How a Syrian refugee family changed my life

It had never bothered me that we were a family forged between a lapsed Jew and Hindu. But that we had become a family of lapsed humans did. Then we met Khaled and his family.
Out of the Rubble

Illustration by Victo Ngai

Khaled is choking. Khaled, who is alive because he hid under his desk when the men came with their guns, whose family is alive because he convinced them to walk out the front door of their Damascus home while it still stood (and keep walking until they found a way to Jordan). Khaled, who was interviewed and inoculated until the U.S. government deemed him safe, is about to be done in by 800 milligrams of Ibuprofen and 600 milligrams of penicillin in a garage apartment in Atlanta only seven months after he found safety here. And all I can think is, “Really? This is how it ends?”

Khaled is 37. He is a father to nine-year-old Mohamad and 12-year-old Zainab, a husband to 28-year-old Ruwaida, a Syrian refugee, and my friend. My brother, really, because he calls me his “Sweet Sister” and sends me emoji flowers with every text. We met when I responded to a Facebook ad asking for volunteers to help prepare an apartment for a refugee family.

Of course, Khaled has real sisters, one of whom has the most infectiously silly laugh. I listen to it through the WhatsApp messages she sends him, a loon’s trill encased in his phone. Ruwaida shares her WhatsApp messages with me, too. Her own sister is trapped in Syria with a hungry baby and a war zone for a yard. The starving baby’s laugh is a beautiful syncopated mimicry of the gunfire outside their apartment. It’s a trick, looking at that baby, your body simultaneously wanting to laugh and cry.

One afternoon, when the family invited me over for coffee, Khaled set his laptop on the fireplace mantel and connected it to the donated television. The children dimmed the lights. Ruwaida brought out pumpkin seeds and grapes. Khaled closed the YouTube tabs of Adele’s “Hello” and the “Hello” parody the kids had been watching. Finally he found what he was looking for and clicked “play.”

The cameraman is driving through Douma, a suburb of Damascus, on a motorcycle. “Doomahscoos,” Khaled said, pointing excitedly at the screen. The street curves out in front of us, the median lined with palm trees. Traffic is light. The sky is clear. To our right are low-rise apartment buildings, a smattering of shops. People mill about. The motorcycle accelerates, and the scenery becomes a blur of dun-colored buildings. When the motorcycle slows down again, we are a few blocks away, staring at piles of stone and brick. The camera pans right, and we see an electrical tower—a giant praying mantis—felled across two crushed buildings. “School!” Zainab shouts. The motorcycle drives a few more blocks, and we see the wrought iron arch of an entrance. I try to make out the word, even though it is in Arabic. “Zoo!” Mohamad yells.

In Syria Khaled owned two electronics stores. Ruwaida sometimes got her hair styled and chatted with the other ladies. She could get the most amazing flatbread from a vendor, made street side. They used to be happy like us. They used to be happy. They used to be like us. They used to be.

I look away from the screen, to the family, the lights of their doomed city flashing across their eyes. And yet they seem happy to show me where they came from, to show me whatever is left of their city. Would I be able to distinguish my own beloved ruins with such enthusiasm? As if I were not looking at the literal and metaphorical rubble of my life? As if my family and neighbors were not scattered, some alive and missing, some relocated to whatever countries would protect them? Some dead or presumed dead? As if my world had not ended?

Any time I leave my house, I grab my phone, wallet, and keys. This is what Khaled did when he left his home. Of course, the keys became obsolete. The wallet aspirational. The phone equal parts relic and Rolodex to the distant, dead, and migrated. But the pictures. The pictures! A phone weighs far less than a photo album.

Swipe right, and there are the children, plump and smiling on the front steps of their house—shiny hair, shiny eyes, their baby teeth growing in white, milky, strong. This is before they ate as much as their stomachs would hold in preparation for the six-and-a-half hour walk over the mountains to Jordan with others who had the foresight and fortitude to get out. This was before they became malnourished stick children. “We’re going on an adventure!” they had told four-year-old Mohamad. Zainab, then eight, took turns carrying babies, orphaned of their fathers, their stupefied mothers only able to put foot in front of foot.

