I’m learning to read his jaw. Sometimes I lose the language in his translations, but his jaw telegraphs the unspeakable.
But, tonight, I can’t see it. We’re facing each other, squaring off in the shadows over outdoor vanilla sundaes laced with crisp kiwis and strawberries, arguing about whether I should accompany him to pick up his food rations from the United Nations. The UN had suspended food giveaways, and he finally has an appointment to pick up four months of food for his family.
“This could cause you problems,” I lean forward, dropping my voice, glancing sideways at the oblivious diners. I want to go, but not at his expense. He wants me to go, to document the lives of Iraqi refugees who fled to Syria after the US invasion and after the ensuing violence that drove him and another two million Iraqis from their homeland. “But your file could get marked because you are with an American,” I warn.
I’m on precarious ground, too. Volunteering in Damascus for the summer with a delegation to assist refugees and to gather research for a book, I worry about jeopardizing both the local church that is sponsoring me and the refugees who share their stories for publication. “Your file could get marked,” I say again.
When I first met Abdullah, five years ago in Iraq just weeks before the war, he was talkative, chatting up American human rights activists at our budget hotel in Baghdad as he served us breakfasts of olives and boiled eggs. Olive-skinned and slender like the other waiters, he stood out with his English and his trusting way of ingratiating himself with us Americans. He brought us farewell gifts as he made sure to collect our contact information, and he wrote group e-mails every few months, filling us in on post-invasion life.
During my final hours in pre-war Iraq, Abdullah brought me flowers, tenderly grown in the garden at the Palestine Hotel across the street, where he moonlighted as the gardener. I carried those dusty marigolds all the way to the Iraqi-Jordanian border before scattering them. I wasn’t sure how much of Iraq I wanted to carry home.
But I returned to Baghdad a few months later, and Abdullah and I shared tea on the dreary second floor of that Palestine Hotel, dark then due to another electrical blackout. Over hot, sticky chai, Abdullah confessed his marriage was failing and professed his admiration for me. It was a tender, desperate moment.
I pretended I didn’t understand.
The last time I saw him, he was protesting in the street, joining a workers’ demonstration for a salary increase from the Palestine Hotel, an act that would not have been allowed under Saddam Hussein.
His e-mails were newsy and sometimes impatient at my predictable questions about security, electricity and “rebuilding,” to which his answers remained predictably the same…Except for the e-mail he sent after he voted. His optimism bubbled from my computer screen amidst his familiar fragments and comical misspellings. Then came the e-mail about the Palestine Hotel coming under fire and his final effort to rebuild the garden he had so faithfully tended. It’s no longer alive.
His emails became more angry and urgent, although I couldn’t figure out why. Next he wrote of his aborted effort to resettle in Amman, Jordan, a trip taken the day before his 43rd birthday. After a long and expensive bus ride, border guards refused to allow this fleeing Baghdadi into Amman because he was carrying too much luggage, which included his treasured English dictionaries.
Knowing it was too dangerous to return to Baghdad, he persisted, hiring a driver to taxi him to Damascus, arriving just months before I did in May 2008.
During the March 2003 invasion, his family had holed up at the Palestine Hotel along with international journalists covering the war. This was the hotel where two German photojournalists were shot and killed while documenting the American tanks grinding into Baghdad. US soldiers, mistaking the photographers for snipers – or targeting them as journalists – aimed at the seventh floor balcony of the Palestine Hotel, and fired. As a hotel employee, Abdullah helped remove the bodies.
He tells me this story five years later in Damascus, where he has been joined by his estranged wife, two daughters, ailing father and a sister. I schedule Abdullah to address our delegation and I watch his face unwind as he holds us spellbound with his uncensored recounting of the early days of the US-led invasion. He wants us to understand the enormity and the specificity of the war’s impacts. His smile is loose and full and his chiseled face relaxes with each person he engages.
Abdullah is magnetic in his unwavering quest for peace. His serenity draws out his audience and he answers every question sincerely, forthrightly. I’m mesmerized by his ability to control his expressions and voice, although I can see there’s a lot coiled in his wiry body.
