Plus or Minus

October 27th, 2017

Hussein greeted me at the door. He’s a sophomore in high school. He looks like any other high school kid. He’s skinny with dark hair. He speaks English with barely any accent. A person would not know that he is a Syrian refugee, not unless he mentioned the fact.

There are eleven kids in Hussein’s family. People are constantly in motion. His mother is perhaps the only one who remains stationary for any length of time. I suspect that she is in a chronic state of exhaustion. Her older children help her to keep track of their younger siblings. I did the same thing with my six younger brothers many years ago. The Syrian family reminds me of my childhood in many ways: the relative poverty, the dumpy old house, the noise and the chaos. Except for the language barrier, it all feels familiar.

I walked into the house and said, “Assalam alaykum”.

Hussein replied, “Wa alaykum assalam.”

Um Hussein nodded to me, and I gathered some of the children to come upstairs and finish their homework. Nada had math to do, so we sat next to each other and tried to solve problems. Yasmin came over to us, and Ibrahim sat on the other side of me.

Nada had to add these numbers: 5+(-13).

I asked her, “So, what should we do here? Plus or minus?”

She looked at the numbers and said, “We add the 5 to 13, and get 18.”

I shook my head, “No, that’s not quite right.”

Ibrahim yelled into my ear, “I know the answer! I can do it!”

I told Ibrahim to quiet down. “I need Nada to do this one.”

Nada’s freckled face frowned. She shrugged, “I don’t know.”

“Look at the numbers. The 13 is a negative number. You see the minus sign?”

Her eyes brightened. “Oh, so it is a minus number. Then it should be -8!”

“Yeah, that’s right. Try the next one.”

A little boy with sandy hair came up to us. He wanted to see what we were doing.

I asked him, “What is your name?’


“Hi, Muhamed.”

I thought to myself that Muhamed is going to grow up tough. He’s going to catch hell for his name. Nada and Yasmin, they will be able to slide by. Maybe even Ibrahim will be able to blend in with his peer group. Muhamed is going to meet a lot of bigots as he goes through life. People will hate him just because of his name.

Um Hussein came upstairs to find out what we were studying. She brought me a glass of hot, sweet tea. She set it on a metal tray on a chair in front of me.

“Shukran,” I told her.

She replied “Afwan”, and then she went back down the stairs.

Nada was struggling with a problem: 12-(-3).

“Do you see what to do?” I asked her.

Nada shook her head.

“You have two minus signs. Those are like having a plus sign.” I crossed out the two minus signs with a pencil, and I drew a plus sign in their place.

“Oh, I see”, said Nada.

She didn’t see.

We worked on some more problems. Eventually, Nada got the hang of it. She’s a smart young lady. Her siblings are sharp too.

The kids were tired of doing math. I asked them if they wanted to look at a book. I had brought along a book about San Francisco. I had bought it over thirty years ago when Karin and I lived in California. There were plenty of pictures to see.

I showed them the Golden Gate Bridge. One page had a large photo of the strip joints in the Tenderloin. We skipped past that page, and I didn’t attempt to explain what that picture was all about. We found an old photo from the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. The picture showed damaged buildings, leaning and burning.

Nizar piped up and said, “Like in Suria (Syria)!”

Yeah, I bet. But not because of an earthquake.

We looked at pictures of Golden Gate Park and Chinatown. I asked the kids to tell what me they saw in the photos. I tried to explain to them about cable cars. They didn’t understand what I meant. They were impressed with the steepness of the hills in San Francisco. They liked all the bridges.

I asked them, “Do have any other books?”, and I drank some tea.

Nada brought me a book about volcanoes. We struggled through that one. Nada can sound out words, but she didn’t have enough vocabulary to make sense of a lot of the book. Her brothers and sisters tried to read along with us.

The book took us a long time to read. I didn’t mind. Somehow it’s easier to be patient other peoples’ children. I can’t remember any more if I was patient with our own. I kind of doubt it.

It was time to go. I walked downstairs. The rest of the family was eating. There wasn’t enough room around the table, so Hussein was eating near the TV, with a plate on his lap. He looked at me and thanked me for coming. I told him that I would be back the same time on the following Thursday. Um Hussein actually smiled, and she thanked me too. I left.

We will try it again next week.







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