Story-Built to Overcome

It was spring of 2017 when Isra’ arrived in Canada.

When she first stepped out of the airport, she looked down at the ground. The pavement was so smooth, though she noticed a web of small cracks running from where she was standing to the end of the street. In those cracks, she saw countless little blades of grass. She had not seen grass so green since she left her home four years earlier.

Among the blades of grass she saw a little yellow dandelion, an early bloom just emerging from its bud. The dandelion pushed its way impossibly through gravel and grit to start a journey towards the sun.

Let it be so, God, she thought to herself. And, holding Qusay’s hand tightly, she stepped into the car. 

Today, two years later, she puts on the same headscarf she wore the day she left Syria. She puts it on under softly falling snow outside. It is cold. There are fewer stars in Canada. 

Her son, Ammar, is growing. He was born just months after they arrived in Canada.

He is Canadian in his citizenship. No one taught Isra’ how to raise a Canadian. She frequently wonders if there is something she needs to do, to not do, to do differently in order to raise a son in this place so cold, far colder than that March night at the border.

Ammar has just learned to walk, and Isra’ runs around constantly making sure he does not fall onto anything sharp. She cannot stand it when Ammar cries. She cries when he cries. She cannot see him in pain. 

She named him for her husband’s brother, who left at the time she and Qusay left, hoping to make it to Turkey and then to Italy. He did not make it to Italy. Neither she nor Qusay have heard from his brother Ammar in three months, when he was on the coast of Turkey. None of them know where he is, or even where exactly he had intended to go when he arrived. 

Isra’ does not know what has become of older Ammar. But Isra’ hopes fervently that her little Ammar will build something better than any of them have been able to build—how she hopes he will have more, lose less, and stay close to her.

Isra’s son looks identical to his Uncle Ahmad, who has since moved from Turkey to Germany.

The week before she left for Canada, Isra’ had finished an online course she had started in the camp. She earned a diploma in journalism from a university in the United States. Engineering was not one of their offerings, so she decided that she would try her best to tell stories as a journalist. She had plenty to say, and pen and paper had always been preferable to words.

 Even with her degree, Isra’ cannot yet work in Canada. Her English is too weak. 

Also, Canada does not need journalists now. They have people to tell their stories, and seemingly, to tell others’ stories. More importantly, Ammar needs a mother full time, as Isra’ has no family in Canada to watch him, to hold him, or to hold her when she feels overwhelmed, or when she feels numb, which still happens, although much more rarely than before.

The first time it happened, the first time she was unable to feel, she just had to wait until the tears came. The bamia her mom left for her that one day had coaxed her tears out of hiding. She and Ahmad both cried together that day. She wishes she could recreate that moment. She knows she needs to let something out. She cares little what it is—she just wants to feel it.

Isra’ speaks very little to others beyond the world of her phone. Whenever Ammar sleeps, she is on her phone. She looks at photos of Syria. Photos of the camp. Photos of her mother, father, brother, and sister. Of Marwa. Of Mazen. Of violence, protest, and blood. She talks to Hoda and Ahmad. 

She notices a message from Ahmad.

How are you? it says. 

In a message time stamped a bit later, it reads, I read the letter.

She writes back, finding him awake. 

Why did you read it? she asks.

Because I needed to, he replies. 

Ahmad had made the trek to Germany with few problems. The routes were so much clearer and safer than his first route to Turkey. Isra’ knows he struggled with the language, as she does. She knows he struggled finding a job, but he has been working in an apprenticeship for a few months now, sending money to their parents regularly. 

I was wondering, the other day, was leaving worth all this,  Ahmad writes. 

Was there another option? she writes back.

Whatever, just…thank you for what you said, he wrote. Isra’ could tell he wanted to say more. 

It’s the truth, brother. It was not your fault. You were protecting us, she wrote. 

There was a pause in his typing. After a minute, Ahmad started typing again. Isra’ felt he would change the subject. 

Do you see light at the end of this? he asked her. She sensed calm in him. 

There is always light, Ahmad. 

Good night. I have a feeling I’ll see you soon. Maybe 2021?

Isra’ prays intensely every night, usually for nothing in particular. Her wants are too many, and too unrealistic, for her to trouble God with them in her normal prayers. 

He knows already, she thinks. 

He knows my heart. He knows my loss. He knows all.

As she always has, Isra’ thinks almost addictively. In thinking, she feels safest. In thinking, she feels a bit more in control. And just as she did at home, she holds her heart together until those quiet moments in the night when she can release the valve to feel.

What happens next? When can I see Mama? Will I see her at all? How can I get her here? Where is Ammar, really? I’m glad Ahmad is okay.

Her mind races in silence, and she finds comfort in cooking. She knows that this is where she is supposed to be. Where she can do the most with what she has been given in this life. She knows this is not the final page of the story, but a chapter of hope being penned as she cooks in her small kitchen. 

The smell of garlic, thinly sliced, calms her heart, and lifts a faint heaviness off her chest. 

Home, for Isra’ from Damascus, will always be the house that is no longer there, where the smell of garlic reaches her grandfather’s olive tree in the farthest corner of the garden.

For Isra’, home is more than that place. It is a feeling she keeps under lock and key, on the surface of her heart, opened rarely and carefully, because she is just starting to rebuild it. She is starting to rebuild it in a place so far from where it was before, but in a place where she knows she is starting to feel normal. 

The heaviness lifts completely from her chest, and she begins to recite a few short verses—My Lord, bring tranquility to my heart and give me ease in my affair—speaking calm over the entire house as her motherly lullaby emanates from the kitchen.