Handsome in a navy blue suit, crisp shirt and royal blue tie (his uniform as a waiter at a fancy restaurant), he tells of asking Marines why they were coming into his country. “‘We are coming to put in democracy and freedom,'” he recalls their answers. “At the time, I thought it might be [possible]. Where is that promise now?”
Abdullah’s jaw tightens, “No, I don’t think about going back to Iraq.”
I had forgotten how proud he is. His e-mails during the last five years, with their mangled English, were somewhat obsequious. But he appeared at my hotel my first night in Syria looking dapper in a freshly pressed shirt and dark green slacks, short hair slicked to perfection. I was an unkempt mess in travel-weary slacks, a bulgy shirt meant to hide my feminine form, and hair pulled back from my sticky face. We went for coffee in the Old City, and he answered my questions about his life as a refugee, spilling information I had not heard before.
Assisting American journalists had cost him dearly in Iraq and could cost him here in Syria. In Baghdad, his name had been put on a “list” and his family’s house had been stormed by soldiers while his young daughters cowered upstairs. “Iraqi soldiers, not US soldiers,” he clarified, “but same hammer.”
Weeks later, my ice cream softening in the Syrian heat while we debate about the UN food giveaway, I remind him, “Your file could get marked because you are with an American.”
He leans back and aims his piercing eyes into mine. “I am a free man.”
We agree to an overly elaborate plan. Although it’s open to the public, I’m not sure I’m allowed to visit the UN food distribution site, and I’m not sure if my presence will jeopardize my Syrian sponsor. Suspicions fly about the government monitoring our e-mails, about eavesdropping secret police, about a forceful stranger who boards our group’s tour bus in southern Syria and demands we drive him home. I’m not sure any of this is true, or not true, and I’m not sure why I feel such uncertainty. I do not feel like a free woman.
To be among the 200 people that will receive the UN rations, Abdullah decides to arrive before 7:00 am – two hours early – to get his assigned number. Once he has his number, according to our plan, he will call me with an estimate on the length of his wait if he feels it’s safe.
I get his whispered call; he’s number 118. Refugees had started arriving as early as 6:00. He tells me to join him.
The cab drops me at a gate wallpapered with lists of names. People mill about while waiting for their turn to sit in a stifling tent in order to wait to stand in a meandering line to enter a trailer to get a card that allows them to stand in another line to wait to finally gather their staples in a truck that will take them home. Refugees spend as much time in line as they do in limbo.
Abdullah nervously greets me in front and tugs me through the crowd to regain his place in the last of the lines. I stand behind him, using his wiry body to shield me from the UN workers’ sight. He graciously maneuvers me into the iota of shade created by a small overhang from the tent.
A Middle Easterner wearing a baby blue UN bib approaches authoritatively and questions Abdullah in Arabic.
“What?” I lean in as the man walks away.
“He wanted to know who you were and I told him you were with me,” he says defiantly, his taut jaw barely moving.
I am overwhelmed by the lines. Lines into a trailer. Lines into another tent. Lines of people who used to create the lines of Iraqi society: teachers, engineers, architects. Educated, middle-class professionals now reduced to standing in the blistering sun for free flour and olive oil and dishwashing detergent.
It’s a slow, quiet process. Each person hands over paperwork. A clerk at a folding table radios some unseen bureaucrat and bangs an approving stamp on the flimsy paper. Three men methodically haul six bags of rice and two dozen boxes of staples onto the backs of small flatbed trucks that will transport the refugees and their food home. Little is spoken.
Abdullah later tells me that he avoids other refugees. “They discuss subjects I don’t want to talk about,” he says vaguely. “Some of them are violent.” He’s heard about a refugee in Damascus who ran into the Iraqi who had killed his brother in Baghdad. The refugee and his cousin tracked down the killer in his new Syrian neighborhood and beat him to death. “I’m a stranger in this country, and I just want to live in peace.”
Just before it is his turn to enter the long tent and hand over his paperwork for approval, Abdullah whispers through gritted teeth for me to wait for him by the gate. I wander over to the trailer to see if I can find someone in charge to talk with me.
A Danish UN volunteer, a young man in his twenties, is suspicious of me. “I was wandering by and saw the UN logo and wanted to see what you are doing,” I gush. “It’s great work.” He tells me to contact the main office.
