.

When I met her in 1996, however, Virginia was fully in the swing of sponsoring a Bosnian refugee family — helping them find work, enrolling the kids in school, spending hours and dollars to soften their landing. 

It’s been so mean lately.

But once there was a Virginia. And all of us now, if we try to live with similar grace, have it in ourselves to earn the title of “Mom,” to feel our hearts fill, to listen to our doorbells ring repeatedly, to eat watermelon together.

We have it in ourselves to believe that if we buy two bikes for $70 for people who need them, they’ll be as good as their word.

If we can just stop being so tight and mean, we can trust:

They’ll pay us back.

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A War Story

This post is the second in a series of four guest essays written by my friend Diane, whom I met during our family’s year in Turkey:

First, a bit about me. I was born in Boston and spent my teenage years wrestling with an urge to escape from the suburbs and get out into the world. For almost 20 years, I’ve taught linguistics at the University of Leeds in England. In 2004, I took a career break to go backpacking and met a Turkish man. We got married, had two children, and then the marriage came to an end. Along the way I learned to speak basic Turkish and met a collection of friends, both Turkish and foreign, who are still an important part of my life. I love Turkey and go there once or twice a year so that the children can spend time with their father and his family in their village. Some of my friends there are now involved in the efforts to help the Syrian refugees living in Turkey. There are an estimated 3 million Syrians in Turkey (probably more, since many are still undocumented). Only about 10% live in the UN-funded refugee camps near the Syrian border. The rest are distributed throughout Turkey. They’re not entitled to any housing or financial support directly from the Turkish government but can get support from charities and NGOs working in the country. Most Syrian adults speak little or no Turkish, and a lot of their children aren’t enrolled in schools. This year I spent my Christmas vacation talking to people who are running projects to help the refugees. I wanted to tell their stories, the stories about what happens after the newspaper headlines die down, the stories about lives passed  in years of limbo, waiting to go home or to feel at home in a place that is not home.


Ahmet now lives in a small village in central Turkey, where he is running a project linked with Open Arms in Kayseri (OAK) to help other Syrian refugees. He was born in Raqqa, one of 8 brothers. His father owned several factories, and he grew up in privilege, playing football, driving around, buying clothes, clubbing, and chasing girls with his friends. He moved to Aleppo at 17, studied law in Beirut for a year, and then at the start of the revolution in 2011 went back to Aleppo to continue law school. That year his brother Brahim started organizing anti-Assad protests and later formed a cell of the Free Syrian Army. Because of his brother, Ahmet’s name was on Assad’s list as an insurgent, so he was forced to leave college. Ahmet moved back to Raqqa.

Brahim’s life was in danger, so his father sent him to Saudi Arabia to protect him from Assad’s police. Then he went off the radar for 4 months. The first news of Brahim came when a family friend called to say that he had been badly wounded in a battle nearby with Assad’s forces. He had come back into Syria quietly, via Turkey, to lead his Free Syrian Army unit. The family waited until 11 p.m. when the coast was clear to pick him up off the battlefield. Brahim had been shot twice in the stomach and once in the hip. Raqqa was too dangerous, so the family took him across the border to Turkey. Ahmet spent the next 6 months living in a hospital with his brother in the city of Urfa, changing his dressings, feeding, and bathing him. (In Turkey, as in many countries, hospitals are short-staffed, so family members are expected to do most of the nursing care.) His brother had had a colostomy and needed more surgery, but the doctors said he needed to wait another two months for the next operation, so the family brought him back to back to Raqqa for the holy month of Ramadan. Raqqa felt like a safe place at the time because Assad’s forces had failed to take control of the city.

As soon as the family returned home, ISIS launched itself in Syria with Raqqa as its base and started to take over the city. (ISIS originated in Iraq but draws its aim of creating an Islamic state from a section of the Koran which forsees the final war between Muslims and unbelievers as taking place in Sham, an ancient kingdom in what is now Syria.) Ahmet says he had a lot of conversations with guys in ISIS, who started in Syria as a small group of around only 70 people. Most of them were from outside Syria, from Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, and the Gulf, and had spent 3 months in intense indoctrination. Many ISIS members were intelligent and creative, but they spoke with brainwashed certainty about their mission and had absolutely no concern for the lives of the Syrians. It was also clear that even though some may have had their doubts about the killing and torture that had become their everyday lives, they were locked into the organization. ISIS fighters didn’t fear death, and that made them very frightening opponents.   

