Aleyah held her three-year-old son’s hand. She tried to not feel the terror, tried to steady the tremor. Please hands, stop shaking. He’s seen enough already. Don’t let him feel your fear.
She tried to erase the images from her own mind. Bullet shattered buildings. Blood torn bodies. The gruesome products of greed, hatred, and terror. They would be forever embedded in Amir’s impressionable mind.
Aleyah shifted the weight of her baby daughter sleeping strapped to her chest. Soon Faiza would be old enough to see and understand the horror around her. She had to get them out of here, away from this terror. How could Aleyah teach her children about this war?
War in the name of Allah.
War that twisted her beloved religion.
Aleyah thought back to her childhood. Happy memories. Religion entwined her life, surrounded by family and love. The mosque was a place of peace, learning, help. A place where neighbors helped each other, families commemorated birthdays and grieved together over deaths. A place to try to approach the Holy, bowing down in reverence. Bowing to the mystery. Jihad was a foreign word, a whispered black nightmare of twisted souls. Jihad could never exist among the Holy.
She had met Rafiq at the mosque. He was studying to be a doctor. Many of his family members were doctors, some still in Syria, some overseas. Rafiq told her stories of visiting his family in the United States. “There is so much freedom there, so many opportunities. They love doctors and treat them with so much respect. My uncles could help us settle in Los Angeles. There are so many Syrians there, and so many immigrants. Americans are friendly and welcoming.”
Aleyah was not so sure. She loved Syria, loved the desert, loved her people. She aspired to be a teacher. She had always loved children, and she came from a large family with plenty of siblings and cousins to watch over. “But, Rafiq, what about our family here. Won’t you miss them?”
“Yes, my dear, but the opportunities in America. Really, you need to visit there. You will love it.”
The mosque hosted their wedding. All of their family and friends packed the small space. Everyone was so happy, proclaiming a bright future for the young couple.
They became pregnant shortly after. “Allah has blessed us,” Rafiq proclaimed, his eyes twinkling.
“I don’t know, Rafiq. Syria seems to be in trouble. People are hurting so much. They can’t find work. Haven’t you seen the news? They blame the imams, they blame the government. What if war…”
“Shh, shh, my dear,” Rafiq whispered as he caressed her pregnant belly. “Think of this little one, our little Amir, our beautiful prince. Someday I will take you both to America, far from this violence. You will find opportunities there. We all will.”
They applied for visas the day after Rafiq graduated from medical school. Amir was only a few months old. “People in America are so kind hearted,” Rafiq said. “It won’t take long. They like doctors over there. Plus my family will vouch for us. They will never turn away a baby.”
The bombs started flying in other cities. Bullet holes riddled the buildings, but spared their house. Still, it was too close for comfort. It took a year to sell their house. They sold it for below its worth. So far below. They were lucky to get any money for it.
They moved in with friends in a tiny apartment crammed with four families. They had to save every precious bit for the journey ahead. But they were happy. Amir had plenty of playmates, and a soft carpet to learn to walk. They could wait here. They knew the visas were coming.
Soon they found out Aleyah was pregnant with her second child. They named her Faiza.
They dreamed of the abundance they would find in the United States. Aleyah was sad to leave her friends, but this bombed-out fearful existence was nothing like the beautiful Syria she remembered growing up.
Faiza came in the summer. The visas did not. The news showed angry Americans protesting. “We will not allow jihadists into our country. They have refugee camps. We can’t help them more than that.”
Rafiq kissed his wife and children to bed one night. “My sweetest Aleyah, I must go to America without the visas. They’re saying they will only grant asylum to people already in the country. I will get to my family and send for you. I love you more than anything.”
It had been three months since she heard anything from her husband. Had he made it across the border? Was he wounded, forgotten among the masses in the refugee camp? Had his body been swallowed in an unforgiving ocean of hatred? People in the camp told stories about their loved ones lost and dead in the journey. Not enough money to pay the bribes. Guides who stole everything. Boats that capsized. Countries that turned them back at the borders.
Aleyah held her five-year-old son’s hand. She tried to steady the tremor. Please hands, stop shaking. He’s seen enough already. Allah, please help me to be strong for these little ones you gave to me.
She fought back the tears gathering in her eyes. She had to be strong. Faiza yawned and stretched her feet, protesting the confines of a too-small pouch. She wanted to get out and practice walking.
But there was no more safe carpet for her to toddle and fall. No more green grass and bright sunshine to welcome the children. The park had been destroyed several years ago, collateral damage of the government against the rebels, or maybe the other way around. The house was now just a pocketful of change.
The apartment had been bombed. Nobody knew if it was rebel air strikes, ISIS jihadists, or Western air strikes. All they could do was run into the terrible, bomb-lit night.
Aleyah bounced Faiza to calm her. She squeezed Amir’s hand a little tighter. “I’m hungry,” he whined. There was so little food in the refugee camp. She had to go. She had to be brave for the little ones. For Rafiq.
“Shh… We must go now.” She looked out over the black ocean. She prayed to Allah that the boat would make the journey. Prayed that people would be kind. Prayed that people would understand she was not a terrorist.
Then she stepped into the ocean of terror between her family and America.
My story is partly based on a powerful web site, Syrian Journey: Choose your own escape route. I highly recommend every reader of my blog, every American use this tool. It brings humanity to the Syrian refugee crisis.
Syrian refugees are living in terror under the violence and chaos of a corrupt regime. They are losing their lives to war and terrorism.
The pain is real and the solutions are complicated. But we have people like Ben Carson saying refugee camps are nice places to live. We have Americans protesting and saying that Syrian refugee families harbor jihadists. We have violence in Paris and San Bernadino that people and politicians want to paint as the fault of Syrian refugees, without any real evidence.
And we have Donald Trump. He paints every world problem as easily solvable. Us versus them. Register and black list the Muslims. Everyday people with families, loved ones. People with dreams and hopes just like us. We must imagine their lives of horror and terror. We must find room in our hearts for love.
Muslims are not the enemy. Hate is the enemy.
Jesus was a Middle Eastern man who as a young child had to escape persecution in his homeland. Little Amir. Faiza. Aleyah and Rafiq could be Mary and Joseph.
Jesus taught us the path of love. Loving everyone. Loving people the same and different than us. Walking a mile in their shoes. As we celebrate Jesus’ birth this season, can we find it in our hearts to love today’s Middle Eastern refugee families?
I would also like to further mention the image I used above. It is a beautiful piece I found on Flickr. The artist, Alexander Mueller, calls it Don’t look away when peace is @ risk. He states,
"We regard Muslim people as pure evil by default. We have to stop that behaviour - not them. We have to face them with respect and accept that we are not God only because we were born in a western country like France, Germany or the US.... Start developing own thoughts and opinions instead of consuming the news. Inform yourself why the current situation of Syria, Iraq and IS is like it is. Learn from the past. We already made all possible mistakes. Stop repeating it! Don't judge over people before you had the chance to get in contact and getting to know them. But what might even be the most important thing: Be friendly. To as many people as possible but especially towards those who have a lower position than you!"