I’ve held this image in my mind for three years: 25-year-old Mohammad in a chair outside the little unfinished house in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, morning sun warming the hills before him, a thin wall between us as his father urges him, “Think about your future.”
It was Eid al-Fitr 2014. I’d been shadowing M for a story about his Syrian volunteering team, which crisscrossed Lebanon delivering crowd-funded aid to fellow refugees in need. One of the cases was a 6-year-old who needed open-heart surgery. It cost thousands of dollars that the team had taken 4 months to raise. Finally they had enough, and M accompanied the boy to the hospital, sending me happy selfies the whole way. But the procedure was complicated. The operation failed. 6-year-old Nour died. M sent me half-sentence texts. He stayed overnight, arranging the papers so the parents could take their son’s body back to their tent.
The next day was Eid. I came to Bekaa and spent two nights with his family, watching them construct a fantasy of normalcy for M’s 3 and 6-year-old nieces. M and his brother Youssef bought them new clothes and shoes. When the electricity went out, their grandfather took them outside to dance, twirling starlit circles in the dark.
At night, the girls’ mother whispered that her father disappeared into a regime prison in 2012 and hasn’t been heard from since. We smoked argileh at 2 a.m. as her husband, a former Free Syrian Army fighter, said his Lebanese boss was paying him half of the promised salary for his illegal job selling fruit at a street stall. They had no work permits, had just run out of water at their house for the month, and were barely affording the rent, let alone the few hundred dollars refugees must pay for residency in Lebanon each year.
In the morning, I woke to Mohammad’s father asking him whether I could help him get somewhere, anywhere, to finish his studies or find a future. “She’s American, she can help,” he said. I watched their silhouettes through the window, a 25-year-old taking on all-devouring Death with his friends and a Facebook account, his father unable to protect any of them, two fragile frames against a blazing war just across the border. Birds sang into the summer air.
“Baba, don’t pressure our guest,” M said to his father.
Three years later, I’m reunited with M in Bremen, Germany. It took a year for M and three years for his parents to get out of Lebanon. They smuggled across Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, and more in four separate trips with two failed attempts, but they’re here, with 3-year asylum that guarantees them protection in Germany and support for housing, language classes, and job placement. They can’t move out of Bremen or get visas to any countries bordering Syria. But they’re safe, though the family has been spliced apart: the girls and their parents still in Lebanon, while the older parents, M and Y are here.
They are the same family, but the house is strangely void. We keep lapsing into silence, the boys on the couch, staring at their mobiles. M’s father is quiet like before, only transplanted to a German chair in a white-walled home, smoking and staring at the fog outside. M looks different, his dark hair now grown out in a shock of curls, his face paler, the contrast stark. He’s become media coordinator for the volunteers and spends every free second curating videos and pictures from their work in Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. He shows me clips of his friends distributing sweets and aid to orphans and injured children in Idlib, in Yarmouk camp, in Homs. It feels like we are back in the Middle East for each video’s few seconds, then we go back to the scrolling and clicking and rain.
I walk through Bremen flanked by four Syrians, the two brothers, their cousin Ahmed and friend Ibrahim, who tells me about being in a boat between Egypt and Italy for 9 days, your whole world just sea and sky and death. “It was a great touristic adventure,” he laughs. It’s raining and grey, a Sunday Eid with the world shut down. The town is all gargoyles and cathedral spires and medieval fairy tale roofs, with church bells ringing as we walk.
M is sullen, withdrawn, until he sidles up to me and says, “Shu malik? What’s wrong?”
“I don’t think you’re happy,” I say.
I’m right, he says. M is spending his days in ausbildung, a German work-study program where he’s learning to manufacture fake teeth for dentist’s offices.
“Sometimes I think, what the hell am I doing here, making teeth?” he says. “Why don’t I go to Idlib? Even if I die, my conscience will breathe better.” But there are his parents, who don’t speak German or English and can only stay home all day, M says. They need him.
On the third day we go sit by the river, look at the ducklings, and watch German families swim. We have Oreo ice cream bars and go shopping for girls’ dresses, which cousin Ahmed will bring to Lebanon next week. Um Mohammed goes into grandma mode and examines every piece of clothing in Benetton, Zara and H&M, declaring it’s so silly that you always see nice things but when you want to buy a gift, nothing good is there! We pass a mattress store on closing sale and spend a long time browsing, Abu Mohammed very serious but Um Mohammed silly, lying on a mattress saying “Tasba7i 3la kheir, Gute Nacht!” to the shop lady. M negotiates the whole thing in German, and I tell his mom I’m so proud of him.
They buy two mattresses, which the men take home, leaving me with Um Mohammed. We walk to a supermarket, talking about how Chinese New Year is a huge relative-filled event, and how much she misses having all her sisters and cousins together for Eid in Syria. I help Um Mohammad pick out groceries. “Milk, because Mohammad drinks milk in the morning,” she says, as if her 28-year-old son is still a boy.
