By Tessa Solomon, The Daily Iowan
Beethoven’s “Für Elise” crept over the speakers in Coralville’s Caffe Crema. It was the perfect volume for the sparse crowd, unobtrusive and lilting. But in the context of this conversation, the notes were almost perverse in their tranquility.
“When you see dead bodies in the street, it’s different from seeing them on TV,” said Natali Abuissa, a junior at the University of Iowa who, at 24, has fled from Damascus, Syria. “You can smell the blood, smell the death. It’s actually there.”
Her dark eyes were wide; mentally, she was streets and seas away. She sat across from me at the wooden window table, relating everyday life in Syria’s capital during the war. Her voice held undercurrents of old horrors. My tea sat untouched and cooling as I listened.
“I can’t make you understand how hard it is to be in your bed awake at night, listening to the bombs drop, waiting for your turn to die,” she said. “I can’t explain how those ideas eat you alive, how you become OK with the idea of dying.”
Did she know many who have died, I asked.
“I lost a lot of friends,” she said. “Some of them just disappeared; you don’t know if they’re alive or not. It became like a jungle, everything became chaos.”
Natali conveyed impressions of that chaos with haunting candor. Hours after returning to my apartment on the North Side of Iowa City, I felt disgusted by my overflowing pantry, by the safety and quiet of my bed.
But her story was one I had been pursuing. So in a morbid way, I also felt fulfilled.
I initially came into contact with Natali while covering the UI’s Food and Fadwa Mainstage production in February. Her Syrian citizenship was mentioned in passing during an interview, and afterwards, I asked for an introduction. A month earlier, I had initiated a Daily Iowan project concerned with the question: How did America’s Arab-American community feel about the arrival of refugees?
As a member of that community, I thought meeting Natali would help sift through the mental muddle that stifled my own answer.
My paternal roots trace back to Syria’s Wadi al-Nasara, or the “Valley of Christians,” a predominantly Eastern Orthodox region near Western Lebanon. In the early 20th century, my family lived in the village of Mishtaya until Ottoman gangs from Turkey spurred their flight to the Syrian enclave of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Now, three generations later, I have followed conflict in Syria’s since its inception.
Since the conflict’s start in 2011, more than 400,000 Syrians have lost their lives. It began as anti-government protests, and now Syria has descended into a proxy war. The source of bombing is indiscernible in conflict exacerbated by ISIS, Hezbollah, and foreign involvement.
More than 4.5 million people have fled the country since the war’s start, only 10 percent of whom have found refuge in European countries. But as terrorism such as the Paris attacks and Brussels bombing escalate, borders are shuttering.
I discussed the crisis with friends and my Syrian family, but the more I heard, the more disconcerted I became.
How are we supposed to vet them, close family members asked. How will this affect us?
Flummoxed, I asked, what if, years ago, we hadn’t been let into the U.S.?
It’s different, is the reply. We were immigrants. And Christian.
“There is a big difference between a refugee, migrant, and immigrant,” said Raymond Khoudary, an immigrant from Aleppo and allergist living near Wilkes-Barre. “People understand immigrants, but refugees are a new concept. When a refugee comes, they are depending on society to help, and people look at welfare differently.”
Why was the influx of refugees really such a contentious internal issue? I understood the complicated nature of welfare and religion, but wasn’t compassion an obligation for Arab-Americans?
Before my conversation with Natali in Caffe Crema, I contacted the Syrian Arab American Charity Association of Allentown, Pennsylvania. Since the late 1880s, Allentown has been known as the Northeast’s “Little Syria,” with 7.1 percent identifying as Arab out of a population of roughly 120,000.
Between October 2012 and March 31, the Lutheran Children and Family Service of Eastern Pennsylvania settled 293 individuals and 128 family groups in the Allentown area.
I wandered up and down North Second Street, looking for the office, morning sun bright and cutting, until I finally noticed the Arabic. Inscribed on the building’s tan brick façade in calligraphy was the group’s title.
