August 1st, 2017
“You don’t have to live like a refugee.”
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Here it is at 4:19 AM, and I am writing about refugees. In particular, I am writing about refugees from Syria. To be even more specific, I am writing about Syrian refugees that I know personally.
I teach English to some Syrian children. They live in a big, old house on the south side of Milwaukee. The neighborhood is a little rough. The area isn’t really scary (to me), but I wouldn’t be shopping for a home there either. The house itself feels familiar to me. It reminds me of the rundown, former farm house in which I grew up. The Syrians live in a building that needs a lot of work and a lot of love. It has to be at least one hundred years old. The house has a history, and maybe a future. I will probably be long gone, and the house will still be standing there on Scott Street.
I went there to teach the kids yesterday. I got there in the afternoon. I rang the bell, and Ibrahim opened the door for me. He’s a young boy. I don’t know his age. He has sandy hair and a ready smile. He looked up at me and said “hi”.
I walked into the living room. The television was on. Um Hussein was standing in the small room. As usual, she wore a black robe and a matching hijab. She didn’t smile. She seldom smiles. Um Hussein is living in a strange country, she doesn’t understand English very well, and she trying to raise eleven children. If I were her, I wouldn’t smile much either. However, the woman is unfailingly polite. For some reason, she trusts me.
I asked the kids, “You want to learn some English?!” They smiled and said, “Yeah!” We went upstairs to a large empty room. We use that for our class every Monday afternoon. The kids have a whiteboard and erasable markers. We all sat on the floor. I brought a couple books along with pictures. My wife and I had visited some of the American national parks. So I looked at photos of the parks with the kids. I asked them what they saw.
“I see snow!” cried out one little boy.
“Okay, then you go to the board and write: ‘I see snow on the mountain.’ ”
Another child yelled, “No me! I want to write!”
“Let Nizar write first, ” I said.
The boy I had spoken to first said, “I am Ibrahim. My brother is Nizar.”
“Yeah, right. Sorry. Ibrahim, you write first.”
A girl said, “Then I get to write!”
“Yes, Yasmin, you write next.”
She frowned. I am Nisrin. She is Yasmin”, and she pointed at her sister.
“Goddamit”, I mumbled under my breath. “Okay, Nisrin, you write the next time. Okay?”
She smiled at me. She was a pretty girl, with dark hair, grey eyes, and freckles.
This sort of thing went on for a while. At any given time, I was working with six or seven children. That reminded me of my childhood. I had six younger brothers. I’m used to family chaos. Um Hussein came upstairs at one point. She always brings me hot, sweet tea. she brings it up on a small metal platter. There is a teapot and a glass.
Amar, an older boy with black hair, asked me, “You drink tea?’
“Na’am, ashrab ashay.” (Yes, I drink tea.) I know a little Arabic, so that helps a bit. Sometimes my minimal Arabic helps us to keep going, if we get stuck on some words. I take a dictionary with me. I bought it several years ago, and the words have somehow become smaller on the pages, so it’s getting hard for me to read the Arabic translations.
It was hot in the room. The kids were restless, but they were also very interested in what we were doing. After awhile, they wanted to read a book. We all worked on that together. It was slow going. The children are very smart. The problem is that they don’t have enough vocabulary yet. I sometimes try to use an English word to explain another English word, and that doesn’t work well. Often we resort to hand signals and pantomime. That’s just how it has to be for now.
After an hour, I was tired. The children weren’t. Maybe I’m just getting old. They are great kids, but I can’t keep focused much longer than an hour or so. I told them that we would read a book together next time I come. They were good with that.
I went back downstairs. I spoke with the mother.
“I will be back next Monday.”
She frowned. “Tuesday?’
I said,” Yum ithnain”
“Ah, Monday.” She nodded.
“Okay. I’ll see you then.”
Um Hussein still didn’t smile, but she said, “Shukran. (Thank you)”
“Afwan. (You’re welcome).”
Later, I spoke with Hans on the phone. He called me, and we talked about his job. Then I told him that I was tutoring Syrian refugees. He groaned audibly.
“Something wrong with that?” I asked him.
“Well, these refugees got to obey the laws of our country. I heard about some Syrian refugees, maybe in Tennessee, that took over a church and held some Christians hostage. It was on the news.”
“Hans, what news were you watching?’
“Fox! It was on the BBC too.”
“Oookay. I didn’t see that report. Hans, I’m teaching English to school kids.”
“Well, I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, but these people got to obey our laws. They aren’t back in Syria any more.”
“You’re right. They aren’t. That’s why they’re called refugees.”
“Dad, I know that! I’m just saying, they have to follow our laws.”
“I think the five-year-olds will obey the laws of the United States.”
“Yeah, I’m just saying they are in our country and they have follow our rules.”
“Hans, I agree completely with that. I’m just teaching them our language.”
“Well, if they are going to live here…”
“Hans, how is your Harley running?’