“Syria is Garbage”
One Syrian refugee family. One American family. One afternoon.
When I walk up the stairs into their living room, the first thing I smell is oil heating on the stove. The first thing I hear is gunfire, followed by laughter. Syria has joined us again, on the television screen, while N (our American friend who speaks Arabic) has joined us on the couch. I’m grateful to see one of them.
R stops chopping potatoes and hugs me, smiling, “Hello, how are you?” She motions to the couch, where my kids and I sink into the cushions just as the broadcast sounds a blast and cuts to a pile of rubble.
“I’m hungry,” my 5-year old complains, and as I search my purse for a snack, another child’s hungry face hovers over me, sucking oxygen into his chlorinated lungs. The mask he presses over his nose swallows everything except his eyes.
“Should I start my homework?” my 10-year old asks.
“Why do I not have homework?” the Gs daughter Z, wonders.
I know they are talking, but I’m watching Syria. I’m watching a child not living and not dying. My hand hides in my purse. The potatoes sizzle as they hit the oil. “Look away,” I tell my daughter, even though I cannot.
I’ve come to hate their television. It’s a bitter, angry thing that relentlessly shares the worst of humanity on a loop. If K is home, the tv is nearly always turned on to news. We sit facing the kitchen, while he sits facing the television, only looking away to check his Facebook feed where the people he misses announce their vitality in the form of a green dot — online — alive.
I hand my daughter a package of cheese crackers and try to talk to N over the sounds and images of total annihilation. Because the Gs are here and we need to figure out State IDs and driving tests and where to buy the cheapest paper towel. The gunfire grows louder, and I pull my daughter to my side, try to get her to look away from the television, where her eyes are glued. K points the remote at the screen, amplifying the noise. Amplifying the destruction. “Syria,” he announces.
“Syria is garbage,” a small voice I don’t recognize says. N and I look at each other, our eyes popping from our heads. Neighborhood child, D has come to visit. He is sitting on a puce vinyl swivel bar stool circa 1970 staring at a pile of rubble on the screen. We understand what he means to say.
R is standing near him, chopping a whole cucumber in her hand. She slices down, down, down, then across, across, across. The bits fall into a dish and she moves on to cauliflower, not even looking up. I know she understands the word “garbage,” and I am grateful that her chopping has transported her to another place.
I worry about the children on the news first and foremost. But I also worry about my children and the neighborhood boy watching the images of Syria after school in the Gs house. I worry about the gasping children covered in white dust becoming normal to them. I worry about the way the sight of rubble = Syria = garbage to one 6-year old boy.
Mostly I worry for the Gs children. I wonder what sweet images of Syria their young minds are struggling to hold onto. Especially M who was my daughter’s age when they left Damascus. Our brains already work against us, retaining memories that are severely good or severely bad. When that tv blasts gunfire into the living room, I worry about the memories it is attempting to steal.
Eventually the news moves on to policy. In the reprieve of men in suits talking at podiums, N and I figure out the details that need figuring out. My son has finished his homework, my daughter her crackers, and Z helps her mother clear the coffee table.
R puts down plate after plate, and a meal blooms in front of us — even though it is not yet 5:00. As R lays out eggplant and cauliflower, tomatoes and limes, peppers and a homemade aioli, the children gather around. She puts the Fattoush in the center, romaine leaves starbursting the precisely cut vegetables. R hands each of us a round of flatbread before taking her seat, and I want to say to the neighbor boy, to the newscasters, to the world: this is Syria.
This story is part of a work in progress about falling in love with a Syrian refugee family.