It was a beautiful Saturday morning. While the gentle breeze still contained a bit of a chill, it was warm in the sun. The crocuses and daffodils were beginning to appear, not just green stalks anymore, but colorful flowers, a sure sign of spring on the way. Although faced with a busy morning of dance class for my daughter and a doctor’s appointment for my son, my mind was turned toward the afternoon and the scheduled meeting to come. I had so many questions, so many thoughts running through my brain. I was a mixture of excitement and nervousness. I wanted to get this right. I had to get this right.
Tuesday, January 26th
The evening was cold, surprisingly cold, as the daytime temperature was quite mild for January. Traces of snow from the weekend storm lingered on the ground, no longer the clean, white, picturesque blanket that had fallen, but the dirty remains kicked up by snow blowers and highway traffic. It struck me how something so pristine and peaceful could turn and spoil so quickly.
As I walked into the Woodbury Public Library, I was eager to hear the presentation soon to begin. I didn’t know what to expect. How many would be in attendance? What would the gentleman’s story be like? How old was he? What must he have witnessed, lived through, and now wished to forget?
The hour struck for the presentation to begin.
Thus began my introduction to Yousef and his beloved Syria.
Saturday, March 12th
As I sat with my husband, Jeff, awaiting Yousef and his friend’s arrival, I nervously flipped through my notebook reading and rereading the questions I had jotted down in anticipation of today’s meeting. I wasn’t sure how much Yousef would want to tell of his story and the life he had left in Syria, a departure not by choice. From my first impression of Yousef back at the library, it was clear he yearned for home. “It is human nature to want home,” he had remarked. But just as the beauty of the newly fallen snow begins to melt and turn muddy, so the once bustling and beautiful city of Homs he calls home lies in ruins.
What was there for him to go back to? “We don’t know what life will give to us–our fate,” he had commented. What kind of existence is that? What type of life, wanting to have dreams for the future but constantly wondering if it is in vain, if you have any reason to hope? Yousef could have remained in this mindset. Indeed, glimpses of it would surface in our following conversation; however, it was not the focus. Yousef was clear it would not be, just one example of this man’s remarkable courage.
I anxiously stirred my coffee, as my phone buzzed with a text from Yousef. He had just parked. Alright, here we go, I thought. As he rounded the corner, Yousef was just as I remembered him from the library–a friendly face marked with a smile. It wasn’t a broad grin; he had seen too much pain in his thirty years for that. But he smiled nonetheless. His demeanor was quiet, reserved. I would come to find out that he previously worked with children in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Before that, he volunteered at an orphanage in Homs. This made sense, as I could almost picture little ones filled with memories of violence, war, and instability drawn to the peace and calm Yousef exudes.
We all shook hands and took a seat. The sun continued to stream down, illuminating my notebook full of questions. It didn’t take long, however, before I tossed them aside, as we simply began to talk as friends might. Certain topics were still off limits, of course, just as they had been during Yousef’s library presentation. When I started to inquire after his family, Yousef very politely turned the conversation. “Let’s just talk about me,” was his request. “Absolutely,” I replied, honestly feeling not an ounce of annoyance or resentment. Indeed, what a perfectly understandable request from a son who missed his parents, a brother who missed his siblings. Although Yousef has been in the United States for 18 months, the beneficiary of applying for asylum, an involved and painfully tedious process for someone seeking safety from a homeland in tatters, the wounds were too fresh, too raw to wish to talk about.
The sun ducked behind a cloud. The chill in the air was more pronounced. Perhaps it was forecasting the topic of conversation to come.
Tuesday, January 26th
A few more people filed into the room, as Yousef continued his presentation.
“What is most important to me is the children,” he observed.
What a remarkable statement. Yousef, a former chemical engineer in Homs, now working data entry jobs in Philadelphia for a temporary agency whenever available, could have remained concerned about himself, his life, his future; however, he continued to focus all his energy on who he saw as the most vulnerable in the situation in Syria. While I appreciated what Yousef had to say, I confess I didn’t fully understand what he meant during our initial meeting. Was not he also vulnerable? Had not his life turned upside down and inside out? Was not he a stranger in a foreign land, not because of any mistake or fault he had committed, but because of larger more infuriating complexities? And yet, he remained dedicated to the children of Syria.
I would not get a full picture of the startling truth underscored in his statement until our next meeting, something that continues to haunt me.
Saturday, March 12th
The sun continued to hide. In looking at the cloud-filled sky, it didn’t seem likely that it would reappear any time soon. I continued to ask questions.
“What was the process of coming to America like?”
“How have you acclimated to life in the U.S.?”
“What can Americans do to better welcome and support refugees?”
Then came the moment I wasn’t prepared for, a message I didn’t expect to hear.
“What hopes do you have for the future?” I inquired.
A pause. “[In Syria], you lost your life. You can’t start over,” he responded.
This is the reality for Yousef. He feels as though his life is over. Does he miss his old life? Undoubtedly. Does he wish to return to Syria? Absolutely. It is his home.
His face brightened as he showed us photographs of his family. A wedding picture of his parents. Him as a boy. Typical pictures and poses familiar to most. The type I used to love flipping through as a child. Ones stored in shoeboxes in hallway closets, yellowed with time and worn from love.
How could he feel this life was finished, a memory to be found only in photographs? My heart broke, but would that be all?
As we neared the end of our meeting and discussed getting together again, I couldn’t help but wonder what else could be done. Did Yousef need saving? No. That isn’t what this was about. That isn’t what he wanted. So what could I do? How do I respond?
Simply tell his story and do as he wished. Fight for the most vulnerable, the children of Syria. While Yousef remains uncertain regarding his future, he is resolute in his desire for a better future for the children of Syria, a future he wants to shape into reality.
While the day started for me a mixture of anxiety and nerves, it certainly did not end that way. Yousef was so generous, so open, which made me all the more determined to share his story and do it well. This man’s trouble, the burden on his heart for his homeland and its children would not be in vain. It must not.
So what can we do? What can you do? How do we make his wish a reality?
“Read. Educate yourself.” For Yousef, that is where it begins. To fix the problems of this world, we first must know what they are.
Give to reputable organizations that help the victims of conflict, especially children. Save the Children, World Relief, Samaritan’s Purse, and World Vision are all committed to a singular purpose–providing life-giving aid to those in need. Join them in their fight.
Realize that your opinion matters. “If there is no war, there are no refugees.” What a simple yet profound statement from a man who knows the toll war requires. While we, ordinary citizens, don’t have the final say on foreign relations or military decisions, we elect those who do. Play a part. Get registered. Raise your voice.
Albert Einstein said, “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.” Don’t just watch. Share in Yousef’s story by getting involved, encouraging others to join you, and shaping a better world for future generations.
“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” ~William James