He elbows me through the gate, as I wonder why there’s not a sense of accomplishment, of wanting the world to know about the UN’s heroic attempts to help the 1.2 million Iraqi refugees who have flooded Syria during the last five years. I’ve been to the “main office” and met with the same level of secrecy and suspicion. There’s not even a PR pamphlet available at the UN’s front desk. Later, I will meet individual UN staff, and they will gladly share their knowledge and openly convey what the UN is doing. But, today, amidst the refugees with uncertain futures and uncertain pasts, even the UN rep feels insecure.
Outside the food distribution center gates, Abdullah motions for the truck driver to pull over and pick me up from the side of the road. I try to initiate small talk with the driver through Abdullah’s translating, but my companion’s clamped jaw tells me there is more to this scenario than I understand.
The driver is a private driver, a taxi driver of sorts, who is making good money hauling refugees and their rations. He might do six runs today. Abdullah later tells me he thought the driver worked for the Syrian government and he overtipped him. I think it’s a good thing that UN money is trickling into unemployed Syrians’ hands too, but Abdullah is jittery, watching the rearview mirror, and doesn’t relax until he has stopped en route and put me into a cab back to my hotel. Suspicion is everywhere.
Over the summer, Abdullah and I become a team of sorts, with his suggesting ideas for me to write about and his translating my interviews. He schedules a “day in the life” for me to see refugee life firsthand by accompanying him to a pharmacy, to a medical clinic with his father, to his home for lunch and to the UN with his daughters to pick up school supplies and uniforms.
He sets up an interview for me with a pharmacist who had been providing free prescriptions to refugees in exchange for reimbursement from the UN. In May, the Syrian pharmacist and his wife had refused to fill Abdullah’s father’s prescription, telling him they didn’t have the medication and that he should come back tomorrow. “Coming back” for Abdullah’s elderly, sight-impaired father involved an expensive roundtrip of catching first a minibus and then a cab. After his dad returned to the pharmacy and was turned away twice more, Abdullah went in and learned that the pharmacist was no longer honoring refugee prescription receipts because his pharmacy hadn’t been reimbursed by the UN.
I ask around and learn that non-profit activists had “heard stories” that pharmacists were denying Iraqis prescription drugs but they hadn’t gotten any documentation. Abdullah somehow convinced the pharmacist to talk with me, to allow me to take his photo and post it on my blog. It was a tough interview, partially because Abdullah’s English isn’t strong enough to carry nuanced translating, and partially because the pharmacist went through several paragraphs of social niceties before telling his story.
For six weeks earlier this summer, Tony Ankire and his wife, Rima Toume, weren’t reimbursed by the UN for drugs they dispensed free to Iraqis. They typically gave a month’s supply of prescriptions to an average of 150 patients each day, running up a deficit they claimed was 2.3 million Syrian pounds or about $46,000. They punch out the number twice for me on their calculator so there’s no misunderstanding.
While Abdullah and I drink the proffered thick Arabic coffee from demitasse cups over the glass top pharmacy counter, Ankire and his wife describe a second reason they no longer serve Iraqis: “Some of them shout and make problems,” Ankire says. “We lost old customers when the Iraqis came in.”
“…because of Iraqis’ psychological issues,” Abdullah translates, without looking at me. I study his proud profile, his immobile jaw. It hurts to see his smile tighten and his gaze drop as he translates something so humiliating.
I later ask him how it felt to listen to Iraqis being insulted. He tells me he had told the pharmacist to feel free to say whatever he wanted. I know Abdullah gracefully argued with him, based on the length of their untranslated conversations…and on the set of that eloquent jaw.
Abdullah says he had explained to the pharmacist that many Iraqis have had brothers killed, daughters kidnapped. Indeed he is right: Every Iraqi I meet has had a relative, a friend or a neighbor who was killed or kidnapped. Every one. No one speaks of the details when they all share the same unspeakable burden. So they mark their days, niceties spilling through tight polite smiles, eyes lowered to avoid recognizing reflected tragedy.
Until an outsider shows up.
On the steps leading into one of the two medical clinics for refugees, I am immediately surrounded by injured Iraqis baring their unhealed wounds and pressing their maimed children into my arms. The Syrian-Arab Red Crescent provides Iraqi refugees with a wide spectrum of health care, but the cash-strapped refugees themselves must meet a 20% co-payment, an amount that is beyond their reach, especially for those requiring ongoing treatment.
