“They live in two lives. I know they live two lives,” Sami explained of his daughters. “[But] I cannot change and be American 100 percent and do what Americans do.”
“No, no, no.” I lamented, knowing he was right.
“When you live like two persons,” he continued, “you have two faces–it’s not easy. You cannot stay like this forever and ever.”
At 19, Sami fought with Saddam Hussein’s special forces, but defected his duties after witnessing harrowing atrocities and joined the Peshmerga: guerrilla fighters in Iraqi Kurdistan. At 25, in the mid-90’s, he fled to Turkey via Iran in attempt to relocate his family to safety in Europe, but was detained. He spent three months on a frozen concrete prison floor in Iran where beatings ensued and boys were raped. He returned home after deportation to Kurdistan, only to flee to Turkey once again in the same pursuit of freedom.
He made it to Van, Turkey, and lived on the streets–stealing to survive. A Turkish fella befriended him and helped him with the logistics of gaining his UN refugee status. Four months later he returned to Iraq, collected his family, and snuck them past guards and guns over the mountainous Turkish border. In 2000, Sami and his wife, Beyan; 6-year-old Malala, and 8-month-old Shene flew to Houston, Texas to begin life in America–with 35 cents in their pocket.
I met them in Portland, Oregon, 16 years later, where they’d moved in 2006. The littlest two, Abby and Rozeen, were born in 2007 and 2012. Over the course of five nights, a dozen Kurdish meals, and countless pots of strong chai, I unfolded a story that wouldn’t likely make “headlines” like the bold and beautiful story of their coming to America. It wasn’t one of bullets and bombs, but of an odyssey not meant for the faint of heart.
My first morning there, Beyan and I sat over chickpeas and tomatoes smothered in olive oil and tahini while the kids were at school and Sami worked local freight delivery. She recalled the waist-high snow, the mountains, and sedating babies at the Turkish border to sneak them past guards without a peep. She told me about their first weeks in Houston–and about sugar. Apparently it was difficult and...chancy...to shop for. One might very well return home with a bag of salt because of the unhelpful picture-less packaging. She told me about the nice American lady named Sue–and her little notebook–always fervently jotting down the pronunciation of various Kurdish words whilst maintaining a pleasant smile.
Heavens, it’s true...how good it was for them to be safe and sound in America with all her tidy supermarkets and smooth highways. It brought opportunity to transcend social stratums of kinship and caste, and brought access to education their daughters would’ve only dreamt about. It was new, and big, and free–yet not without its fair share of heartache.
The Land of Liberty is some 7,000 miles from mothers, fathers, and neighbors that shared meals and burdens with them. It’s 7,000 miles from the cool concrete home that smelled fresh and clean after each wash, and the summer nights atop the roof sleeping under the stars. It’s 7,000 miles from that languid land, where springtime meant picnics in the hills of Zen Abden among the yellow Nergiz blooms.
“Every night after dinner, all the family visits [together] in one home.” Beyan recalled of her homeland, “You never feel lonely. But in America–you feel lonely– sometimes it’s no one but you and your husband.” During their first years in Houston, Beyan stayed inside safe with the kids, while Sami braved the new world of the self-made man. She had no market to visit, and no friend to join. The neighbors didn’t sit outside to chat because in America everyone is so busy–busy keeping to themselves.
And Sami? It was he who brought the family to the land of milk and honey–this land he knew so little about–and he’d be the one to blame should the endeavor fail. It was he who was solely responsible to protect and provide for his wife and daughters–without a single friend to show him how. And to exacerbate things, Sami and Beyan had converted to the Christian faith during their journey to America, which not only added tension to extended family relations, but also alienated them from Stateside Muslim Kurds. And to top it off, Beyan had yet to bear a son. Not doing so means Sami is cut off from his family–considered illegitimate–never mind the fact that he had two incredible daughters, and two more yet to come.
Now, as much as Sami and Beyan aimed to acclimate to the newfound ways of the West, one cannot easily dismantle a lifelong framework upon which their understanding of the world and God are built. To the Eastern mind, all decisions pivot around communal life–the family. Parents expect their children’s allegiance as much as folks in the West expect their children to fend for themselves after the age of 18. Failing to keep a tight rein on daughters, in particular, could mean toting the abominable line of family dishonor. And bear in mind, a young woman in the Middle East merely chatting with a fella in the market is credible evidence for “suspicious behavior;” behavior the father is held responsible for and should prevent with apt supervision.
Oh how different the Westerner! All decisions pivot around self-actualization: you make life whatever you fancy, pursue your education, and realize your dreams–regardless of the family you were born into, and regardless of gender. Overcoming personal obstacles and limitations is the great ethos of our nation.
I know it’s hard, but can you imagine living straddled between two such cultures? And imagine trying to raise your children there; mix that in with the universal challenges of raising teenagers. Maddening!