Heaving the white door open revealed a dimly lit front office. A large, framed photo of Krak des Chevaliers, a castle overlooking the Homs Gap in Syria’s Al Ansariyah Mountains, hung above the wooden desk. Behind the desk, a man rose from his seat.
“Sabah el kheer,” he said.
Good morning, I recognized.
“Do you speak Arabic?” He asked, after a silence.
Apologetic, I confessed no.
“Oh, I think you’re a Syrian girl, you look like Syrian girl,” he exclaimed in English, seemingly bemused by the juxtaposition of my appearance and poor language skills.
“Well, my family is Syrian.” I gestured to the photo. “My family is from Mishtaya.”
His features exuded victory as he rushed to shake my hand. “See, I know.”
I said I had called ahead, explaining I was from the area and was looking to learn more about the recently settled refugees. He gestured for me to follow, and we walked toward the back room. Opening the door, he revealed a fluorescent-washed kitchen/storage area. My stomach stirred at the site of the long plastic table laden with fattoush, olive oil-spun hummus, pita bread, and a tray of olives, tomatoes, and cucumbers.
Seated at the table, and now staring in our direction, were five or six older men with familiar features: tan skin, deep eyes, thick, dark brows. These men had seen Syria’s summers.
I was introduced to Ayoub Jarrouj, the president of the association. We exchanged polite greetings, and he led me away to another quiet office. Settling both hands on his cane, he inquired about my purpose.
The moment I mentioned my heritage, his impassive features became animated.
“Oh. I did not know you were Syrian,” he said. “Come out and sit with the others; you are family.”
He clapped my back as I scrambled to collect my purse, the recorder still rolling. He led me back to the kitchen, exclaiming to the men, first in Arabic, then in English, “Hey. This is Tessa, she is Mishtaya.”
Mild expressions of curiosity burst into cries of greeting. Shaking hands, I reflected on how their attitude had shifted from indifference to welcome. Mishtaya was the magic word, the password I unwittingly possessed.
Suddenly, I was “in.”
That marked my weeklong immersion into the association. In the mornings, I drove my mother’s Mini Cooper 40 minutes to the office from my hometown of Stroudsburg. There, plied with bottomless cups of pitch-black Syrian coffee, I chatted with Ayoub and his brother Radwan. The two were from Amar, a village barely three miles from Mishtaya.
“If you fly there, you think you’re in Switzerland — a lot of mountains, a lot of fruits and olive trees. It is a slice of heaven,” Ayoub said while I scrolled through images of the Christian Valley on Radwan’s iPhone. They had been in the country for 50 years now, but their descriptions matched the ideal photos. I felt a pang of longing for a land I had never seen.
Between bites of grapevine leaves, I asked about an article I had recently read on CBS online. Marie Jarrah, the owner of the local Syrian restaurant Damascus, had refused to donate food for an event welcoming refugees. Though she would not speak to any more reporters on the matter of accepting refugees, she had been quoted saying, “Problems are going to happen.”
The story was surprising. Having frequented this restaurant for years, it conjures only welcoming images: honey-drenched baklava, skewers of garlic-roasted shish tawook, our waitress wishing me “happy birthday” in Arabic.
Ayoub shook his head.
“Arabs here, and in Syria, forget that we are all family,” he said, “We were Syrian before we were Muslim or Christian.”
In a culture in which religion and identity are inseparable, that’s hard to remember.
“When you meet another Syrian for the first time, you try to find out if they are Muslim or Christian,” Khoudary said.“If I cannot guess from the context, I will ask because I need to know how to speak with you.”
Ayoub and his association members do not hold the same reserve. Though they are Christian, they assist refugees regardless of religion.
“When I show you love, you show me love,” he said. “You give hate to the Muslims coming in, but soon you’ll be living with them. And then what do you think they will give you?”