I tour the myriad waiting rooms. This clinic is another exercise in patience for the 300 to 400 patients who wait for hours each day to be seen by a doctor. Cramped rooms crowd pushy women and crying babies. Corridors overflow with listless men, too tired or injured or scared or hopeless to complain. There isn’t enough health care in the world to heal these thousands, tens of thousands, of aching people.
Abdullah’s father has been here since 8:45 this morning. He waits five hours. Recuperating from eye surgery, he can barely afford the co-payment and the cab fares to pick up his eye drops.
To avoid gossip among the prying eyes of his Syrian neighbors, Abdullah’s dad has told them I’m a UN worker visiting the apartment he shares with his son and a daughter. To further avoid suspicion, he’s invited Abdullah’s daughters, Amina and Lolou, to join us for lunch.
Lolou, 13, greets me with an exuberant announcement, translated by her father, that she’s decided she wants to adopt my cat whose photos she’d seen on my computer. Over roasted chicken and mint salad shared family/picnic-style on a cloth on the floor, 15-year-old Amina declares she wants to be an engineer, tossing her lively turquoise-scarved head assertively.
Abdullah’s home, like other refugees’ homes I’ve visited, is spotless. It is a typical two-bedroom flat with virtually no furniture. Before leaving Baghdad two years ago, Abdullah’s father gave away all their furniture, beds, refrigerator. Now, mats on the floor serve as chairs, beds and tables. One bedroom has two hard, ratty couches and the other has a double bed that isn’t much more than a thin mat on a precarious frame. Clothes are tucked neatly in suitcases. The kitchen is a sink, a propane hotplate and a small refrigerator. There is no garden here.
Abdullah brings out the girls’ “papers” that we will take to the UN’s makeshift warehouse to claim their “back-to-school” care packages: Report cards and exclusive “French-press” passports, which are difficult to forge and, therefore, taken more seriously by countries considering resettlement.
While I thumb through the passports, Amina says she wasn’t smiling in her photo because it was taken in Baghdad and she wasn’t happy there. The sole stamp shows a border crossing last year, which the girls made specifically to get these valuable passports. Later this month, they will travel back to the border to get their visas renewed before they can enter another year of Syrian school. If Abdullah didn’t have children in school, he’d have to travel to the border to renew his visa every two months. It’s a grueling bus trip that requires a 12-hour day and costs about a week’s salary. “It’s all lines,” Abdullah told me the first night we shared coffee in Damascus.
Abdullah and I try to decipher the girls’ report cards, adorned with the official, ubiquitous photo of Syria’s President Bashar Assad. I can (sort of) read the Arabic numbers of the grades, but we can’t figure out what a “14” means. We start reading down through the subjects: Religion. English. (“14 out of 15? You girls should be speaking English to me!” I say to widening eyes and vigorously shaking heads as their dad translates.) French. (“French? I speak French! ‘Ooh-la-la,’ ‘escargot,’ ‘chocolat.’ … No, no, no, it’s not ‘bonjour.’ It’s ‘booooon-jour,'” I sing, my voice rising like Mary Poppins on a springtime morning. “No, it’s not ‘je taime,'” I correct. “It’s ‘jhhhhe taime,'” I vamp over my shoulder, smoldering my glance and dropping my voice to Louie Armstrong octaves. The girls crack up.)
Science. “So are you as good as your father?” I challenge. He has studied animal husbandry and horticulture. The girls’ enthusiasm spills over, trying to outdo each other in proving their scientific creds. They speak of microscopes and germs.
“Ask me anything!” Amina’s smile widens, confident. Not knowing my germs, I punt, and explain that when I took biology in school, we dissected a worm. I illustrate their father’s translations by scrunching my nose.
Amidst the girls’ appreciative squealing, I tell them about dissecting a frog. I drop my head to the side, loll my tongue listlessly out of the corner of my mouth, feigning death, and limp-wrist my arms open, as if I were being dissected while Abdullah translates, running his index finger down his chest. Squeals broaden to laughter.
I tell them we dissected a baby pig, looking at the lungs, and heart, and stomach, and intestines, “and liver,” adds Abdullah instructively.
