The Syrian Refugee SciFi Parallel

After the Gratitude Comes the Guilt

K’s Facebook feed is screaming, that is when it’s not crying. It’s angry. It’s sad. It’s depressed.

The malaise started a few days ago when K changed his profile pic from a bouquet of Hydrangea — blue and green globes of pastel tranquility — to a man in a hoodie holding his hand over his face. Then came the memes:

Half-naked scrawny children with pillowcases over their shoulders, walking arm-in-arm past cement chunks that used to hold up walls.

A little girl sitting in a party dress with her face in her hands.

Cartoon people secured to train tracks.

Most of the memes have Arabic text overlaid, and I cannot decipher the words, though I can decipher the intent: Syrians are suffering. I am suffering.

K posting memes is not new, he posts them with regularity, but usually interspersed with photos from his life. There are several of K with his arm around one of his new American friends, smiling so broadly you can see his missing incisor. He also favors serious looking selfies, crouched in front of a house, posing in front of a truck. One of my favorites was the sideways photo one of the children took of him in the movie theater lobby. We had gone to see Kubo. We shared popcorn and Raisinettes from brown paper bags I’d smuggled in my purse. The picture was taken from so low to the ground that K lumbers like an uncertain giant beneath the glowing stars of the domed ceiling.

But now, I scroll past a close up of a woman’s face with a breathing tube in her nose. I scroll past meme after meme before I stumble upon a photograph of the family who is hosting the Gs. They are at some formal event. He in suit and bowtie. She in a stunning dress. They are smiling, embracing one another. In English, K has written: “Thanks to this family, beauty and goodness i wish them good trip.” Then I scroll past a muddied child standing on a rug amidst rubble, eating a scrap of flat bread. K laments: “This event kids Syria on eid.” I scroll past a series of photos that show a city caving in on itself. A road. A cloud of smoke. K reflects: “Today’s been four years out of Syria.” I scroll past a man bound and submerged in water.

K’s Facebook page wants to know why we aren’t doing more. It wants to tell the ones who were left behind that even from the comfort of a living room on a tree-lined street where not even one house has been bombed out, it will not forget.

It’s telling us something, too, the well-intentioned Americans who show up cheerful with opportunities and contrivances to make life easier, better, more palatable. It is telling us: I feel grateful to be here, but I also feel guilty.

There is one picture of a toddler crouched on a street covering her face with both hands. At her feet are two jugs of water. This one has no overlaid Arabic text, K anguishes, rages:

“I’m tired this baby so much hope for the vessels with water, but she couldn’t carry them so i sat there crying.. :( !

Only God knows how many children suffer as a result of adult wars that do not guilt to them:”

Several people “like” the post. One friend responds in Arabic. I hit translate and see the words, “Allah help!”

I think of all those Science Fiction movies where the people have fled their bombed out homes. They live in a spaceship for several years while they search for a habitable planet. And when they finally find a place where they can feel the grass again and look at a clear blue sky without fear of destruction, there’s relief, but there’s also profound sadness. There is always a part of them that is thinking about their home planet, the one that has no survivors, that is so ravaged they can’t ever return to it. Only in this version, there are survivors, scores of them. Friends, family, neighbors. People who couldn’t get out. People who didn’t know how to get out. People who K begged to get out with him and who would do anything now to go back and say, “Yes! We will go!”

The other night my family celebrated Eid with the Gs. K had been suffering a crippling headache for days since he most recent inoculations. The last few times I’d seen him, his eyes had lost their trademark charismatic twinkle. As we drank “café” and ate cookies, I asked R if K’s head was feeling better and she nodded. I looked at him, still seeing the pain on his face and made an exaggerated frown as I covered my heart. She nodded again. “Arabic?” I asked her. “Zaalan,” she said. “Sad,” I repeat, and we both learn a new word that cannot hold the weight of that room.

This story is part of a work in progress about falling in love with a Syrian refugee family.

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