Iconoclast of Things Episode 1: Houses of Concrete and Wood
How a Syrian family fostered a neighborhood in Independence, Missouri.
You’re listening to the Iconoclast of Things. This is Episode Number one and I am your host. My name is John Evans.
Every episode of Iconoclast of Things will start with a thing. For my first episode I’m taking you back to the beginning. Our first Thing…is Blue Dawn Manor, the neighborhood I grew up in. I used to play baseball in the Healys’ back yard. It was the infield which made my back yard dead center field and the Smith’s pool in Left Field the water spectacular. I knew all the neighbors, the Johnson’s. the Belfontees, the Smalls, Hutchisons, Hupps, Cernich’s, the Saladinos, the other Saladino’s and the Domsch’s. We had dirt clod fights and I split my head open playing hide and seek the night Thriller debuted on MTV.
In the summer my friends and I would meet up at this power pole under the Johnson’s mulberry trees. I’d wrap my purple hands around the grips of my black and gold BMX and race down this hill to a ramp we built at the bottom on the playground at this little school where I’m standing right now. Today, two Syrian brothers brothers go to this school. Their names are Faras and Amar and the story of how these two boys and their family got here, and brought together a neighborhood of people not far from this spot in the middle of Independence Missouri is Episode One of Iconoclast of Things: it’s titled Houses of Concrete and Wood.
That first voice you heard is Ibrahim Alkhwaja he’s Faras and Amar’s dad. The second voice is Sam, he’s our translator and he’s an important part of the story. Ibrahim and his family were living in Ghouta while the Syrian war was going on in big cities like Damascus and Allepo. Then one day the war came to their home
One day, two of the warring factions were fighting in Ghouta so Ibrahim’s family — his wife Enas, and their four sons, Faras, Amar, and Hamsei had to get out of the house; Ibrahim was caught in the cross fire and so was the house.
Despite a lack of medical services around Damascus, Ibrahim was able to get patched up, but their family home was destroyed. Homeless, the family of five sort of couch surfed for a while, but there’s no more school for the boys, no healthcare, there’s nothing but this giant, intractable civil war. So Ibrahim does what any good father would do, he talks to his mom.
For most of us this would be the end of the ordeal. We’d pack up what we had, leave, go someplace else to live and make a new life. But for Ibrahim and his family, it’s just the beginning. He and Enas are both from big families — there’s something like 12 siblings between ’em. Leaving his family behind is a big deal. This all happened in 2013. It’ll be years before the Ibrahim, Enas and the boys all sleep in the same house together again. The path to that house will take them in a tiny van in the desert, through refugee camps, an urban hideout, and finally our midwestern exurbs. But first, they’d have to get through a military checkpoint just a few miles from the rubble of their house.
So a soldier they don’t know disobeys orders and surreptitiously lets them through the check point. Ibrahim has already set up passage form Ghuzlania to Jordan. Which means they’re about to enter this burgeoning and shady new economy in the Middle East; Sam calls this guy a guide. The rest of the world calls the The People Smuggling business and it’s a 6 billion dollar industry; and industry that’s damn sure gonna make it’s money…whether the refugees can pay or not.
The way a lot of these smuggling operations work…it’s not like you go on Angie’s list and search for the top-rated “People Smugglers.” What you typically have are local recruiters who live in the cities, network the streets, find refugees and — for a commission — point them up the food chain to a smuggler who will organize the journey.
But these upper level smugglers can be anyone and it’s not like they’re regulated; Ibrahim is about to entrust his family to an underground economy.
In June 2016 an Eretraian smuggler confessed to authorities that when his refugee clients couldn’t afford to pay their fee they were sold off to organ traffickers… these groups, equipped for organ harvesting, kill the refugees and harvest their organs to sell on the black market. These organs, come from humans beings, human beings that 54 percent of Americans said they do not want in our country. But their organs? Their organs get sold to Americans and Westerners on the black market. We want the organs, we just don’t want the people who they belonged to.
And this is the context for this phase of the Alkhwaja’s journey. Ibrahim’s mitigated their risk as much as possible by hooking up with this “guide” for an agreed-upon price for passage in to Jordan. But he really has no idea what’s going to happen down the road. The five of them are crammed into a van and trucking through the Syrian dessert. They assume they’re headed to Jordan.
Jordan, No ID
So he’s just entrusted his wife, three sons, and a big chunk of money to some guy he’s never met to get him out of Syria. And at this point, the good news is that guy didn’t alter the deal. He does his job. Because…well… hey… who doesn’t want to be liked?