The phone did not record these widows nor their babies wailing. It does not want to keep them as a part of the family’s history. Instead it boasts a living room lavish with browns and golds, elaborate rugs and statues. It boasts a picture of a photograph of a teenaged Khaled, his face thin and angular. This Khaled is sitting awkwardly, looking at the camera with a contemptuous amusement. His eyes are his eyes, but they are not the same. They are curious, defiant. Full of wonder. I want to hug this boy, whisper in his ear, “Run!” so he doesn’t have to grow up and watch the zoo empty, the power lines crash, his people slaughtered and exiled, life in every form pulled up by the ball root and tossed into a heap.

Khaled’s phone is also our interpreter. When my daughter is sick, he sends me emoji hands in prayer, asking after her health. What can I do? he asks in Arabic. I’ve learned that “bukra” is tomorrow. “Ba’d bukra” is the day after tomorrow. If someone says “saha,” it’s because you coughed, and it’s polite to respond with “Ala Elbik” if you are speaking to a woman, “Ala Elbak” if you are responding to a man. The words in Arabic that have gender assignations are dizzying. If someone says “Yarhamakullah” when you sneeze, it’s easiest to just say, “Shukran,” thank you.

Eyes bulging, Khaled is backing out of the kitchen into his bedroom. His instinct is to choke in private, like a cat about to birth a litter under a deck. There is a small puddle between us, where the water fell from his mouth as he sputtered. I involuntarily look from the puddle to an empty paper towel holder as if cleaning up the water is the important thing.

Out of the Rubble

Illustration by Victo Ngai

We met Khaled and his family because on the summer morning I was scrolling through Facebook and saw the post asking for volunteers, my children’s matted, chlorine-soaked heads were bent over cereal bowls, watching Phineas and Ferb. It was 10 in the morning, and our day—with no real beginning, end, or purpose—was just starting.

Some families practice Christianity or Buddhism; our family practices kindness. It had never bothered me that we were a family forged between a lapsed Jew and Hindu. But that we had become a family of lapsed humans troubled me. Over the school year, we’d worked excitedly on our random acts of kindness. We’d made care packages to leave on the benches where we’d seen homeless people on our daily drives—packing fresh fruits, our favorite books (which my son suggested for escaping a world that had been unkind to them), and a calendar (which my daughter insisted on including so they wouldn’t feel disconnected from time).

We’d sent winter packages to refugees in Greece when their hands were in danger of frostbite. And summer packages when their shoulders were in danger of burning. In between we sent boxes of diversions to the refugee children, filled by each of my kids with $10 worth of the cheap dollar store toys they’d most enjoy if they were stuck in a tent with no television or school. We tucked in handwritten notes, hoping someone would translate our messages: You are loved. You deserve better. Please know we haven’t given up on you.

But the summer had swallowed us. Our hearts, once generous and creative, had stagnated. It was our first full Georgia summer. I’d like to blame the heat, but the truth is sometimes complacency is so very comfortable.

My daughter tipped her cereal bowl toward her lips, glancing up at me as I silently read the Facebook request. We would do it, I decided. At 2 p.m. on Saturday, we would go to the apartment that would become the refugee family’s home. I turned their screen off.

So we went that Saturday. And the Saturday after that. Along with volunteers from the church that was cosponsoring the family, we cleaned and organized. Later we were told they were a “Syrian refugee family.” Later still we learned their names, ages, and ailments, like the details of a blind date. Food is love, so we stocked their pantry with dried beans and herbs. Books are love, so we filled their shelves with words in English and Arabic: Elmer’s Colors, My First Bilingual Book, and the Oxford Picture Dictionary. Knowledge is love, so we learned about their culture and customs, practiced a few phrases in their language. We invited our friends, near and far, to help us welcome the family, too. My porch filled with Amazon packages, my PayPal account with donations.

When we finally heard that they would be arriving in two weeks, my kids and I volunteered to be part of the crew greeting the family at their new home. The idea of us welcoming anyone to Atlanta was kind of absurd. We had only just recently relocated ourselves, and I was still adjusting to life in the South. Not to mention adjusting to life, period. At 110 pounds, I was still trying to put weight back on and shake the final vestiges of a viral cardiac infection that had left me bedridden for months.

When I first met Khaled, I saw only what so many see at first: olive skin; dark, piercing eyes; a furrowed brow; arms across his chest. He looked the very archetype of a serious Middle Eastern man. But now I know he was so very tired and afraid. Now I know he’s the kind of guy who will look at your front fender like it’s all sorts of messed up and laugh when you finally check it out yourself. He’s the kind of guy who impishly invites each of his friends over for lunch, not telling them that the others will be coming, and stands at the top of the driveway, arms open, laughing, as they happily converge for an impromptu party with hara buspah, a savory lentil stew with flour dumplings that is topped with crisp pita and that tastes better the more people are eating it.