Most of Ahmet’s cousins and brothers were fighting in the Free Syrian Army against both Assad and ISIS. At one point, the FSA captured 3 tanks from Assad’s army and then managed to capture the local ISIS leader. A street fight started for possession of the tanks. After 20 days of fighting, ISIS detonated a car bomb in the train station that served as the FSA base. Three of Ahmet’s cousins were blown to pieces, including the unit leader. Ahmet, who had stayed out of the fighting, got a text message from his brother inside the train station saying that he and others were trapped inside, surrounded by ISIS. Ahmet dithered. He didn’t have a gun or other weapon and wasn’t sure what to do. He went to tell his family the news, then left to see another brother at a friend’s house. In shock, Ahmet made the decision to save his brother. Somehow – he doesn’t remember how – he managed to slip past the ISIS watchmen and get into the train station.

The building was still on fire, with bodies littering the ground. He found his brothers hiding inside, safe because when the car bomb went off they were somewhere else eating their evening meal to break the Ramadan fast. Later an ambulance managed to reach them, so Ahmet helped load the burned bodies and body parts of his cousins into it. Ahmet found a rifle and called his brother to find out what to do. ISIS still surrounded the building. His brother told him wait for a while. At 1 a.m. the order came from the main FSA base telling all of them to leave Raqqa. Their leader, Ahmet’s cousin, was dead, and they needed to rest and regroup outside the city. Ahmet watched as 65 men loaded up their weapons and started to leave, but he didn’t want to abandon his family. At 2 a.m. the remaining FSA in the train station fired huge anti-aircraft guns into the air to create a diversion so that they could escape. Ahmet and two of his brothers and two cousins didn’t follow; they took their guns and 150 bullets each and ran off behind the train station to the Kurdish FSA base where they asked for protection until morning.

Ahmet stayed awake all night keeping watch while the others slept, not knowing how far to trust his Kurdish protectors, but they were kind to him. At 5 a.m. he looked across at the empty train station and saw ISIS fighters streaming in. They put up flags and shouted “Allahu akbar!” over and over. At 7 a.m. Ahmet and his group left their guns with the Kurds and took a taxi to a friend’s house. The taxi driver was a Kurdish friend of his brother’s, and he brought his children in the taxi as a cover for Ahmet’s group. They laid low for a while.

Ahmet had another brother, Tarek, who lived in Saudi and had no involvement in the war. He had come back to Raqqa for his wedding and lived with his new wife in a different neighborhood, away from the fighting. One day he was coming home with some test results from his mother’s doctor. ISIS kidnapped him. The family searched everywhere, fearing the worst. 10 days later, a friend who worked at a local hospital called Ahmet to say that an unidentified body had come in. In accordance with Muslim tradition he had been buried the next day, but hospital staff had made a video of the body so that it could be identified. Ahmet watched the video and recognized his dead brother, horrifically tortured. Ahmet took the video home to show his family. He broke the news to Tarek’s wife and to his father. Everyone was crying and screaming. Tarek had lived a peaceful life, and he and Ahmet had been very close. Ahmet spent the next few days consoling his distraught family. It’s God’s will, he told them. You have to accept this. He struggled to be strong for everyone else when he felt destroyed by grief.

Ahmet took his injured brother back across the border to Urfa and left him in the care of friends. He went to Mersin, also in Turkey, with his friend to search for a job and to start a new life. His parents left Raqqa five months later and settled in Mersin. After 20 days in Mersin, he got a Facebook message from another Syrian he had met in the hospital in Urfa while he was looking after his brother. Yusuf was in Istanbul, paralyzed by a sniper bullet. His brother had been taking care of him but left him after they had an argument. Ahmet went to Istanbul and nursed Yusuf for 6 months, taking him to the hospital for physiotherapy every week. Eventually Yusuf was well enough to travel, so Ahmet traveled with him back to the Syrian border, where his family collected him. (A few months later, Yusuf died in Syria, emaciated and neglected.) 

Ahmet again got ready to join his parents in Mersin, but was approached by a man who was involved in setting up the interim Syrian government in Turkey. Political opposition groups (bankrolled by Qatar) were optimistic that they would defeat Assad, and the man said they needed trustworthy people to work for them as bodyguards. Ahmet worked for two years in the Turkish city of Gaziantep. Eventually, plans for the interim Syrian government fizzled. Ahmet tried to figure out what to do. He had a passport and could have gone to Europe, but he wanted to stay in Turkey to help other refugees.

