2030, Dearborn, Michigan
I open the garage door, and enter my house, glad to be home after a long, stressful day of work at my insurance firm near Dearborn, Michigan. I breeze through the house and pour myself a tall glass of ice-cold lemonade to cool me off in the hot, muggy Michigan summer. My father and I are alone in the house, my wife gone to Zumba class at the nearby Y.M.C.A and my mother at her daily physical therapy appointments for her arthritis. I walk through the kitchen and open the sliding door leading to the large, airy patio. There, I spot my father sitting in a lawnchair, staring off at the tall pine trees that rim our spacious backyard.
“How ya doin’ pops?” I say in the old American way that always makes him smile. No response from him; that is how I know that my father is in deep contemplation again. It appears that his memories of Syria and the conflict are clouding his mind. This is very common for my father. At least once every two weeks I come home from work to find my old, weary dad completely isolating himself from my mother and my wife, who both stay with him most of the day.
I soften my tone. “Dad? Is everything alright?”
My father’s large bushy eyebrows scrunch together like a pair of hairy brown caterpillars, as they always do when he is concentrating. He blinks fast and wipes his eyes with the back of one of his huge, calloused hands.
“Yes, son … I’m fine, really,” he says in his slight Arabic accent.
“Okay Dad … if you say so.” I give him one last concerned look as I shrug my shoulders and take a seat next to him, reading a newspaper.
Halfway through the front-page article, I sigh. My father wasn’t always like this; when I was younger, in my teenage years and early 20s, his job as a manager at a local supermarket served as a much-needed distraction from his past. But when he retired a few years ago, his memories began to come back to trouble him more and more. My father needs an outlet, someone to talk to. I know it is my responsibility to be that someone; after all, I am his son.
I sigh again and ask tentatively, “Dad … it seems like you’re thinking a lot about Syria and the war. Do you want to talk about it? It might help… ”
My father looks up, surprised that I read him so well and that I am so willing to discuss Syria, something that he knows that I prefer not to do. My father had sent me, my sister, and my mother to America in mid-2014, when he astutely observed signs of increasing violence in Syria. He was supposed to follow us to the United States in four months, but there was a delay and he was instead separated from us for eight months. I have never known why this was, or even what happened in those months.
“If you want to know … by all means … I would be happy to tell you” my father stammers. “But … are you sure you can handle it? I know that the move was rough for you, and …”
“I’ll be OK Dad, don’t worry.”
My father shrugs his shoulders, leans back in his chair, and begins his story.
Duma, Syria, 2014
I was sitting at the kitchen table in our small Duma apartment at the fringe of the city, my head in my hands. I had bid farewell to you, your sister, and your mother the previous night, and was all alone in our small, old, two-bedroom apartment. The city was completely quiet around me, no cars honking, people yelling, or young hooligans making noise. It seemed like the city was being quiet especially for me, so I could go about my thoughts without being disturbed.
I got up from my creaky wooden kitchen chair and walked across the scratchy rug on our living room floor to the two bedrooms of our apartment. I noticed that your mother had cleaned the entire apartment before she left and had made me a tray of baklava. This made me long even harder for her presence.
I stopped and stared at the family photo on the wall next to your mother’s bedroom. The photograph was taken at the beach, in the summer before everything began to go bad in Syria. We were all seemingly locked in time, in a place where loss and atrocities did not yet exist. It was as if we were in another world. I stared at that photo for a while in deep thought, and then walked around the bedrooms, which were mostly empty. I sighed; I had not gone to America with you since I simply could not afford it at the time. We were supposed to wait until we had enough money to go all together, but things began to get so bad in Syria that I was forced to send you first, and come myself later on.
I sat down and sadly counted what little money I had. I found that I had 75,525 Syrian Pounds, or about 400 US dollars. That meant that I needed another 224,475 Syrian Pounds, which was roughly $1,190 dollars, to buy a connection flight from Damascus, Syria, to Detroit, Michigan. I did some calculations and found that, minus all of my expenses, it would take me only four months to earn that money. This made me a little happier. I had always thought that I would be away from you, your sister, and your mother for much longer. With this in mind, I prepared for bed, ready for the long days of work ahead of me.
