At the airport, a Syrian doctor starts a casual conversation that becomes something much more than that.
The phone charging station at any U.S. airport is prime real estate. During a long layover in Houston, I settle in next to a row of outlets to keep an eye on our depleted iPhones, ducking for travelers who lean over me to plug in.
A seat empties, and a middle-aged man sits next to me. Soon, his wife and four-year-old son find him. “Where will I sit, Daddy?” the boy says. I move down a seat and pat the one I’d occupied; the family smiles my way and sits together.
After a few minutes, father and son wander down the concourse, leaving wife/mom to monitor the charging farm. She catches my eye and smiles. “I like the way you have your hair,” she says in heavily accented English. On travel days, I mash it wet into two clips high on my head à la Cindy Brady.
“Thanks,” I smile back. “It’s easier for the airport. Keeps your hair out of the way.” She nods.
“So does yours,” I say, gesturing to her hijab.
“Yes,” she laughs. “Keeps the hair out of the way. Is easier.”
I turn back to part seven of All the Light We Cannot See, a beautiful novel about a blind French teen girl in an occupied Breton town and a talented orphan boy forced to use his gifts to serve the doomed Reich. I can’t focus. Boarding announcements shatter the sentences into meaningless shards. I glance up and catch my neighbor’s eye again. “I cannot read in the airports,” she says. “Too many the people, and I just have to look and watch them.”
“So true! It has to be a really good book. And this one is,” I say slowly, separating each word and speaking in short phrases, the way my Russian friends so mercifully do when they are talking to me. “It’s about a French girl and a German boy in the war. They are trapped in a bombed-out town. They both have radios and talk to the world outside—they hope someone will save them…”
I trail off, searching for the simplest words. “It makes me—” A gesture of tears running down a face.
“Maybe me more than you,” she says, imitating the gesture. “Because my country, the war…”
A pause for me to understand.
“Syria?” I say.
A pause for me to absorb.
“We just want to have the dreams. Like you. Like your friend. But in my country, there is none.”
“I am so. Sorry,” I say dumbly. The terminal disappears. It is just us now, two forty-something women. She is trapped in a ruined history, separated from me by everything, desperately transmitting. Hoping I will hear her.
“I am not worry about them. We live here,” she says, meaning her husband and son. “My mother in Turkey. My brothers—doctors. They do the work there, they are needed. They choose it. They are OK. But I worry about what happen to my country, the future.” Past her, across the terminal, her son leans on his father and laughs.
“I am Talafa,” she says.*
Talafa is a gynecologist in Maryland, from a family of doctors. Her brown eyes shine behind round, wire-rimmed glasses; her soft features are framed by a pale oval of cloth. Talafa’s brothers and uncles tell her that she would cry if she saw her neighborhood now—it is rubble. They tell her that they never know where the bombs will fall. She tells them to go somewhere safer. They do not listen.
“Everybody, they hate the regime,” she tells me. This is what she wanted me to know. This is why she caught my eye again and again, until I finally stopped to listen. “We all hate Assad. He give the murderers and criminals guns and tell them they are fighting extremist. But they are just killer.”
Her flight is boarding. She stands up and turns to face me, leaning close. “I don’t know what the American think about us. Please, tell the people: we are not the extremist. We are—” She searches for the vocabulary but cannot summon it.
“Peace,” she says, shaking her head, unsatisfied. The word is flat black, inadequate to define her full-spectrum longing.
I have the linguistic advantage, so I try to color in the shades. With a story. “I have a friend from Cambodia. She wanted to be a doctor. But then the war came. She was a refugee. She couldn’t have her dreams.”
Talafa is nodding.
“When she went home after 20 years, her country was ruined. Civilization was gone. But she made a life. Her daughter is in college here. There is hope.
“Now, I want to tell you something, ” I say, my voice an apology. “You know Trump, yes?”
“The things he says about people, about immigrants, coming here to America, I do not believe it. My friends do not believe it. Many of us do not believe it.” My hand is on her shoulder.
“Do you think he believes it? Do you think he will…” her voice trails off.
“He believes nothing. He finds the fear in people and he makes it bigger. This will not win.”
She nods. “I think so, yes.”
Her husband drifts closer. It is time for her to go. “We just want to have the dreams,” she tells me. “Like you. Like your friend. But in my country, there is none. Please tell the people. Tell them we are peace.” She hugs me.
“I will,” I say into her ear.
And so I am telling you.
*This might be incorrect, as my knowledge of Syrian names is very poor.
**Some details of the conversation might also be incorrect, as my memory is also very poor.