In Gaziantep, Ahmet’s friend Memo was going out with a young woman named Juju, who worked for an NGO. The three became good friends. Juju invited Ahmet home to central Turkey, where he met Juju’s mother and her friends and learned that there were several hundred Syrians in the village who were struggling to survive. Ahmet, Juju and Memo wrote a proposal with help from a friend and worked out a budget for a project to help the Syrians in the village. Ahmet moved there in the spring of 2016. He lives a modest life and hates the label “refugee” because he feels it puts him in a box and limits what he can do.

While living in Istanbul, Ahmet says he felt destroyed inside but didn’t talk about his loss anyone. One event changed his perspective completely. He was in Istanbul taking care of his paralyzed friend Yusuf. One day Yusuf told him that his barber, Abu Mohammed, would arrive soon to give him a shave. Ahmet put him in his chair in the lounge and got him ready. A few minutes later the barber arrived with a young boy standing next to him, so Ahmet went back to his room. Then Yusuf called him into the tv room, asking for towels. The barber’s son was sitting on the floor with his legs straight out in front of him, the towel behind his back. “Ammu,” he asked the boy, “can you please sit on the sofa so that I can get the towel?” The boy just stared at him helplessly.

From the next room, Abu Mohammed said in a loud voice, “You put him on the couch.” Ahmet bent down to pick up Mohammed. He put one hand behind his back, and as he went to put his hand under the boy’s thigh, he was shocked to feel not warm flesh but something felt cold and hard – both legs were made of plastic. He put the boy on the couch, gave the towel to Yusuf, and then went back to the tv room, sitting next to the boy and wondering how bad the story was. He asked his friend what had happened.

The family were from Aleppo. Abu Mohammed, the father, went out to work one morning and then heard an explosion. He ran back to find his house bombed. There was no trace of his wife, his mother, or his two other children. Five-year-old Mohammed was on floor, his legs mutilated. Ahmet says was haunted by this story for a month afterwards. He came to understand that the father survived because his child survived. For Abu Mohammed, there was hope: taking care of his disabled child was a reason to continue with his life. If his entire family had died, Abu Mohammed would have allowed himself to die, too. After that day, Ahmet says, he “stopped feeling like shit.” He had lost a brother and three cousins, but he realized that he had lost nothing compared to others in this war. “This is the thing about the Syrian situation”, he says. “It doesn’t make you feel good, but it makes you feel stronger. If you lost a brother, someone else lost two brothers. If you lost two brothers, someone else lost their entire family. This is what makes us continue with our lives. I am so thankful and grateful that I still have something, when so many other people have nothing.”

Ahmet is now 29; if the war hadn’t happened, he would probably be practicing law in Syria. When he was growing up, he says, Syria felt completely stable. War seemed unimaginable. Everything unraveled so quickly. He feels that the war has made him stronger, and working to help other Syrians is a catharsis, the only thing that makes him feel happy. “The hardest thing in life,” he says, “is not breaking up with your girlfriend or losing your money. It’s seeing someone that you love get suddenly taken from in front of you when they’re young, before it’s their time, and you can’t do anything to save them.” Ahmet has keep his sense of humor, though he says his jokes have turned from “white” to “black.”  He desperately misses city life and playing football.

And he is kept awake by terrible nightmares.


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Open Arms: Syrians in Turkey

This post is the first in a series of four guest essays written by my friend Diane, whom I met during our year in Turkey:

First, a bit about me. I was born in Boston and spent my teenage years wrestling with an urge to escape from the suburbs and get out into the world. For almost 20 years, I’ve taught linguistics at the University of Leeds in England. In 2004, I took a career break to go backpacking and met a Turkish man. We got married, had two children, and then the marriage came to an end. Along the way I learned to speak basic Turkish and met a collection of friends, both Turkish and foreign, who are still an important part of my life. I love Turkey and go there once or twice a year so that the children can spend time with their father and his family in their village. Some of my friends there are now involved in the efforts to help the Syrian refugees living in Turkey. There are an estimated 3 million Syrians in Turkey (probably more, since many are still undocumented). Only about 10% live in the UN-funded refugee camps near the Syrian border. The rest are distributed throughout Turkey. They’re not entitled to any housing or financial support directly from the Turkish government but can get support from charities and NGOs working in the country. Most Syrian adults speak little or no Turkish, and a lot of their children aren’t enrolled in schools. This year I spent my Christmas vacation talking to people who are running projects to help the refugees. I wanted to tell their stories, the stories about what happens after the newspaper headlines die down, the stories about lives passed  in years of limbo, waiting to go home or to feel at home in a place that is not home.