I worked in the bakery until I had about half of what I needed to get to America. I began to become very hopeful and excited about returning to you, your sister, and your mother. Sadly, I was only able to speak to your mother once—phones were expensive and were becoming harder and harder to find in the city. The Free Syrian Army, which was like the “rebel force” of the time, had just taken it over. Your mother told me that you were having a rough time transitioning to America and that you didn’t like your new middle school. This upset me very much. But I was delighted to know that your sister loved her new elementary school.
Late one night, long after our workers Hamdi and Khaled had left the bakery, Farid and I were sitting there, our heads poking out of a window. I told him about my feelings of hope and success. Farid was one of my best friends since high school. So, naturally he already knew about everything that had been going on, with my leaving Syria. When he heard that I was happy and hopeful, he grinned, took a long drag on his cigarette, and blew smoke into the cool night air.
“‘Well, Karam, I certainly am glad that you feel that way!” he said.
“Yes, me too!” I laugh, “But after my family left, I was not feeling like that at all! I was sadder than a cow that hasn’t been milked for ten days!”
Farid went quiet for a while, dramatically mimicking a wise man's concentration.
“My friend, borrowing the words of my blessed old father: ‘Hope … is like a fart, it will always come at either the worst of times, or the most unexpected of times,” he finally said, slowly.
“Mmm … powerful words, aren’t they,” I said, grinning.
And we both laughed the night away.
The following day, I was sick with a cold, so I decided that it was best to stay home. I called Farid at the bakery in the morning to tell him, but he wasn’t there. That struck me as rather odd, but I figured that Farid was with a customer and would call me back later.
But he didn’t.
Our bakery was Farid’s second home; if he wasn’t in his apartment, sleeping at night, he was at the bakery. I was becoming very concerned. I called him many more times from a nearby payphone, but there was no reply.
I waited a little longer, but at about three in the afternoon, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I rushed out of my apartment, coughing and sneezing, and practically ran to the bakery. I frantically turned the corner across from it and stared. In the place that I would normally have seen our squat red-brick bakery, there was only a pile of rubble. It was gone. The bustling marketplace and city centre in which our bakery had stood was replaced by a pile of broken stones, lost lives, and sadness. I ran through the crowd of bystanders rushing to and fro, attempting to find loved ones amidst the wreckage, and knelt at the pile of destruction that used to be our lovely, beautiful bakery, and stared blankly. I had no tears.
2030, Dearborn, Michigan
My father stops talking and stares into the trees again. I did not know that my dad had to endure so much pain in his life. It is so unfair that my mind almost refuses to believe it. I reach my hand out to touch his shoulder.
“Dad ...“ I begin, but he wipes his eyes and speaks again.
“There’s more I must tell you”
“If you aren’t up to it right now, please don’t tell me, honestly ...” I plead.
“No, each story has two sides,” my father says with a shaky voice, “I have only told you the sadness of the story. If I do not tell you the hope, half of the story will be lost.”
And before I can say anything he continues.
Duma, Syria, 2014
The next week is a blur in my mind. I can only remember sitting in my apartment, sometimes crying, sometimes just blankly staring at the apartment’s crusty white plaster walls.The only thing that got me up was thinking of Farid and his silly quote. Imagine what Farid would do to you if he saw you like this, he would blow his top! I thought to myself. For some reason, instead of causing me to feel even more sad, this sparked something inside me. It was nothing big, just a tiny laugh, probably left over from when Farid was still there. But after that the sadness was not so bad; I finally had the energy to get up and think about what to do next. I had heard that there were still a few farmers near Duma that needed help harvesting their olives. It was mid-August, prime-time for the olive harvest.
So I packed a small duffel bag with the few possessions I had left, and was about to leave the apartment to hitchhike to the farms outside Duma when my eyes fell on the family photo next to your mother’s room. I quickly threw that in my duffel bag as well; the photograph would remind me of the life that I was trying to win back.
After a few days of walking under the hot sun, riding in the backs of vegetable trucks, and knocking on farmhouse doors looking for food and, whenever possible, work, I finally came to a large wooden farmhouse overlooking a massive estate of olive trees. I knocked on their oak door, weary and exhausted. The door was opened by a burly-looking man, with beady eyes and a thick mustache.
“What do you want?” he demanded.
“I am looking for work, sir,” I said meekly.
The man laughed, shook his head, and exclaimed “You could not possibly be of any use to us! You are so scrawny! You would only waste my time and money.” and with that he almost closed his door on me, but I held the door with my foot.