That first day we stood in a rather kumbaya-ish circle: a few members of the church cosponsoring group; a case worker and translator from the resettlement agency, New American Pathways; me and my kids. We passed out lemonade and explained, through the translator, the least important things—who we were. I introduced myself as the pagan in their midst, having no affiliation with the church as most of the others had. Khaled stood patiently taking in the information—our names, where we lived, what we did for a living—trying to divine our intent or maybe just trying to stay awake. The family had been traveling through the night with a stopover in Miami. Eventually we moved on to the details of their arrangement, which they—astonishingly—knew little about. Khaled nodded his head each time the translator doled out another sentence articulating the new meaning of his life. At regular intervals, he punctuated the statements with his profound gratitude, “Shukran.” One woman took out a map of the neighborhood and showed them, “This is where you are; this is where I am.” Each of us pointed on the map at the place to which we were tethered, and eventually Khaled set his finger down, too, allowing himself to be pinned, safely, among his new neighbors.

In the corner of the room, two oversized black suitcases sat solemnly, obelisks engorged with the history the family had reconstructed in Jordan and could carry away with them (this time). Ruwaida, her black hijab framing her face into a circle of worry, stood silently, a third obelisk. While we spoke, the children—ours and theirs, indistinguishable—did laps through the home, leaving through the back door, entering through the front door. Finally, as we prepared to leave the family with the Styrofoam containers of vegetarian Mediterranean takeout food the resettlement agency had suggested we get, a small voice squeaked out a sentence in Arabic. “She wants to know how long they can stay in this apartment,” the translator explained. “One year, free,” a volunteer answered, and Ruwaida’s face relaxed.

Ruwaida pointed to the stove, and I showed her how to turn on the burners. She pointed to the oven and the dishwasher, and I demonstrated those as well. I rubbed my belly, faked eating food. She smiled and shook her head. No, we are not hungry.

I gathered the lemonade cups and started washing them in the sink, the apartment still feeling like my domain and responsibility, after having spent weeks bleaching the refrigerator and dusting the spider webs from the closets with the other volunteers. But Ruwaida took the sponge from my hand, nudged me away with her hip: No, you are my guest; I will wash.

These are the things I’ve learned about Khaled and Ruwaida:

Even though they have been married for more than a decade, they are still very much like teenagers courting. Khaled will fold a piece of pita over grilled vegetables, pile in a hot pepper, a scallion, and a piece of chicken and hold it in front of Ruwaida’s mouth like he’s going to feed it to her—then close his giant jaws around it while looking at her out of the corner of his eyes, smirking.

When they have English classes in their home, Ruwaida will write her sentences on a piece of paper without hesitation. When Khaled leans over her shoulder, laughing, staring at her answers, she pushes him away with her elbow, admonishing him in English, “Khaled, bad!”

Ruwaida is always covered in a full hijab when she goes outside, making her look rod-spined and sweet. But inside the house, Ruwaida wears gold earrings and pink velour pajamas in the winter. She moves her shoulders and head side to side when there’s music on, often singing along with the chorus in English.

Both Khaled and Ruwaida are incredibly hard workers. Every weekend they host a private supper club, cooking for days to feed Americans with the history of the Syria they love and miss. A group of us have been helping them start a cookie business, and they have been diligently working toward the goal of entrepreneurship once again.

When it comes to Syrian cuisine, Ruwaida and Khaled are both ridiculously annoying foodies. Taking them to Your DeKalb Farmer’s Market is a several hour affair. First, they gaze adoringly at the fresh produce, discussing hypothetical meals, their eyes lighting up as they volley menu items back and forth. Then they debate the nuances of two varieties of flat leaf parsley. Once, when they were reveling in the slender green crispness of Persian cucumbers, they saw me standing there, mute, a child shut out from their conversations, and taught me patiently. Ruwaida pointed at a tomato and asked, “English?” “Tomato,” I replied. She pointed again and said, “Tomatin!” Khaled looked at her and smiled, shaking his head. He held the tomato in front of my face, saying slowly, emphatically, “Bandura!” looking over his shoulder at her like she was going to make me even more ignorant than I already was.

