Syrian Jitter Juice

Four months ago, I took over the co-sponsorship of a family of Syrian refugees. I’m told that my role is similar to that of a case manager in social work. I don’t know about that. All I know is that it’s completely different than anything I’ve done before. 

I don’t use the family’s names online. 

The photo is of a home-cooked Syrian meal, made with American ingredients.

Fourth-grader M is in the same school as my daughter L. I pick them both up at the end of the school day, and we drive back to M’s family apartment, located above the garage of a most generous family in a well-to-do oasis of liberalism in Georgia. Unless M’s mother is the only adult present, I am invited inside. If she is the only adult, it is not appropriate for me to enter.

We take this time to see if the children have any homework or papers to fill out and sign. If I can help with the homework, I do. Otherwise, I have Google Translate tell M to ask his teacher. He spoke no English before arriving in US from Syria, by way of four years in Jordan. As we work, M’s parents offer me Syrian jitter juice–a fragrant, dark-roasted coffee that is served black and, mercifully, without sugar. Syrians are a people of good taste.

On most days, the TV in the living room is playing Arabic or Indian music videos, dubbed Hollywood or Bollywood movies, or Arabic telenovellas. Yesterday’s televised entertainment was music. I don’t know enough to identify the artist, or even the genre. It doesn’t matter. It’s all good.


The music didn’t last long. K (father/husband) had discovered a YouTube video (I can’t find it yet. All that comes up in searches is war footage) that he was eager to show me. It was filmed eight months ago, in the family’s home city of Douma, a suburb of the Syrian capital of Damascus. The videographer rides through the streets of Douma on motorcycle or Vespa, panning left and right to highlight points of interest or capture residents going about their daily business. Mostly, though, the scenery consists of similar dun-colored, four and five-story buildings that are familiar to anyone who pays attention to world news coverage of the Middle East.

After a minute or so of K and R (mother/wife) point and exclaim “House!” They owned two houses (Apartments? Condos?) in Douma.

It is easy for me to imagine this as a neighborhood in Florida or Southern California, with the desert-themed architecture and palm trees. It would be easy to imagine if every fifth block wasn’t the obvious scene of a bombing, with crumbling facades and rubble piles breaking the scenes of suburban domesticity. As of eight months ago, the family’s homes were intact.

The local mosque, an impressive circular building the size of a large city block, is gutted by missiles. The zoo, less than a mile from the family’s home, is crumbling and abandoned, its rusted gates twisted and overgrown with climbing weeds. I don’t want to think about what happened to the animals; it’s even harder to think about that than it is to think about the thousands of humans who’ve been killed at the hands of other humans.

Douma was the scene of a 2012 battle in which government forces attacked and killed protesters. The scenes in the YouTube video of folks shopping, eating, and hanging out at the corner bodega belie the area’s recent history of mass destruction and death.

“Z school!” (Z is M’s older sister) 

“My work!”

R and K proudly point out places that were once a part of their daily lives.

At one point, the camera pans to the side of a ten-story building. The entire side of the building is covered with the image of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. Young M looks up at the screen and sticks out his tongue. R looks down and shakes her head. K lets out a “Tsk” sound as his face turns from a smile to a grimace.

I feel anger and frustration at a man whose greed and hubris have resulted in my friends’ misery. I feel sad that their home is so far away—not only in physical distance, but in time. What they loved is gone.

As we all would, I make my daily attempt to empathize with my friends.

Making It About Me

I try to imagine what it could be like to have to flee my home, for my children to leave their schools, for our family to leave behind everything and everyone. I try to imagine how I would get along in a place where I didn’t speak the language, where I couldn’t eat most of the food, and where I had to rely on strangers for everything from rides to the grocery, to reading my children’s homework, to figuring out American shoe sizes.

I can only attempt to imagine and empathize, because these things are far beyond my experience. No matter what kind of fucked-up things have happened to me in my time on this planet, it doesn’t approach the fucked-upedness of what Syrian refugees have gone through.

I imagine discomfort every time I asked my hosts or a volunteer for a ride to Kroger. I imagine confusion and frustration when people converse around me and I can only understand one out of every twenty words. I begin to attempt to try to imagine the depression caused by having my family ripped from everything and everyone we know.

I imagine I might sometimes feel like a zoo exhibit, even as those who cause me to feel that way give generously to make my family safe and comfortable. I imagine that gratitude would be overwhelming, as would resentment. And depression.

How would I want to be treated when I feel those things? I would want to be treated like any other friend and neighbor–in this neighborhood where homes are only destroyed when a new buyer wants to build something bigger, where we are able to look at images of our president with respect, and where half the people on the block haven’t moved out because they live in terror that they may wake up in the morning at the bottom of a pile of rubble. Or not wake up at all.

So as a friend and neighbor, I enjoy my cup of jitter juice. I groove to the beat of the darbuka. I do my best to understand today’s Common Core lesson. I ask if I can drive anyone to Kroger. And I do my best to listen, even when I have no clue what is being said.

Hit me. I can take it.

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