“Wait, sir! I may not look like much, but I am in fact very strong! I owned a bakery in Duma where I had to lift heavy sacks of flour every morning! I have done this work for ten years.”
The man fingered his mustache.
“Well… fine. But if you’re lazy and slack off even once around here … you get one chance, and then you’re out! I promise you that. You can sleep in the barn with the other workers. Work starts at six in the morning and ends at nine at night. Ask Hassan, the overseer; he’ll tell you what to do. I don’t want to deal with you now …”
And with that, the man slammed the door in my face. I turned around and walked towards the barn, shaking my head in disgust at the man’s greedy and piggish manner.
I worked on that farm for three months, until the olive harvest was over. The work was very hard and extremely exhausting. But, true to my word, I stayed strong and never slacked off. At the end of the three months, I anxiously took out my money from it’s hiding spot in the barn’s roof. I counted it, as I had done almost every night, and I was relieved and very happy to find that I had exactly 330,500 Syrian Pounds, or about $1,750 in American money— enough to buy a ticket from Damascus to Detroit. The sheer thought of being with my family again sent butterflies flying around my stomach! I repacked my duffel bag and left for Damascus without a second thought about leaving the olive farm.
I again hitch-hiked for another week or so to get to Damascus, where the nearest international airport was. Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about going through any of the U.S. Customs’ background checks because I had already gotten myself cleared for entry into the United States, along with all of you, back in 2011, when I saw that things were heating up in Syria. All I had to do was show that all my papers were in order, buy my ticket to Istanbul, Turkey, and catch a plane there for the final leg of my journey to Detroit, in America. The end of my fight to see you, your sister, and your mother again was a mere plane ride away.
After showing my passport and visa to the airport officials, I boarded a small Turkish Airlines jetliner to get to Istanbul. I had never been on a plane before in my life, coming from one of the poorer families in Syria, but for some unknown reason, I didn’t feel the excitement that I had always thought I would feel when on a plane. The idea of flying was just so insignificant compared to what was already going on in my life.
I sat in my seat for a little bit, just thinking about what I was doing. Soon I realized that I wasn’t quite happy. As I had envisioned leaving Syria in the past, I had always thought it would be a very exciting and happy time. While I was extremely excited to see you, your sister, and your mother again, I couldn’t quite place my finger on it, but there was something that was keeping me from enjoying that long-awaited occasion. As the plane pulled out onto the runway, I shrugged those thoughts away and closed my eyes for a well-deserved nap.
One hour later, as if by a miracle, I woke up for no particular reason. I was seated next to a window, so I had the luxury of being able to look from my seat at the ground below me. The view was simply astonishing- it was as if an artist had decided to draw a picture of all of Syria squished into a single small segment of land. Below the plane was a rolling expanse of farmland that appeared to be made up of soft green, orange, and yellow strips of fabric all sewn together into large rectangles, which were placed next to each other as if in a jigsaw puzzle. At the edge of the farmland were those low rugged mountains that are characteristic of Syria, connected to each other by a thin strip of earthy-brown land.
It was all simply so beautiful, I cannot even begin to describe what I was feeling as I saw it. Tears welled up in my eyes as I watched the landscape just float away from my plane. It was my life’s background: the mountains, the farmland, the baby-blue cloudless sky. And I was leaving it all. I lightly touched my window and whispered a quiet goodbye to my Syria. I hoped to God that I could return someday, when everything cooled down, and when Syria was a better place for the common people like me. I truly wished for that day to come soon.
Dearborn, Michigan, 2030
I sit silently as my father finishes his story. Hearing about his memories brings back storms of my own, and I am drowning in them now. My father and I both sit quietly as the bright sky of daylight is replaced by night. Both of us feel as if a weight has been lifted from our chests. We have opened the box containing all of our painful memories, and in doing so we have also released reminders that in the midst of pain there is still hope, that everything can turn out well in the end. Just as when Pandora opened Zeus’s box, containing all of the world’s evils, we released hope when we opened our own hearts. My father and I stare at each other without words; none could be adequate for this situation.
“Well … it’s getting cold. We should go inside,” my father says.
“Yeah … let’s go, Dad.”
And I help my father up from his lawnchair and together we go inside for the night.