Sometimes Khaled gets sad. I think it’s because he watches too much news. If Ruwaida is in the house alone, she will put on music. But if Khaled is home, it is all news, all the time. When we celebrated Eid al-Adha (a Muslim holiday known as the “feast of sacrifice,” but which the kids describe to me as something like New Year’s and Christmas combined), Khaled, who is usually boisterous and happiest when surrounded by a crowd of friends, looked off. He’d been suffering from horrible headaches, and some recent inoculations hadn’t helped. But Eid is meant to be spent with family, including the ones he left behind. That night I asked Ruwaida if Khaled was feeling better, and she nodded reluctantly. I made a sad face and covered my heart. She nodded again. “Arabic?” I asked her. “Zalan,” she said. “Sad,” I repeated, and we both learned a new word that could not hold the weight of that room.

Their son, Mohamad, is determined, mischievous, and sometimes petulant (especially when things do not go his way), but he is never sad. The first day I met him, he shook my hand and opened his mouth in a smile that ate his face. “Nice to meet you!” If you tell this child there is something he cannot do, he will prove you wrong. When I told him he could not go to the deep end of the pool because he could not swim, he put on a life vest and paddled to one end of the pool and back. When he reached me, he was out of breath and smiling. His eyes were telling me so much. They were telling me, “I am strong.” They were telling me, “I can do anything I put my mind to.” They were telling me, “I am overcoming my fears and won’t be held back by anyone else’s, not even yours.”

Sometimes you learn as much playing charades as you can through a translation app. In the beginning, before their 12-year old daughter, Zainab, learned English so quickly that she became the family translator, we communicated through charades and simple phrases. We didn’t need an app to understand hand slapping hand = teachers were cruel. Arms clutching air and yanking back and forth = streets were dangerous. And without any hands at all, simply through silence, eyes cast down, head shaking, we understood the subtext: We are fortunate to be here; they—the ones we love—are not so lucky.

The most important thing I’ve learned about this family? Complacency is not comfortable to them. They are constantly challenging themselves to do better, do more—whether it’s studying for their driver’s licenses or working on their new cookie business.

At first I worried that it was a mistake that they ended up in a neighborhood where the smell of steak and potatoes wafts through the air at six o’clock, where there are more baseball hats than hijabs. If someone plopped my family in the middle of Damascus, you can bet I’d be scrambling to find the other Americans. I’d be scrambling to find comfort. But when I asked them if they wanted to move to a different neighborhood after their year is up, they were adamant that they wanted to stay, to be immersed in our English-speaking, American way of life. Thankfully the people who offered them the home would also like for them to stay, and the two families have negotiated a rental agreement.

Being here, without their immigrant community to rely on, has forced the family to forge deeper bonds faster with their American community. It has also enabled this American community to understand that in the phrase “Syrian refugee family;” it’s the word “family” that most fully describes them.

I’m listening for the rasp of air that will tell me Khaled is breathing. I can almost hear him mimicking my exasperation, like he does when I’m exasperated by a car cutting me off in Atlanta traffic. I should be thinking “Dub,” which I divined means something akin to a moron, by the frequency with which Khaled says it in the car. But it really means “bear.” Apparently this is a true insult.

I’m a Dub because I didn’t think anything of it when he tilted his head back and cavalierly dropped the two oblong chalky white pills down his throat. I’ve seen him do the same with whole cloves of garlic, three at a time, seeking relief from his perpetual headaches. In retrospect his mouth was drooping slightly, lingering evidence of the seven rotted teeth pried loose of his gums that morning with elbow grease, novocaine, and laughing gas. But Ruwaida, who’d had three teeth pulled, swallowed her pills fine. It hadn’t occurred to me that his tongue might have been still numb, useless.

He is stumbling by the bed, and already he is a shadow, framed by the diffuse red light filtering in from the sheet that hangs over the glass door leading to the patio. And even though I know I should go to help him, my feet won’t budge.

Outside, the construction workers shoot their nail guns into a roof. A dog barks. A car’s muffler scrapes. Khaled heaves. The water and pills splatter to the floor. I hear him gasp. In the living room a sheer cream curtain billows with fresh air, filled with hope, opportunity, and purpose. Georgia air. It pushes into the room with a gust, and my brother and I, we both breathe.

About the author
Amanda Avutu is a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times column “Modern Love,” Fifth Wednesday Journal, and Green Mountains Review. The founder of Good Egg Branding: Storytelling for the Socially Responsible, she lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children. She is working on a memoir about falling in love with a Syrian refugee family.

This article originally appeared in our May 2017 issue.