While visiting Turkey April 2016, I heard about a grassroots charity called Open Arms in Kayseri (OAK) set up to work with refugees. A sprawling, industrial city a few hours’ drive roughly due north of the Syrian border, Kayseri has been a magnet for Syrian families for several years. Some friends and I arranged to visit OAK’s new premises in the Danisment neighborhood, where a community of Syrians has sprung up. We filled a van with food and household provisions and set off for the center.

OAK’s director, Narjice Basaran, greeted us at the door. I have never met anyone quite like Narjice. A British-Iraqi consultant from North London who married a Turk, Narjice is a whirlwind of energy in her fashionable headscarf, talking a mile a minute, zig-zagging around Kayseri while taking calls in English and Arabic. She started food deliveries to around 10 Christian and Muslim families in Kayseri in 2012 after meeting Iraqi and Syrian refugees who had settled there. As the war intensified and more and more Syrian families turned up in the city with no housing, food or medical care, Narjice dedicated more of her time to OAK. She joined forces with Nilgun, a soft-spoken Canadian accountant who gave up a lucrative salary to work with her. OAK now has about 150 families on its register, and more arrive every week.

After a huge bureaucratic struggle, OAK was able to legally acquire a 3-story house and was registered as a charity in May 2016. The center is a distribution point for food and clothes, and children’s groups staffed by volunteers meet there for play, crafts and language classes. Narjice showed us the basement full of racks of donated clothes, the ground floor level with children’s activity rooms and a kitchen, and the upper floor, set aside for women. The center is bright, warm, and welcoming. The aim, Narjice explained, is not charity but social enterprise: OAK provides a safe space where women can learn knitting, crochet and beadwork and then use their skills to generate an income for their families. OAK wants to help Syrian families become self-sufficient, to help themselves instead of taking handouts.

Schooling, specifically integrating Syrian kids into Turkish schools, is a big priority. OAK volunteers provide Turkish language classes to prepare them for entry, and school attendance is a requirement for registration at the center. All of the children from all 150 OAK families go to school. As is the case in a lot of towns in Turkey where Syrians have settled, the local schools in Kayseri have come up with creative ways to handle the influx of extra children: from second grade to high school, the school splits into two sessions, running classes for Turks in the mornings and Syrians in the afternoon. OAK also invites local Turkish children to the center to help with the integration process.

Listening to Narjice, I was in awe of her passion and dynamism, and she and Nilgun quickly became personal heroes of mine. They’re not people who read about the refugee crisis in the newspaper while wringing their hands and wishing they could do more to help, like I do most of the time. Narjice and Nilgun simply put in the work to do what is needed, often at the expense of sleep and time with their families, and by all accounts, OAK is a huge success. But the obstacles are huge, and both women are starting to feel exhausted. While dozens of “humanitarian” NGOs in Turkey are creaming off aid money to pad salaries and find ever more creative ways of embezzling funds, Narjice and Nilgun don’t get a salary or even enough money cover their expenses; they work very long hours for free, and their money and energy are starting to run out. They need more full-time staff to help them cope with the expanding scale of the project. Last year Narjice worked for OAK full time for nine months without taking any paid work, so she recently went back to London to recoup her losses and continue to fundraise for the families. The center has a grant from Concern Worldwide to pay for the Turkish classes, but the red tape is overwhelming.

Most irksome for Narjice and Nilgun is the bureaucracy and administration they face. Despite being a licensed charity, as Narjice explains it, the Turkish system has no room for an organization which is neither charity nor business, but social enterprise helping generate an income for the families through their own work. Having grown up in vibrant, multicultural London and being British Iraqi, she sees the roots of the problem in Turkish attitudes toward outsiders. Turkey’s century-long suspicion of foreign powers and intense focus on ethnic, linguistic and religious national “unity” seems to have damaged its ability to deal with diversity and this massive influx within its borders. The three million Syrians in the country are now suffering from this legacy, and it can be a struggle to help them integrate.

