The family from Aleppo

Last year, I was wheelchair-bound from a spinal injury, but was still jetting around for work, dependent on airlines’ wheelchair assistance to move around airports. One beautiful fall day, waiting at a departure terminal in La Guardia Airport, New York on my way to Greensboro, North Carolina, I found myself sitting in a wheelchair next to a Muslim lady, in Hijab. Usually the airlines roll all wheelchair-bound passengers together next to the departure gate, so that they can be boarded together, before the main cabin boards.

She seemed to be my age. It looked to me that she needed something, by the way she was looking around. “Aapko koi madad chahiye (May I assist you in any way)?”, I offered to help in my broken Urdu, in the mistaken assumption that a dark-skinned Muslim woman must be from the Indian sub- continent. She looked at me blankly, & I repeated my offer, louder. Hearing my voice, a teenaged girl (also in Hijab) rushed in to help her. No words were exchanged, but the teenager figured out she wanted a sip of water.

“Thanks for alerting us, sir”, said the girl, in fluent English. “My mother understands English, but she can’t speak anymore”.

The girl’s features were Mid-Eastern & her skin was several shades lighter than her mother’s. I also noticed her father & two (much) younger brothers sitting behind us — they also looked mid-Eastern, & had lighter skin tones than the mother. I also noticed UNHRC tags hanging around the necks of the family (except the mother).

As the older woman tilted her head to drink water, my heart stopped beating for a few seconds. The half of her face away from me was just a gray flap of skin. Prior to that moment, I had only seen such ghastly sights in pictures of acid attack victims. For the next 30 minutes, as we were packed into the Canadair Regional Jet, & the little plane took off, I couldn’t speak. Usually I call my wife just before we are asked to switch off phones. But today, I forgot.

The family was seated close to me, with the boisterous boys right behind me. The mother wanted water again, & the girl was out of water. I showed her how to press the call button for the stewardess. She thanked me again, & this time I had to ask her — “Are you from -”.

“Aleppo, Syria”, she finished my sentence.

I explained that I was from India, & had thought her mother was from the Indian sub- continent, so I had tried to help in Urdu. I also explained how I came to be in a wheelchair. “If you don’t mind, may I ask what happened to your mother?”

She looked at her father for permission, & then words started tumbling out of both, often talking over each other. It felt like they hadn’t talked in months. The father’s English was a little rusty, as he explained that he was Superintendent Engineer at Aleppo Public Works Department while his wife was a writer & journalist. She also came from one of the prominent families of that area, & his mother-in-law had been one of the first female professors in Aleppo. For both these reasons, she had been targeted by the Islamic occupying forces. The entire family had been abducted & the mother herself subjected to unspeakable torture. She was now a quadriplegic, & so traumatized that she no longer spoke. It’s possible that the burns she had suffered had also affected her speech, but there was no way of knowing since she refused to even try to speak.

They had registered with UNHRC, then spent over 8 months in 2 cities in Europe (Munich was one, I didn’t catch the other one), then 70 days in New York. The girl interjected here to say that she & her brothers had been given the chance to attend school, & that’s where she had picked up English- the wonders of a young mind — she had a more Americanized twang in 70 days than I had in 15+ years!

UNHRC had worked to find them a semi-permanent home in North Carolina, but only after grueling interviews of the father & daughter that went on for 3 weeks or more. Thankfully the mother had been spared once the authorities figured out that she was too traumatized to speak.

Their resettlement expenses were being sponsored by a church. The mother had also undergone 2 facial reconstruction surgeries (UNHRC had provided medical aid), but would require half a dozen more, and the father was worried how they would pay for it all. The father hoped to find a job in the construction business in the town where they were going to be settled by the church.

The boys both said they wanted to be basketballers & the girl wanted to be a doctor, or work at Facebook. I felt my throat catch, & words were hard to get out, but I think I was able to bless the children that they would have a better (at least less violent) life than they had so far.

This encounter has changed me. I used to be pretty hawkish on the subject of Syrian refugees — it still upsets me that the well-to-do Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, even Iran, won’t accept even a hundred of these unfortunate people. I don’t have all the answers. This I do know - trying to stop terrorism by catching 1 bomber among 12 million helpless Syrians is rather like trying to become a millionaire by cutting coupons one at a time. Chances of success are exceedingly tiny, & it will take an exceedingly large amount of your time & energy. A better way is the American way of making a million — invest money for something there is a demand for & it will be repaid many times over.

Just think - the Western world has the opportunity to educate, mold & modernize millions of impressionable & willing minds, who otherwise might have been consigned to dead-end Madrassas. If we can make millions of Syrian kids want to become basketball players , doctors or Facebook engineers like the kids I met, Islamic terrorism might go the way of the Soviets.