Scoundrel Time

Depending on How You Look at It

In the weeks before Donald Trump became president of the United States, I travelled to Greece to volunteer and distribute some $35,000 in donations that a group of us from North Carolina had collected for humanitarian relief for refugees. These projects kept me busy, but, whenever I had a spare moment, I dashed over to a little apartment near Victoria Square to see my Syrian friends, whom, in order to maintain their privacy, I’ll call the “Khalils.” Eight months earlier, I first met the family—Abdul, his wife Hanan, and their children Sara, Sidra, and Hasan—at the northern border camp at Idomeni, where they lived in a tent. These days, their family occupies one room of a two-bedroom apartment in Athens. They share the place with another refugee family of five, Kurdish people from Syria, with whom—despite talk of tension among various ethnic groups—they get along very well.

Most days, we sat on the floor of that room, drinking tea or cardamom-scented Arabic coffee. Sometimes, we played Uno with a deck that another American visitor had given them. Recently, 13-year-old Sara, 10-year-old Sidra, and I had all learned “finger knitting,” so we sometimes curled up on a mattress with yarn, while their one-year-old brother, Hasan, crawled all over us. Hanan cooked rice pilaf. Abdul brought out trays of hummus. Sara and Sidra sliced oranges, apples, and bananas into bite-sized pieces and, together, we gorged on fruit. If Zakia, my translator, was with us, we talked about politics and history, and the Khalils recounted the story of how they fled their country 13 months before. If Zakia wasn’t with us, the family’s blossoming English proved surprisingly effective.

Two nights before I flew back to the States, Sara and Sidra had dinner with me at a restaurant and then slept over at my hotel. Over souvlaki, they recounted the whole epic story of their boat journey from Turkey to Greece. Like any sisters, they found points of disagreement over facts. When Sidra said the boat was this big, pointing from one end of the restaurant to the other, her older sister shook her head and said, “No! This big,” and proceeded to cut the boat’s dimensions by half. They never agreed on the size of the boat, but they did agree on how long the ride was supposed to take (two hours), how long it actually took (nine hours), and how scared they were that they would drown.

Later, in my hotel room, the girls watched Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse on Netflix on my computer. Then, Sidra got out the Magic Markers, and she and I colored while Sara lay next to us on the bed, texting with a friend who lives on the other side of Athens. Syrian refugee teenagers, it turns out, text like any other teenagers, especially when there’s drama. That night, the Greek police had picked up another girl for being out at night in Omonia Square.

“Why was she out at night in Omonia Square?” I asked.

Sara sighed, her fingers racing across the screen of her phone. “She’s too stupid.”

The Khalils have been accepted for resettlement in Germany. Sara and Sidra’s uncle, Ahmed, lives there, all alone. Back in Damascus, Ahmed was a strong young man who, in a peaceful country, would have become a husband and father. His life changed, though, when he went out one night to buy chicken and a shell exploded nearby. Ahmed survived the blast, but he lost the use of his legs. For a while, the family tried to care for him at home, secretly, because war wounds arouse the suspicion of officials in the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. “Why was he injured,” such officials might ask, “unless he was fighting for the other side?” Eventually, the family smuggled Ahmed to Germany to save his life. Now, years later, the German government has expedited the family’s asylum application so that they can travel there to care for him. You can call it “good luck” or “bad luck,” depending on how you look at it.

Sara wants to be a pharmacist. Sidra plans to be a “doctor for children.” Because of war and the family’s flight from Syria, the girls have not been to school in years. They yearn to return to comforting routines, but they worry about starting over in an entirely new place.

“I don’t speak German,” Sidra reminded me, her eyes on the coloring book.

“You learned English,” I said. “You’ll learn German.”

Sidra filled a flower petal with a blush of pink. “I hope.”

Next to us on the bed, Sara sighed and dropped the phone onto the mattress. “It’s okay now,” she announced. “The girl. The police. They let her go.” She sounded slightly exasperated, like a teenager back home who, say, had had the good sense to avoid an ill-fated keg party.

Sidra and I had almost completed our coloring. “In Germany,” I told Sidra, “You’ll get a good education. You can be a great doctor there.”

“No,” she said. “Not there. I want Syria.”

Two days later, Donald Trump took the oath of office. Seven days after that, he banned refugees and citizens of seven Muslim countries from admittance to the United States. When I heard about Trump’s executive order, I thought of Sidra, who dreams of practicing medicine in her own country. I thought of Sidra’s mom, who told me that her heart breaks with every step she takes away from her homeland. I thought of another Syrian, Salwah, describing her beautiful home in Damascus, now destroyed. Once, I asked Sidra and Sara’s father how he would respond to the accusation that refugees pose a terrorist threat. “How can we be terrorists?” he asked. “We are running away from terrorists ourselves.”

In a few weeks, Sidra and her family will fly to Germany to begin their new lives there. The girls may, in fact, become German citizens or they may eventually return to a Syria at peace. With a good education, a girl like Sidra could, someday, become a “doctor for children” in any country. Germany’s refugee resettlement program will have provided her with the skills she needs to benefit the world. I’d like to see the United States model its refugee policy on Germany’s. That’s the way to make our country great again.