On the day we visited OAK, two of our group stayed in the center to do a movie project with a group of children. Léonie, a French art therapist who works with children with special needs and trauma, worked with Ahmet, a Syrian, to help them write a screenplay, make play-doh animals and create sets for their movie. She uses art to try to give the kids a voice, and give them a chance to tell their story.They were soon completely engrossed in the project.

While the children were making their film, the rest of us went to distribute food and clothes in the van. Narjice had heard about a family of recent arrivals living in a run-down neighborhood in another part of the city, so we joined her while she did her assessment of needs. The family lived in a tiny concrete house with a small dirt yard. About a dozen children flocked around us as we got out of the van. They ranged in age from about 3 to 8, and it wasn’t clear how they were related to each other. Some were barefoot, and they eagerly snapped up the lollipops we brought for them.

Inside the house, six or seven men and women wearing drab clothes sat on foam cushions on the floor. One of the women was severely disabled and lay on the floor on a filthy mattress. As I looked around the house, I wondered how the family had managed to get her this far out of Syria. Another bare room was a makeshift bedroom with half dozen foam mats on the floor. The kitchen of the house was grim, bare concrete, with a sink and a single cooking hob but no other furniture. A few dishes were stacked on the floor, but I couldn’t see any food.

Narjice spoke to them in Arabic, gathering as much information as she could about their circumstances. A man arrived waving a piece of paper, and the room erupted. He had just come back from the hospital with test results confirming that he and his wife both had Hepatitis B and would need treatment. The rest of the household, including all the children, would have to be tested too. We went back out to the van and handed out second-hand clothes from a huge bag, trying to be discreet to avoid stoking tensions with the Turkish residents of the slum neighborhood. More kids emerged from the surrounding houses, pulling faces for photos and asking for more candy. They had no toys and only the streets to play in, so the arrival of foreigners with lollipops was the most exciting thing to happen to them in a long time. Narjice went back later to help with medical care and deliver food, housewares and other supplies.

In the car she told us about some of the other refugees on OAK’s register. There were a few Romani Gypsy families who lived in the same squalid conditions they had lived in in Syria. Then there was the was blind family, whose story was, as Narjice put it, “like something out of a horror movie.”  All five members of the family are blind because of an inherited condition. Narjice first encountered them along with their extended family – 32 people were stuffed into two rooms, in some of the worst conditions she had ever seen – living in filth with no shower and wet from the snow leaking in through cracks in the windows and doors. They had paid traffickers to get them out of Syria in small groups when ISIS took over their village and had endured unimaginable hardship and danger on the way. Narjice organized housing, food, and clothes for the entire extended family. She tried to arrange cornea transplants for the blind children, but Turkey has a law that donated corneas can only be used for Turkish citizens, so their vision may never be restored. More pockets of the family continue to escape to Turkey, but only some have made it, others having been shot at the border. 

On our way back to the OAK center we stopped off at a small house in another suburb of Kayseri. Narjice asked us to wait while she took a shopping bag of food and went to speak to the woman inside. She came out a few minutes later, rolling her eyes. “She told me she’s pregnant again!” she said, waving her hands in exasperation. “I told her, what the f**k are you doing? You have six kids already; you’re like one of those cats on the street!” I asked Narjice why people so destitute would want to have more children when they couldn’t feed the ones they had. “Arabs like big families,” she said. “And they want to build up their country again. But I really lose my patience with them sometimes.” 

We returned to OAK to see the children finishing up their film project. Their faces were glowing with pride as they showed us their drawings, their play-doh animals, and the set they had created. The story was about a lion and giraffe walking by a lake. In the story, the animals are tired and bored, so they decide to have a picnic. Then a bus arrives and takes them to that glittering destination for Syrian refugee children: Istanbul.

We walked into the kitchen, where volunteers were sorting the food we had brought into plastic shopping bags. Some of the Syrian mothers helped too. One woman looked thin, pale, and exhausted. Not knowing any Arabic, I tried to catch her eye over the piles of food to smile at her, anxious to convey that I cared, that the world cared and was trying to do something to help. Her eyes stayed glued to the floor. The surge of self-congratulatory pleasure in me ebbed away. She is too tired and traumatized to share in this happy moment, I told myself. Only later did I understand that her response came out of deep shame. Syrians are proud people, and their instinctive response to visiting strangers is to spoil them with Arab hospitality and feed them delicious things until their bellies explode. She had nothing to give. For her, taking charity was the ultimate humiliation. She accepted it to keep her children alive, but she hated having to take it at all. And so we stood in that kitchen in a deadlock, on one side the American with a burning liberal do-gooder’s urge to help and to have that help acknowledged because it would make me feel good, and on the other side a Syrian mother, unable to meet my eye because it would mean a loss of her pride, her face, her honor. 

