The buildings were just starting to take shape as the plane was nearing the end of its fifteen hour flight. We flew past the coastline and circled over the ocean, positioning ourselves to land at LAX. What would await me there?
The last fifteen hours helped me to have a little closure on the life I was leaving behind. There was an American in a suit across the aisle from me, presumably coming home from some international business. In my row was a mom and a young boy, maybe about 8. I couldn’t understand their words, but I think they must have been speaking Danish or Swedish. I heard some Arabic in the rows behind me and in front of me, but their words were not meant for me, and I didn’t want to intrude. Except for when the one Egyptian flight attendant came by, I remained silent. Only my thoughts spoke to me.
I thought of my home that had long since been desolate. All the vitality of it left when my wife became ill and passed from this earth. At first, her groans and cries lingered in the rooms–even for months after she left. But soon even those faded, and what was left was an old man and his memories. Memories, even the sweet ones, lose their sparkle when there is no one to relive them with. Mahdi came by now and again, but my old friend had lost his vitality long ago too. We would just sit together, watching the kids run by without noticing two old men like us. The more the fear took over our village, the less the kids ran around. There was nothing for me there, but still, it was my everything.
Mahdi has my home, and Iman, who shares our courtyard, has accepted my few possessions. I will not need them now. I will be in America. People have what they need in America.
But still my mind traveled through each memory. I tried to recall life as a child, but it was long ago. My family had long since passed. But still, there were a few things I would never forget. Like when Yara and I would race each other until we became so tired we would fall down dizzy and laughing. I can almost smell that dirt that would cover us and would be the source of mama’s scolding when we raced each other back into our home.
But those few sweet memories are like treasure that has been buried with fear and horror. Bombs, and dying. Fires. Men whose faces are hidden come around barking out commands and flashing their blades. Even using them. My village is not my village anymore.
Fifteen hours of silence has made my thoughts of home too loud. But at least home was what I knew. I am about to go to America, which I don’t know. I hear a lot. But I don’t know.
Hamman tells me that there are forty two kinds of bread on the shelves at the store (he actually counted). He tells me there are so many people with cars that traffic is so bad. He tells me that his girl and boy play in parks where there is grass and swings and many other people who are not afraid. He tells me that he misses me and that Fatima and Ami are excited to meet their grandpa.
I want to run to them and pick them both up at the same time and swing them around and squeeze them in tight, but my back is not too strong. And what if they do not come to me? Will they understand my words? Will they recognize my face from pictures?
I turn the knob on the air and try to point it on my face. The Danish mom and boy stare out the window as the plane touches down. We are here. In America.
I made it to America.
My life is new again. My new life with my boy and his wife and my two beautiful grandkids I have not yet met. These will be new memories, new treasure that is not buried. How do I deserve this second chance?
The wait to exit the plane is long. Very long. The air stopped being cold and my shirt and pants are dampened with sweat. Still no movement, not even an announcement from the pilot.
Why are we still on the plane?
My mind sought distraction, and my eyes wandered out my window to the giant windows of the concourse. There were people sitting in chairs against the window. Many heads facing away, busy talking or working probably. But one young girl had her face pressed against the window. She must have been kneeling on the chair. She waved to the people working the ground below. Maybe my little granddaughter was looking out the window too, trying to find my plane. My heart beat hard, but for once, it was the beating of eagerness, the hope of something pure and good.
At the crackle of the speaker, it seemed we all held our breath and strained our ears. But still more silence. It seemed like they were trying to figure out what to say. Instead of making an announcement, two somber-faced men walked into the plan. They were dressed as police, I believe. Without making eye contact with the passengers, and as if following silent code, they marched single file down the aisle. I barely heard the matching footsteps of two more men coming up the aisle from the other direction. They must have entered from the back exit without my noticing.
They came closer to me. A terror burned in me, deep down in my bowels. Like fire consuming a branch, it ate up my insides until it felt like flames were coming out my nostrils and smoke rising from my forehead. This terror felt familiar. Like the terror I thought I had escaped forever when I got on this plane.
The marching boots stopped at my seat. I didn’t need to look at anyone to know that all eyes had turned towards me. Before I could speak the plea to know what I had done to be so singled out, one of the men spoke in English. I did not understand his words, but I could tell from the percussive sounds and flat tone that something was serious. The Egyptian flight attendant finally made his way through the sea of uniforms and said to me in a hushed, apologetic tone, “Sir. You are to stay in your seat while the others get off the plane.” The policeman barked something else.
The flight attendant did not look into my eyes when he spoke. “He said you are not allowed to step on American soil.” He swallowed and dared to lift his eyes to mine. They were kind and watering. “You are to return to Syria indefinitely. It’s an executive order from the President of the United States of America.”
Nothingness filled my head for a moment before I realized that the frantic Arabic screaming was my own. I did not understand. Hamman had coordinated with the American and Syrian governments to prepare all of my documentation. I was allowed to come. I belonged here!
I searched the plane for an advocating face, but I could see few faces from my seat. Everybody near me looked at me, but nobody looked me in the eye. How could I be invisible at a moment like this. How is nobody saying anything to make this right? How will my granddaughter and grandson know that I was here, ready to embrace them? What if I never get to meet them?
What happened in those next twenty minutes while everyone deboarded but me, I really couldn’t know. My head split with confusion and my heart drowned in fear and sorrow and rage. Nothing made sense, and the only tangible cue I could understand was the quick rhythmic breath that kept my body in sync while my mind was consumed with confusion.
Like a metronome, my breath seemed to orchestrate everything into a back and forth until I felt queasy in my stomach and had to throw up. Through a blur of tears and the stench of vomit, I watched the American girl waving. Goodbye from America.
This narrative is fiction, but it could be someone’s story. I wrote it as an exercise for my soul, so I wouldn’t see refugees and immigrants as an anonymous group or as a category, but that I would see them as individuals with real hopes and real fears, people who carry real losses and joys and who suffer real pain. Reading some of their stories in the LA Times brought me to tears because their stories made the impact of the Refugee Ban personal. I want this to stay personal to me because refugees and immigrants are not numbers, dollars, or policies; they are precious people with incredible stories. What the US government dictates impacts their daily lives and even the stories of their future generations. We should not take it lightly.