Malala, who is now 22, and Shene, now 17, grew up making their beds in the East, yet dined on plastic trays in lunchrooms full of Westerners, never settling really in either. Because how do you grapple with the fear that to live wholly in one world might mean destroying the other? Detaching from the world your father fled from could bring unbearable shame, yet so would holding back from the one he brought you to.
Which makes me think of La-Z-Boys and Lean Cuisines.
You see, my mama use to sit and fiddle with the remote on her La-Z-Boy recliner–back and forth between flat and upright–as if it were a ride on Coney Island. There wasn’t much she could manage on her own thanks to a decade and a half bout with a brain tumor–and all that goes with it–which is why daddy eventually hired some gals to help out three days a week while he traveled for work.
In those days, I sometimes took the shift from 4pm, when Stephanie left, until 9:30 the next morning when she came back. Nice afternoons might be spent pushing mama in her chair outside. Other days we’d watch Oprah–which she didn’t actually watch because she couldn’t actually see. For dinner, I’d microwave her favorite Lean Cuisine, then pour sweet tea over powdered liquid thickener in her Disney princess sippy cup (because they don’t decorate sippy cups with 58-year-old women in mind).
I’d lift her from the La-Z-Boy to the wheel chair, roll her to the kitchen, and tie a bib around her neck. She never seemed bothered by the fact that her spoon-fed meals necessarily meant a 2-year-old in his high chair could out perform her. Her diaper change at PJ time didn’t trouble her either. And she never noticed the strange thickness of the water used to wash down her pills at bedtime, nor that she was no longer the one to brush her teeth. Nights were restless because she’d forget when she’d last peed. I’d lift her onto the bedside toilet, then back to the bed, only to do it again five times more every five minutes after that. She didn’t know what she was doing, or what had become of her.
But I did. I knew exactly what was going on. I knew my mother was that lady– the one who gifted parents in mall food courts tangible opportunities to teach their children that sometimes people come packaged with clunky wheelchairs and adult drool. And though the cavalcade beckons your gaze, you are to resist! Keep your pointed fingers wrapped about your milkshake cup and press on toward Old Navy like you don’t give a damn.
I knew she use to be the sort of woman who competently balanced a 31 year corporate career and family of five with neighborhood chili parties and soccer coaching. She was the one who gave my dad untold confidence that he could be the president of the soccer association–and the one who use to dance with me in the kitchen to the Beach Boys. She was brilliant, gutsy, and–might I add–quite a “looker.”
I remember that woman; and I remembered her especially on nights like those. “What in God’s name happened?” my heart would protest, “This should not be!” Oh, how dark and demoralizing was that valley.
Now, I do like the Bible, but I wasn’t scrounging around for a verse to make sense of it all. And, actually, even the world’s greatest listener wouldn’t do the trick. Casseroles are always a hit, but I’da managed fine without one. And to be understood? Good lord...doubtful. And though I would have accepted it, it wasn’t a shoulder to cry on, help with laundry, or even a sense of normalcy that I needed most. Do you know what I wished for more than anything in all the wide world?
I wanted the doorbell to ring.
I wanted someone–anyone–to show up and say, “I’m in. I’m in all night long. I got a bottle a wine and some cheap crackers–let’s make dinner. ‘Cause if the two of you gotta be up until morning, we might as well make a night of it. Wanna watch a movie and pop some popcorn?”
My God, that would have been a sweetest gift. It would have changed my whole world and filled that dark place with light and life. Yet I never asked a soul to do that. I prolly shoulda. But I didn’t. I knew I’d be imposing...
And I can’t help but wonder, could it be that that is what Sami, Beyan, Malala, Shene, Abby, and Rozeen–along with countless other refugee families–ache for too? And dare I say it’s not a “one and done,” quick turn-around, dust your feet off and go sorta thing, but an odyssey where their ups and downs become your ups and downs. Don’t just drop off the casserole, but be there for the years when everyone’s beat trying to reconcile the old world with the new.
I promise, you don’t have to understand what it’s like to be a refugee. You don’t have to have all the right answers or be sure how to reconcile the goodness and sovereignty of God with suffering. Pretty words aren’t necessary. Heck, you don’t even have to speak their language! You just have to show up and ring the doorbell–because all of us know what it’s like to feel marginalized, dejected, and overwhelmed.
And no, I’m not naively suggesting we all go about that same way, as none of us have the same thoughts, skills, resources, or availability. But I am suggesting you ask God what that is and do it. I am suggesting that some of us–perhaps all of us–choose to stay “all night long,” because they’re probably not gonna ask us to do that. Yes, that is inconvenient. Yes, it is a tall order with all the things you’re currently juggling. Yes, it is a commitment. But it is the sweetest gift–a gift not just for them, but also for you.