This crisis is not about me. It’s about her, and millions of others like her, who don’t want to be where they are.


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The Maps Within Us

My head is muzzy, and I am out of sorts. I stayed up too late, lost in a compelling book, and then woke up too early, my brain–still full of images from the book–unable to rest.

My head hurts; my body is empty of energy. I have class in an hour. The idea of putting on clothes feels like too much. But I have to. I have class. Even when my head hurts, and my body feels flat, life chugs on.

In the midst of this haze, one thought thrums through me: I am outrageously fortunate. It is a misery of rain outside, but I am warm and dry. When I drag myself to the closet, I will be greeted by bountiful options. When I head to class, my stomach will be full. I will drive my cute little car to campus; I will reward myself later with a hot cup of coffee; I will close the door to my office and find peace as I grade journal entries; some hours later, I will stand in my kitchen, smelling dinner cook, surrounded by my family. Fueled by a feeling of security, I will cruise through my electricity-lit day, hours marked by protective walls, soft linens, ready laughter, rampant choices.

Although none of us is ever wholly guaranteed of continued safety, I inhabit life with an innate assurance that, relative to millions of people on the planet, I am safe. Balancing on the fingertip of Lake Superior, living in a modest city not apt to be drafted into making an international political point, I float along, minute to minute, unmolested.

I am intact. I have not earned this easy wholeness.

Chance. It’s all arbitrary chance.

As I type this, hyper-cognizant of my luck, I am not writing about the shootings and bombings in Paris —

although of course I am.

I am not writing about Lebanon or Nigeria or Ukraine or Cameroon or the Philippines or Libya or Pakistan or Israel or Tunisia or Afghanistan or the United States or Saudi Arabia or Somalia or Turkey or Mali or Yemen or Egypt or China or Kenya or India or Macedonia or Iraq or Chad or Syria or Kuwait or Niger or Bahrain or the West Bank or Bangladesh.

Although of course, of course, of course, of course I am.

Through the randomness of birth, I have enjoyed a felicitous existence. Certainly, all the good could literally explode in my face one day. Odds are, though, that I’ll continue to drive my cute little car and assemble outfits from a closet of too many clothes. I’ll whoop, happily, “I’m desperate for a piece of that warm bread, preferably slathered with butter.” I’ll toss off a thoughtless “When that student came after me and sent a Howler to my inbox, I desperately would have loved to hit reply and tell him a thing or two.” Brashly, I’ll announce, “I’m so desperate for sleep, I could put my head down right now and conk out for twelve hours.”

Such words are heedless of genuine desperation. In the toughest moments of my life, I haven’t trailed a single finger down the spine of desperation.

The compelling book that kept me up until 3 a.m. several nights in a row reminded me that my words and attitude are feckless. It reminded me that I know nothing of desperation. Its made-up story, all too real, hammered home that I have never stared, eyes full of tears, clutching my children to my hips — as though proximity to their mother could save them — at authentic hardship.

I don’t know what it feels like to have my husband taken from our home at gunpoint by strange men, to never see him again. I don’t know what it feels like to hunker down inside my home and cry to a faceless god as rockets land on my neighbors. I don’t know what it’s like to secret my children across borders, to bargain away the few things I carry just for a meal that leaves us hungry. I don’t know what it’s like to watch my children, whose legs still ache with growing pains, resort to lying, thieving, and trafficking in the name of staying alive.

I don’t know what it’s like not to bathe for weeks, to wear the same tattered clothes for months, to watch, breath-held, for an opportunity to squeeze through a hole in a fence. I don’t know what it’s like to press my body to the inside of a tunnel as a train blows past, two feet away. I don’t know what it’s like to load my children on a boat and hope the waves carry us to land, not eternal blackness. I don’t know what it’s like to be treated like inconsequential trash when I have been a respected teacher, a treasured friend, a valued citizen. I don’t know what it’s like to be invisible unless I express a need, at which point I materialize as vermin. I don’t know what it’s like to sprint from the authorities for daring to steal a chance at life.