At home, we embellish frozen pizzas w corn, bell peppers, olives, mushrooms, curried ketchup and remoulade. Mmm, so delicious, Um Mohammed says, and M tells a story about how the Germans make egg sandwiches with remoulade. I’m still on my last piece of pizza when Abu Mohammed mentions, did you hear there what happened today near Damascus? No, she says, and he goes on. It was in this specific area, an explosion of some sort, a lot of people injured but nothing serious mostly, but one death – and it’s from these families – do I know them? Um Mohammed asks – yes, he says – they’re from this family – and she is gasping. The room seems sucked clear of air and light as she grabs him, “Not Ghsoun?” He says allah yarhamha. Her sister’s daughter has died.
Um Mohammed’s head is under her arms in a wail. The seconds pass like photo flashes, her sons snapping to her side. M sits next to her. Abu Mohammed puts his arm on her shoulder. Both have prayer beads in their hands. Ahmed and Yousef are leaning forward. She gasps and sobs and they say, all the men, firm, naseeb, naseeb, naseeb, it’s fate, fate, fate. Sulli 3la nabi pray to the prophet, shaheed hiya estashhedt, ma mattat, shaheed! She didn’t die, she’s a martyr. Thanks be to God, she was surrounded by her family! That’s the end of her life, that’s it, don’t cry. It’s fate. Be strong.
Make yourself stronger.
You have to tell your sisters now, breathe, say thanks be to God, pray, get up, yalla wash your face and pray, we’re going to make calls.
I’m breathless, watching
How she fights to catch her breath
The men, her sons, their father, like un-crying rocks around her.
Their faces don’t flinch as they get up and clear the table, tell me to keep eating, make coffee and set the table with ma’moul and change the bed, put in the new mattresses like nothing has happened, come back into the living room and sit around their mother, still flicking through social media on their phones the whole time.
She mutters prayers to herself, taking deep breaths as she begins to call. No one is looking but everyone is listening. She leads into conversation with the first sister, how are you how is Eid everything is fine… We are all well thanks be to God… Yes one thing has happened but it’s not big... an explosion... the children are all fine… Abu Mohammed motions, shui shui, don’t tell too fast… and then “Yes, Ghsoun,” and we hear a howl on the other side.
It’s been 15 minutes since we were chatting about the pizza and remoulade
Now Um Mohammed is resolved, commanding, speaking strength over the phone to her sisters in pieces on the other side - this one in Bulgaria, then a few more in Syria, one in Romania, others in Dubai and Lebanon and Berlin, flung across the world like every Syrian family that has not been able to see their loved ones all together in years - this is fate, naseeb, it’s the end of her life! Wash your face and drink some water. Go outside, breathe, pray, read the Quran, say thanks be to God. It’s fate.
I go to wash the dishes because I am afraid to intrude, though I’ve been sitting in the middle the whole time. Ahmed comes to tell me to stop and I ask, are you not allowed to cry? Would you be crying if I weren’t here?
He says no, no, we’re used to it. Welcome to Syrian life. This happens every day. It’s been so many years.
We found out while you were shopping, but we didn’t want to tell her outside.
We can’t let her cry because she might fall sick. You don’t know how much it might hit her. You know it’s trauma, shock, but we’re used to it. It happens every day, he says.
Not always to your family, I say.
If not our family, our neighbors, our friends, someone we knew, anyone, he says.
It’s so much sadness, I say.
Leave the dishes, he tells me.
Later, I curl up on the couch with Um Mohammed and she shows me pictures of the dead cousin’s baby daughter, just 5 months old. She shows me Ghsoun herself, only in her mid-twenties, petite and smiling in a family photo. She shows me the Eid gifs Ghsoun had sent her, a cheesy “Eid Mubarak” with flowers and fireworks exploding in the background. She scrolls through WhatsApp records to see the exact date of their most recent call, but it’s already been pushed out of memory.
No one really sleeps.
I dream some restless sequence of walking through exhibits of grief, rooms with some kind of tragedy or tomb inside each one, but with Ahmed leading me, telling me how to see this but accept it - this is fate, this is fate, we accept it, this is the only way to live.
I wake up over and over again, thinking 1) it’s true 2) could I not fill those rooms myself with scenes from my own memories, from Gaza and Sinjar, from the Ethiopian suicides and the girls I’ve met in jail, from South Sudan, from Syrians, from the sea?
I’m thinking 3) though I don’t believe in Islam, I will always respect the faith of Muslims, for giving hope and strength to those with nothing else to hold, 4) I would never take that away from them, 5) on the contrary, Lord, be with them more, 6) when will this all end?
In the morning I say goodbye to Mohammed, who’s up at 6 a.m. and out by 6:45 for ausbildung, to work on more false teeth among 18-20 year old German kids, while his friends visit orphans in Syria, and his parents swallow their mourning in a quiet home.
I have coffee with Um Mohammed, who tells me she didn’t sleep either, staying up thinking about all her conversations with Ghsoun. Alhamdullilah. Yousef joins us and I say, you know he’s totally changed - he was so quiet when we met in Lebanon, but mashallah how amazing he is now with German, how confident and joking, how grown-up! Y grins. Um Mohammed pauses.
“Al-ghorba tet3alam,” she says - alienation teaches. You’re a stranger, then you’re a man. You’re crushed by loss, thrown into a foreign world, alone, or alone with your brother, you’re forced to survive - you grow. You learn. You drown, or you become stronger.
We kiss goodbye, and Yousef walks me to the train.