June 15th, 2018
I thought that I was going to read to the kids. Most Friday afternoons I drive from our home in Oak Creek to the south side of Milwaukee to visit the Syrian family. They live in the heart of the Latino district. A taco truck does a thriving business just down the street from their house. I sincerely doubt that the members of the family have ever purchased anything from that vendor. I don’t think that he makes anything that qualifies as halal.
I found a parking space on Scott Street across from their home. Being as it was a warm, sunny afternoon, I expected to see several of the children outside playing, fighting, and doing normal kid activities. The only child from the family that was out of the house was one of the youngest sons, Muhamed. He was playing on a makeshift swing, along with a little friend. Muhamed waved to me as I got out of my car, and yelled, “Frank!”
I waved back, and crossed the busy street. I don’t know Muhamed’s age. I would guess that he is five or so. Muhamed was dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, but his friend was wearing a shirt and tie. I didn’t catch the friend’s name. He looked like he was of south Asian descent, maybe Pakistani. They had been taking turns on the swing, but now Muhamed was excited to see me.
Muhamed turned his freckled face up toward me and smiled.
“You come inside!” he said. Then he grasped my hand with his own, and led me to their front door.
We came to the door and one of Muhamed’s older brothers, Ibrahim, answered it. He was wearing a suit and tie. Through the door, I could see that the house was filled with people, mostly excited children. My mind couldn’t quite grasp what was going on. There was so much talking and laughing.
It was the celebration of the end of Ramadan. Of course. The Muslims count days like the Jews do: from sunset to sunset. Eid began yesterday after sunset, and now the party was in full swing. The house was packed. In the dining room, the table was overflowing with food: stuffed grape leaves, salads, fruit, candy, cookies, and baklava. There was water and lemonade to drink.
Even if the family has been celebrating on their own, the house would have been full. After all, there are eleven children. There were also guests. Some of the people were like me, local folks who came to assist the kids with schoolwork, or people who just wanted to help this refugee family.
Except for Ibrahim, the seven boys in the family were all dressed casually. The four girls were all dressed in their finest. Maybe that is just what girls do.
The mother, Um Hussein, encouraged (nay, commanded me) to eat and drink. I did.
There was a man who I had met once or twice before. He told me to eat, and I asked his name again. He said it was Turki. I spoke with Turki, who I thought was a family friend. I asked if he has kids. He gave me a perplexed look, and said,
“I have seven sons and four girls. This is my family.”
I think I blushed. If I didn’t, I should have. I felt like an idiot. Of course, he was their father. He was almost always working when I came to visit, so somehow I never connected him to his kids. He pulled out a chair and asked me to sit down.
I stood. I guess that was impolite, but I was restless. Partly, it was due to all the noise and chaos. I don’t handle that well. Also, the celebration reminded me of parties when I was a little boy. I grew up in an old house just like the Syrian home. I had six younger brothers. We had family get-togethers just like this gathering, except that at ours beer and wine flowed freely. I half-remembered the old celebrations, and I felt a pang of sadness. My family is scattered, and those days are gone.
After a while, I felt the need to go. I went up to Turki. He stood and he wanted to give me his seat. I told him that I was leaving.
I took his hand in both of mine, and said, “You have a good family.”
He smiled and thanked me.
I walked through the front door and on to the porch. Um Hussein was out there with several of the children.
She looked at me severely, as always, and said, “I am happy you come.”
She paused and asked, “You happy that you come?”
I said, “Yes.”
She smiled just a bit. “Good.”
I saw Muhamed kneeling on the sidewalk, eating a Tootsie Roll. I knelt down next to him, and told him goodbye.
He said, “You come next Friday?!”
He smiled at me. “Good”.
I waved to the kids and said, “Ma’asalaama.”
They replied the same way and waved back. Nizar shouted, “Goodbye, Frank!”
I got into the car. I drove off.
As I stopped in the traffic on 16th Street, I could almost still feel Muhamed’s little hand in mine.