I don’t know what it’s like to be saved by the small acts of kind strangers, each of them with their own stories of agony and loss.

I don’t know what it’s like to seek refuge, having been forced to abandon everything I have loved and known all my life.

I don’t know desperation.

The book, this book I have been reading until 3 a.m. for several nights, powerless to set it down until I know the fates of the characters, takes me inside desperation, creates in me the hard, dull knot of panic and fear that governs the life of the refugee. As I read, sliding up and down my pillows, attempting to keep the pin-prickles out of my arms, my stomach is tense. I am faintly nauseous. I love these people in this book, am part of their decimated family; I am willing their survival, flinching at the distaste with which decent, loving individuals are treated when they are battered by violence and take flight from it.

This book makes me want to shout at the world.

My bladder is full, but I cannot take a break until I know if the family’s forged papers, for which they paid too much of their too-little money, will get them from Kabul to Turkey to Greece to France to England. I have to know if they will find safe haven before the baby’s medicine runs out. I have to know if fourteen-year-old Saleem, taken into custody while pawning his mother’s wedding bracelets — her sole inheritance from her dead mother — will find his way after he is deported from Greece, one step backwards to Turkey. Will he manage to skitter to the undercarriage of a truck during the two seconds when the driver turns his back to light a cigarette, grabbing hold of its exhaust system before it rolls aboard a ferry to Greece? If he does, will his corpse be found on the floor of the ferry after he dies from inhaling carbon monoxide? If he dies, no one will ever know who he was. He will be a nameless fourteen-year-old, the sole support of his mother and siblings, the kid who still yearns for his murdered father, the sweet boy craving a taste of orange soda, dead in an unmarked hole.

How will his mother’s heart ever find rest, if her fourteen-year-old son is dead in an unmarked hole?

How can the world in this book, which is actually our real world, carry on as though this bright, devoted boy doesn’t matter, this teenager who ends up sleeping in door frames on a piece of cardboard, waking at night to find another desperate man holding him down, unbuckling his pants? How can this boy’s made-up story, all too real, too true, too common, possibly leave me untouched?

How can I sleep, use the bathroom, heed the burning of my eyelids, until I know if Saleem makes it, if Fereiba, his mother, will ever see him again?

How could anyone label the Fereibas and Saleems of the world, so heart-breakingly admirable in their simple desire to live securely, as “those horrible people”?

I am hungover with fatigue from this book. When I awake, my sleep too short, I feel coated by this story — jarringly intimate in its portrayal of the details of displacement. It is a fictionalization of everything most devastating in our world today.

These characters I have come to love are reflections of reality. On my campus, walking the same halls I walk, there is a Saleem, only his name is Gani, and he is not from Afghanistan. Born in Somalia, Gani’s life changed forever when he was five, when his father went out one day and never returned home. Time passed. Rumors floated in: Gani’s father had been caught between warring factions. He was dead. Fracturing under the pressure of waiting and uncertainty, increasingly fearful as bullets richocheted between buildings, Gani’s mother decided to gather her six children and flee to the refugee camps in Kenya. Walking, haggling for rides in caravans, taking weeks, mother and children moved away from the men with guns towards the camp with no hope. Each time they secured passage for the next leg of their journey, they had to leave something else behind. “There is room only for you; leave your bags.” Within a few days, Gani’s mother and siblings carried only a sack of sugar. Once a day, each child poured a mound of sugar into a cup. The mother added some water. This was their meal.

From there, Gani’s story gains momentum, from refugee camp to high school in Kenya to the resolute decision that he wanted his life to become more than scrabbling for the next meal. After landing in the United States, he worked, moved, worked, mastering English to the point that he became a translator and liaison for other immigrants. Working in a clinic as a technician and a translator, he decided to become a nurse. Now, on the verge of graduation from our college, Gani is the president of the Muslim Students Association; he serves on the Global Education committee; he answers phone calls at 1 a.m. from desperate Somalis who need his voice. When Gani related his life story in an intercultural group on our campus, he excused himself, midway, for a few minutes.

He did not go to the next room to arm a bomb. No. He was praying, thanking Allah for the many blessings of his life. Minutes later, his prayer rug tucked away, he returned to our group, picking up the thread of his narrative with “…and then, in Kenya, my mother opened a little store, selling t-shirts and candy and small things. She found that way to support us.”