“I saw a man die,” Amina interrupts suddenly, her smile never leaving her face. Words spill out as I look on, smiling back, not understanding her Arabic story. When Abdullah finally translates, he shifts to that tight, detached jaw that I have come to know.
Amina had been out with her mother. They saw a man attacked by three other men with guns. They called the police to help the man, but he died.
This was the second time she had seen this.
It was the first time her father had heard this.
I lean over and kiss her forehead, more to hide my own emotion than to comfort this stoic child. It feels selfish to be more dramatic than everyone else in the room who had actually experienced these horrors. Amina had been twelve years old.
I feel like an intruder, interfering in this family, in this culture, in this shared Iraqi experience that I will never really know. Hope never to really know.
Abruptly shifting the mood, Abdullah announces it is time to go to the UN and gathers the report cards and passports in a big envelope in his lap, his eyes overly intent on his work.
The girls’ appointment, printed on watermarked paper to prevent forgery, is a two-hour bloc of time. We arrive a few minutes early and are ushered in with no fanfare by young staffers wearing large baby blue UN logos pinned to their T-shirts. As Abdullah secures the receipts, I head downstairs with the girls to a large room lined with overflowing mounds of children’s school supplies: notebooks, shoes, jackets, pens, colored pencils. I expect the girls to brighten like Christmas morning, but they’ve been through this before.
We start at the backpack station. Amina and Lolou are each handed backpacks heavy enough to kill a strong mule. Twenty-six notepads of various sizes, pens, pencils and a ruler. I am secretly jealous; I have spent countless hours scouring Damascus for small, top spiral, cardboard backed notebooks in which to take my interview notes, only to receive regretful smiles from proprietors of dusty, cramped “stationery” nooks. I am in awe of the various notebook shapes, sizes and cover artwork of the girls’ new supplies.
As I thread the backpacks’ straps through the tricky buckles so the girls can carry their new booty, I am approached by the same young Dane who’d escorted me from the food giveaway site. He asks me to leave and says I’m not authorized to be here. I explain I’m a family friend, and point to the girls being measured for their school uniforms, while clinging to the thick backpack strap I had just maneuvered through the buckle. “I’m here to help them carry their things.” Abdullah looks blindsided, explaining that I’m “family.” The young staffer is officious, forceful and repeats I’m not authorized to be here. Neither Abdullah nor I had been asked for ID at the front door.
Abdullah sets his jaw, preparing to negotiate, but I shake my head to stop him. As I walk toward the stairs to head outside, I overhear a woman working the check-out desk chastise the young man in English. Before I reach the stairway, the Dane apologizes, admitting there had been a mistake and that I could stay. Abdullah later tells me he thinks the woman worker is an Iraqi.
We were in and out in a record 15 minutes. Abdullah couldn’t believe it; last year, they’d been there for hours. I still don’t understand how this proud, accomplished, ambitious man who works two jobs under the table keeps his head up while standing in refugee lines for handouts.
Later that night, over zataar-spiced pizza and lemon-mint drinks, we review photos from my day’s work of his life’s day. He turns to me and says through that imperceptively expressive jaw, “I just want to live where I’m wanted.”
One sultry night soon after, we stroll through one of Damascus’ famous public gardens, the full moon bathing children swinging in the playground, still alive at 10:00 at night. Abdullah asks me to marry him.
He’d always cared for me, he says, and he could start his life over with a green card.
I suspected a proposal might come, but until now I didn’t know how I’d respond. I want to help, but standing in this fragrant, foreign garden I feel like an imposter, posing here as if I can really make a difference in this refugee tsunami. I start to cry.
And I say no.
Abdullah gives me a face-saving out by telling me he’d be happy just knowing I care about him. Sitting on a bench shadowed from the glances of the elderly women, we hold hands. I swipe my tears. We gaze at the Damascene moon. He kisses my wet cheek.
Later, I remember the parable of the beached starfish singled out by a little boy who, walking with his father, throws one of the hundreds of stranded starfish back into the sea. “What does it matter?” his father asks, gesturing to the litter of washed-up starfish.
“It mattered to that starfish,’ the boy points seaward.
And it mattered to that little boy, I’ve come to realize.
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