In addition to helping refugees find housing, complete taxes, and enroll in school, they also operate a food bank. I arrived at one early Saturday morning to help them package and hand out boxes. After piling apples, heads of lettuce, toiletries such as toothpaste, and frozen meat (careful not to give pork to any arriving Muslims)into plastic bags, I spoke with fathers who brought their whole families and young men who escaped alone.
“At this time in Syria, there are no rights. As a refugee in an Arabic country, you are looked down at,” said Anas Al Abdulkader, a father of six. Radwan acted as translator, and though long, impassioned responses resulted in brief translations, I was thankful for the opportunity.
I ask whether the community has been welcoming.
“It’s excellent. They give me a Social Security number, a driver’s license, a right to be an American,” he said. “When Syria goes back to what it is, God willing, I would go back. But here, I can work anywhere, I can excel.”
During the interview, Radwan was called away. Now barred by language, Al Abdulkader took out his phone and scrolled through pictures of his family. He stopped on a picture of his daughter Fatima, the only girl out of his six children. She beamed in a blue dress on the porch of their new home.
I told him she was beautiful, and he smiled, proud, seeming to understand.
Returning to Iowa, I felt invigorated by the “perspective” I’d gained.
But meeting with Natali slapped me with how little I did understand. Speaking to her without the aid of a translator, I realized how much raw emotion was likely diluted during my earlier interviews.
“When you left your house, you never knew if you were coming back or not,” she said. “You did not go out in groups so your whole family didn’t die.”
She arrived in Iowa City in the summer of 2012, visiting her brother, a UI student. The visit was supposed to be a brief reprieve from the war. But when Damascus’ airport was bombed, her stay turned permanent. Her parents and extended family remained in the capital, part of the 6.5 million internally displaced Syrians.
“They did not decide to stay; no one decides to stay,” she said. “If you give the chance to Syrian people to leave, 20 million will leave, but not all have the chance.”
With the help of her brother and uncle, she began searching for a job. She first enrolled at Kirkwood before matriculating at UI as a business-management major. From learning English to adjusting to regular Internet use, the shift was traumatic.
“Those were the worst three, four years of my life,” she said. “It has made me a really stronger person, but it has killed inside of me. You can’t feel happiness anymore, you’re just broken.”
Since then, the social adjustment still proves difficult.
“When people meet me, they think I’m from Italy, or Spain, because of how I look, dark hair, dark eyes,” she said. “When they know I’m Syrian, you can see the whole expression change. They smile less, become aware and scared.”
As a senior at Damascus University, family and friends surrounded her. But in Iowa, the prominent Syrian community is located in Cedar Rapids. According to Amy McCoy of the Iowa Department of Human Services, no refugees have arrived in Cedar Rapids, but the city has been home to a thriving Syrian community for a century. At the UI, she found friendship in the Arab Student Association, but some of Iowa City’s outside community has been colder.
“One time I was working in a restaurant downtown, and I learned the general manager’s parents were from Damascus,” she said. “I thought, ‘Wow, at least he is going to be nice to me.’ ” Her coworkers relayed that he spoke Arabic, a delight for her as she struggled with English.
“But when I asked him if he did speak Arabic, he said no. He did not want anyone in the restaurant to think he has anything to do with Arabs.”
As recurring stories of American Muslims removed from planes for speaking Arabic illustrate, just existing as Arab in the U.S. can incite paranoia. With that context, some of the Arab community’s aversion to refugees seems born not of hate but precaution.
“If any refugee came here and did a terrorist attack, they will affect all of us,” Natali said. “Arab people here are choosing to be safe; it is more convenient than helping people. They don’t want to risk what they have built for anyone.”
Natali gave me a ride home the night after our conversation. We stalled in the parking lot, waiting for a chance to merge. It was nearing 9 by then, and flickering light posts were the sole stars in a cloudy sky.
She picked up her phone, scrolling through music.
“Do you like Eminem?”
“Of course,” I answered.
At that moment, we weren’t an American reporter and Syrian refugee, just two college students listening to rap. When the lanes cleared, Natali accelerated and we flew down Highway 6. In front of us the dark road stretched, an endless reach forward.