In all my life, I have not met a finer person than Gani. He enriches everything around him, most markedly the country that accepted him. The United States would be a lesser place without him.

As I read my book at 3 a.m., I think of Gani, for he is in its pages.

Even more, the plot of the novel takes my memory back to a radical act of generosity I witnessed in 2011. At the time, as I watched it happening, I merely thought, “Well, that’s really nice.” Now, with my head so immersed in the events of this book, in the events unfolding around the globe, I am able to unpack its beauty more fully.

In 2011, our family spent many hours and many weeks seeking Turkish residency papers; we’d tired of worrying whether we could renew our 90-day tourist visas repeatedly. Because the process was lengthy and required us to interact with non-English-speaking officials, our friends Andus and Gulcan came to our aid. Again and again, they drove us to the government building in a neighboring city and sat with us, waiting. When it was our turn, Byron and Andus would go into an office with other men and discuss which papers still needed which signatures and who needed how much money. The kids and I would wait out on a bench with Gulcan, the only native Turkish speaker in our group.

One afternoon, as we sat in the waiting area, a multi-generational family arrived and took the bench next to us. After not too long, one member of the family, a stunning teenage girl, maybe 17 years old, engaged us in conversation with her limited English. Her family was fleeing Iran, seeking asylum in Turkey. They were Christian. When she learned we were from the United States, her eyes widened, and she asked, eagerly, “So you are Christian too?!!”

My answer was difficult to form, given the meager mutual vocabulary we shared. How to explain, “Uh, well, I was baptized in a Presbyterian church, and then, as I was growing up, my parents started attending a couple different Lutheran churches. Sure, I used to help my sister in the church nursery, and I did attend Sunday school, but by the time I was 14, I’d had enough of feeling, as I sat on a pew, that I was just woodenly going through the motions. So then I pretty much stopped attending, except sometimes. And for my husband, well, his parents were uncomfortable with religion, too, but felt obliged to make the effort, so he did end up getting confirmed…so, I mean, our cultural and familial histories involve Christianity, but where we both stand right now would be more fairly named agnosticism.” How to explain that to someone with fifty words of English?

I told her, “No, not really. Not really Christian.”

My response confounded her. If I lived in an historically Christian country and had the freedom to love Jesus publicly, how could I not?

There was something poignant in that moment as we stared at each other, her stunned, me sheepish, liking each other, both believing firmly in freedom of religion. It’s just that our definitions of that concept were drawn from different dictionaries.

Given no other option, we smiled at each other, shrugging, letting the moment brush past us. As I tried to ask her where her family was staying, it became apparent that they were trying to figure that out themselves. If they could get papers and gain legal recognition in Turkey, their options would expand dramatically. In the meantime, they were homeless, uncertain of their next steps.

And that’s when Gulcan, a fiery, unpredictable woman, someone who inspired in me a mixture of awe and fear, gave me a lesson for my lifetime. Jotting down some information on a scrap of paper, she looked the Iranian girl directly, meaningfully, in the eye and said, “My husband and I run an inn in the village named Goreme. It is called The Fairy Chimney Inn. If you can come to me, I will give you work. You can come to me, and I will help you.”

Bleary as I am, my defenses compromised due to book-induced lack of sleep, I cannot type those last words without crying.

So: there is this book I have been reading. It is not a great book — there are issues with structure I could address if it mattered here — but it is a book with greatness in it. It is a profound example of how a novel can teach readers about the unseen intricacies of the world around them.

The story in this book makes me keen for refugees, makes me want to hand a hungry person bread and cheese, makes it impossible for me to tolerate big-picture discussions based on the premise that “our country can only absorb so many.” Everything in the stories of Saleem and Fereiba and Gani and the Iranian family reminds me that I am so, so, so damn lucky, reminds me that there is no such thing as “those people” because we are all of us, together, the people. This book illustrates completely that we are wrong to say “us,” and we are wrong to say “them.”

There is only us, a single us, and we should extend our hands towards each other.

Always and forever, it is one person with helping one person without that saves us all.

This book that I have been reading until too late — sliding up and down the pillows, trying to keep the prickles out of my arms, watching storytelling transmute abstract into concrete, marveling at how fiction tells the truest stories — is Nadia Hashimi’s When the Moon Is Low.

My brain is muzzy, my heartbeat unsteady. I am exhausted.

And, oh, so fortunate.


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