So this guy everybody likes drops Ibrahim and his family off at the border with Jordan.
Taking refugee ID is something the kingdom of Jordan started to reduce the number of refugees living outside the camps, in the urban areas of Jordan. It keeps the Syrians in the refugee camps. This serves two purposes; first, King Hussein and the Jordan monarchy have an interest in keeping these “highly visible” refugees in the camps so Jordan can keep receiving some major benefits. They get hundreds of millions in interest-free loans plus they got 60 million dollars from the US to build schools for Syrian children. But what the king wants most is tax-free exports to the European Union, especially for the garments sewn together in his industrial export zones.
The second reason they want to keep refugees in the camps is because refugees drive up the rents. In the urban areas, refugees get a rent allowance from the UNHCR. Landlords — tied to the Monarchy — know this so they’ve increased the rent five to seven times what it was before the refugees showed up. Native Jordanians resent the refugees because of what they see as handouts that increase the cost of living in their country.
So Ibrahim and his family wind up in Zaatari. The Zaatari refugee camp is the Jordan’s fourth largest city…this place, with no real paved roads, and only a few “semi-permanent” structures is the Houston Texas of Jordan. It’s over two thousand square miles with over 80,000 inhabitants.
From above, the camp looks like Midwestern farmland seen from an commercial air plane; there’s these clearly delineated squares interlocking like a big brown quilt. At ground level you see trailers and some semi-permanent looking buildings. But mostly it’s corrugated aluminum and…maybe most troubling to Ibrahim…these big, polyester-cotton blend tents with UNHCR screen printed in big blue letters across the peak. The UNHCR require these tents to pass something called C P A I 84 requirements for Flame Retardance. But to Ibrahim, this whole deal is dubious.
Now we should remember this; Ibrahim is the kind of guy who spends a lot of time preoccupied with the safety of the structure he puts his family in. So here they are, five of them smuggled out of Syria, sitting in the camp designated for Syrian refugees, with no ID, no money, one change of clothes, and he sees first-hand that these poly-cotton bags are actually just a death trap waiting to happen.
Ibrahim, Enas, and the boys flee Zaatari.
They find a sympathetic family and basically hide out in Jordan for 3 years and 4 months. They live with three other families divided up among two houses of about 500 square feet a piece. All the men and boys in one house, and the women and girls in another. Somehow, in this situation, Ibrahim and Enas manage to have a fourth son, Mohammad. Then finally, the word comes that the UNHCR refugee resettlement program has found them a home in the US. In my home town of Independence Missouri. Which apparently has developed a notorious international reputation since I moved away…
After all of this; the soldiers, the smugglers, the tent fires and over 3 years hiding out, Ibrahim gets to America. We’ve read a lot about these warm welcomes refugees receive in America; and it’s true, a lot of them are greeted at the airport by groups of people cheering them and welcoming them with food and signs. But that didn’t happen for Ibrahim. Why? Good old fashioned travel headaches. Their flight to KC arrived 12 hours early. So there was no one at the airport to meet him. He can’t speak English, he doesn’t know where to go, and he’s just waiting for Phil Leotardo or Victor LaRue to show up, and steal what little he has left, because this is where the whole ordeal finally goes South. The Syndicated America of the Sopranos and Walker Texas Ranger.
Ibrahim finds the closes thing he can to Walker Texas Ranger, an airport cop, he shows him this lanyard with his info on it and he gets hooked up with Della Lamb; the KC charity responsible for getting him settled. They take the family to their new home, here in Independence.
I know what you’re thinking, finally…we have them safe the bosom of Lady Liberty, the Queen City, Harry’s Home Town. But for Ibrahim, the mythology of the American gangsters and this preoccupation with the safety of his shelter make for a restless first night in the greatest nation on earth…
The next morning, the September sun rises and Ibrahim walks around his new neighborhood. He realizes… he’s safe…PAUSE… in the Independence of my childhood.
Meet me at the pole
Jeff Rogers is from Independence too, grew up here, moved away for a bit to Nashville and moved back. He and his wife work out of their ranch home behind Ibrahim’s place. He’s got a little garden to tend to and two dogs; a Jack Russel named George, and a Golden Retriever named Jack.
