June 27th, 2019
Turki is a father from Syria. I don’t know his exact age. I would guess that he is in his mid-forties. He and his wife, A’isha, have eleven children. Turki was a farmer when he lived in Syria. The civil war there forced him and his family to move, first to Turkey, and then to the United States. They arrived in Milwaukee, of all places, two and a half years ago. Turki and his family have had a long and eventful journey. They are now living in a strange land, among people whom they do not understand, and who do not often understand them.
It was in 1976, almost forty-three years ago, that I was a plebe at West Point, beginning my studies to become a U.S. Army officer. West Point required every cadet to learn a foreign language for at least two years. I had to choose a language. At that time, USMA offered seven languages: French, German, Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, and Arabic. The school taught Arabic for the first time that year. I signed up for it, and I studied Arabic and Arab culture for four years. I don’t know why I did that. I never used the language while I was in the military. It seemed like a waste of time.
I don’t remember much Arabic. I cannot hold a conversation in the language. However, my studies from decades ago have brought me to Turki and his family. My path to find them has been as twisted as their path to meet me.
I have known them all for about two years. I have been visiting them in their home, sometimes tutoring the kids, sometimes just hanging out. I am not sure that I met them with any specific goal in mind, except to help in some way. I just showed up at their house one day, and then things took their course. I didn’t see Turki very often. He was always busy at work. I have spent almost all of my time with the children, helping them with homework, or just reading stories to them. A’isha always brought me a pot of hot, sweet tea when I came to visit. It was kind of a ritual. It still is.
A couple weeks ago, while I was at their home, Turki asked me to help him to find a new job. He has been working for the last two years as a janitor at a local Muslim school. It’s not a bad job, but it isn’t going to be good enough for him in the long term. He needs more money, and his boss isn’t willing to give it to him. That, of itself, is not an unusual situation.
However, Turki has other challenges that are not so common. He is an immigrant, and that often makes things harder. He is here legally, which is helpful, but he is still a foreigner in the United States. Turki struggles with the English language. He struggles with American society. If he could have his way, I think that Turki would stay among Arabs, and remain in a sort of a cultural cocoon. That’s normal and understandable. It is also a dead end.
Many years ago, I lived in West Germany, courtesy of the U.S. Army. When I arrived there, I knew nothing of the German language. I remember, quite clearly, how hard it was for me to function among the locals. I remember how difficult it was for me to do simple things, like buy groceries, or ride the train. I remember distinctly feeling isolated and alone. It wasn’t until I started dating my wife, Karin, that I started to feel comfortable living in Germany. Even then, it took a long time to understand other people. Karin’s family and friends spoke no English, so I was forced to learn German. It was confusing and frustrating at times. I remember that. I remember it very well.
I understand, at least somewhat, Turki’s current struggle. It’s hard for him to reach out. It’s hard for him to look for work. I get that. I want to help him find a new job, but I can’t do everything for him. I couldn’t do that, even if I wanted to do so.
I asked Turki,
“What kind of work can you do?”
He replied, “It is no problem. I can do any work. I do anything for my family.”
I asked him, “Can you drive a forklift?”
He looked at me quizzically, “Forklift?”
“Yeah, you know, a machine to pick up things?” I made the sounds of a forklift and pretended to have move a pallet with the blades.
He shook his head. “No, I don’t drive forklift. You teach?”
I sighed. “No, so what can you do?”
Turki smiled and said, “I can do all work. Anything.”
I looked at him and thought, “No you can’t.”
The fact is that Turki’s skill set is limited, really limited. I know that he is smart, and I know that he works his ass off, but that may not help him much. He needs to be able to sell himself, and he has no idea how to do that.
Turki and I worked on an application for Milaeger’s Nursery and Landscaping. Turki was a farmer and he knows how to grow plants. It seemed like a good fit. Turki gave me the necessary information for the application, and I filled it out. When we got done, he asked me,
“So, I just mail it in?”
I knew he was going to ask that.
I replied, “Well, we can mail it in, but we won’t. You and I are going to Milaeger’s and turn it in ourselves.”
He looked at me, and then he said, “Oh.”
A couple days later, I drove Turki to the nursery, and we went into the office. I told Turki to talk to the people there, and give them his application. He tried to do that, but he got stalled. I explained things to the employees there, and asked a few questions. Turki listened and watched.
I am convinced that Turki had never filled out a job application before in his entire life. I am sure that he never went out to look for a job before. This was all new to him, and I am sure that it was a little scary. Well, you have to start somewhere. Maybe he won’t get hired by Milaeger’s. That’s okay. That wasn’t really the point of the exercise. I needed to nudge Turki out of his comfort zone to briefly explore the frightening world of work.
We are going to try other places. My son, Stefan, suggested that Turki try to get into the Laborers Union, and then get an unskilled construction job. We will work on that. Shovels are the same here as they are in Syria. Maybe we can apply at other landscapers. I don’t know. It’s going to be a long process. I know that, and I think that Turki knows it now too.
This father from Syria and I will learn together.