By Kardilyn Ellis
The seven or eight year old girl ran her fingers through my hair; then, rolled into my lap. She held my hand & went back to playing with my hair, while I looked at the pictures her mom showed me. All of the pictures were from Syria. Picture after picture of the girl as a baby, her brother when he was smaller, her mom and dad on their wedding day. “He is in Germany,” the lady told me. “My mother and father are still in Syria.” “Look, it’s beautiful in Syria!” she continued.
The girl stopped playing with my hair to point herself out, “Me! Me, me, my brother, me, me…” she smiled. Her mom turned the page, “That’s my father,” she said with a smile on her face & a hint of sadness in her eyes. She leaned in & lowered her voice. “Do you know ISIS?” she asked. I nodded. “They took him, for a week. But he got away. ISIS is killing people. If you are not a Muslim, they kill you. They say if you are Muslim you must know how to pray and how to read the Koran.” She continued explaining, but I didn’t catch whether they teach or kill those who couldn’t pray and read like a proper Muslim.
Parties, family members, and more baby pictures came out before the memories got put away and the room filled with an assortment of languages: Arabic, Kurdish, and Turkish, although, I only understood the latter. Light conversation drifted from topic to topic until it anchored deep in the dark waters off the coast of Greece.
“I took a boat two weeks ago, but it sank,” the nineteen year old sister said referring to the rafts traveling nightly from the western coast of Turkey to the small Greek island, Lesbos. “Everyone was in the water,” she explained. “I was so scared. We had life jackets on and we were holding the babies and children above the water, so they wouldn’t drown.” “I was one of the only ones on the boat that spoke Turkish. Most of them had just come from Syria, so they only knew Arabic. When the boat sank, I was the one who had to call the Turkish police.”
Much to my surprise, she described how the Turkish police came and rescued the group illegally being smuggled to the promised paradise of Europe. From the way Turks talk about Syrians being in their country and the way Syrians talk about the lack of help they are receiving from the Turkish government, I didn’t realize the Turks were doing anything. “I was so scared. It was like a movie!” she laughingly exclaimed, her worn eyes revealing the distress she still felt thinking about it.
“But, our dad is going tonight,” the other sister piped in. “He tried to go last night, but the boat he was on tipped over and the police had to come rescue his group. Before they could come, five people drowned.”
“Last night? But he’s okay?” I hesitantly, confirmed.
“Yeah, he’s okay. He’s going to try again tonight.”
The conversation softened and it was time for dinner. “We really can’t stay. Unfortunately, we have somewhere else to be,” Kate and I tried to explain. A chorus of “No, no, the food is already ready! Stay! Why would you leave?” followed, along with a friendly tisk or so from the busy room. We didn’t see her slip out, but about fifteen minutes later, one of the sister-in-laws came back, food in hand. I glanced at Kate; so much for the food being ready!
Within minutes we were sitting around a tablecloth in the middle of their living room floor. A whole, seasoned chicken sat in the center, surrounded by plates of salad and pieces of flat bread. Grandma turned to me and, with one of the only Kurdish words I know, told me to “Eat!” After dinner, there was coffee and chocolate. After coffee, there were bowls overflowing with fruit. “Stay the night!” they begged. “Don’t go; it’ll be fun! We can dance and watch a movie. Stay!”
Having arrived at their apartment mid-afternoon, we hadn’t intended to spend the night. Hours had flown by as we talked and laughed together, while the sky had slowly turned dark. Because of previous commitments for the next day, Kate and I needed to leave. Getting our kind hosts to understand that, however, was going to be a challenge! Kate, with a brilliant understanding of the culture and beautiful Turkish, explained that our newest roommate, unable to join us that night, was waiting for us at home. As Kate had known it would, the tone of the conversation immediately changed. Our friends, putting themselves in her shoes, declared it would be shameful for our other roommate to stay overnight at home by herself.
After multiple hugs and cheek kisses, Kate and I made our way down the stairs, to the street, around the corner, and off to find a minibus. We walked, arm in arm, my hands shoved into my coat pockets, the sincerity of our Syrian friends’ hospitality humbling me as the happenings of the evening lingered in my thoughts.