Jeff’s is one of those garage-centric neighborhoods developed after World War 2. The little ranch houses are set close together so you’re never more than 60 feet from your neighbor, but in 2016 that doesn’t mean you really know anyone. Take Jeff’s backyard neighbor. Scott’s a big, muscled guy, he works at a local hospital. Scott and his wife live next door to Ibrahim. Since the Ahawaga’s moved in Scott’s taken Ibrahim fishing. Bob, Scott’s dad, takes him to his ESL classes and bought him a coat. When I’m there Scott’s concerned that when Ibrahim starts his construction job the next day he won’t have warm clothes. At the pole… Scott and Jeff talk about this. Scott voted from Trump, Jeff voted for Clinton. But before Ibrahim’s family moved in, none of these guys ever really knew each other. They probably didn’t even know or care who voted for who.
After their ordeal, years in the unfolding, Ibrahim, Anas, and their four boys come to America to this little zig-saggy, woody house and bring this neighborhood of locals closer together. All we hear, all we’ve been told is that immigrants are here doing us harm, they’re going to drive us apart, and yeah, if you believe that reality-TV version of America that’s where we’re headed. But, if you pay attention to the America we actually live in, you see that these -BEAT- foreigners…
For Jeff and Scott and Ibrahim and Anas and their boys, it was Muslim refugees who made this neighborhood what it was like to grow up here 30 years ago. And what’s getting normalized here, in this neighborhood, is just a quiet little life of being neighbors.
A Mother and a wife
In America our translator goes by the name Sam. His Syrian name is Yasser. Sam grew up in Damascus, he’s been in the US for over 30 years. Before everyone arrived to this interview, Sam, wearing a US Navy baseball cap and this big parka, tells me the history of Syria and Damascus — he says it was an oasis of tolerance in a desert of intolerance. Typically translators are just sorta there, translating, but Sam’s about the become vital to understanding how Syrians feel about their life to America.
I ask Ibrahim what he misses most about home . If you ask a New Yorker what they miss about home, the might say the bustle, the food, the noise. Ask a Kansas Citian and they’ll probably tell you the barbecue or the Royals. Ask a boy from Independence and he’ll tell you Dixon’s Chili.
Norman Rockwell moments
As I write this, Germany is executing an international manhunt for a Tunisian man who drove a truck into a crowded Christmas market killing a dozen people and injuring 50 more. Donald Trump, standing at the front door of his Mara Lago mansion — made of concrete and steel — was asked if this means he’s still calling to ban Muslims from entering the US. His response, on the fourth day of Christmas, ”You’ve known my plans all along…”
The Real America
I ask Ibrahim, what if the old him, the Ibrahim he was before he was shot and his home was destroyed, the one who hung out with his family every week before they were scattered across the earth — if that old him could talk to this Ibrahim, the one who lives in this neighborhood in Independence with this American family, what would the old him say?
In 1787 in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams wrote “In short my dear Friend you and I have been indefatigable Labourers through our whole Lives for a Cause which will be thrown away in the next generation, upon the Vanity and Foppery of Persons of whom we do not now know the Names perhaps.” I think one name Jefferson and Adams didn’t know is Trump.
Essayist Michael Ventura calls this is an artist’s courage more than a leader’s, to struggle for a nation…a neighborhood…a life…which you believe is already lost, but you struggle because of the grace and humanity of the place you imagine…maybe hopelessly…all because you’ve imagined something beautiful.
To me, this is an Iconoclast of Things.
This is Ibrahim and Enas. This is Sam. And this is Jeff and Scott. The beauty of the family they imagine for one another, the grace of the space they want to live in — the one we all want to live in — is worth the struggle — and the risk — of being a family to one another.
And so this is what I want to bring you in this podcast. Stories of people not just committed to gain, but so committed to the beauty of the thing they imagine that they’re doing whatever they can to build it. They’re not all going to be stories about life and death struggles. Some will be about guitars, coffee, and dogs. But I’m going to continue to try to bring you stories about people at the margins in the communities around us. Because I think that, as humans, biologically, socially, and ethically, our best quality is our diversity.
Because I think that here at the end of 2016 — the year we lost so many and so much — that David Bowie and Freddy Mercury were right when they said that love’s such an old-fashioned word
And love dares you to care for The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of Caring about ourselves
You can see photos from this episode at icnonclastofthings.com I don’t get paid to produce this podcast, so if you want you can help support it by donating at the website.
I’d like to thank Dr. Sofia Khan at KC For Refugees for helping coordinate this story — you’re going to meet her in a future episode. I also want to thank Jeff. Scott, Sam and Ibrahim for sharing their stories with me.
Copyright 2017, John M. Evans, Kansas City, Missouri All Rights Reserved.