Subjects of Objectification or Kindred Spirits? Images and Stories of Refugees

mourning sham

by Kathryn Kraft*

Did you know that many Syrians who flee their country choose not to register with the UN as refugees? There are many reasons for this, but one important reason is that they don’t like the images that the word ‘refugee’ conjures. If they were to officially become refugees, they would be eligible for various types of assistance, including food rations and possible resettlement to another country. But they absolutely do not want to lose their identity. They see themselves as Syrians first and foremost, and also associate with their chosen career, their extended family, their interests and passions.

The media seems to have landed on a simple but somewhat misleading image capturing ‘the refugee’, which may be summarized in a picture of a woman with a bare-minimum literacy level wearing hijab and a baggy robe, mother to several spiky-haired children who are unable to attend school, living in a tent. This image may be true of many people, but it is equally untrue of many other people. Of course, though, refugees are people, and we are all created in the image of Christ, with our own set of interests, careers, aspirations, intelligence and personality traits.

Earlier this year, I published a novel, Mourning Sham, which is a fictional account of a group of Syrian women who were friends at the University of Damascus, reuniting during the years of war in Syria to support one another. One of the things I want to portray in this book is the diversity of experiences of people in wartime, and the creative ways in which they address their struggles. Today, I would like to share with you one passage from the book about what one of the characters encounters when she flees Syria and arrives in Southern Turkey.

In Turkey, Huda’s heart was racing. She had grown so accustomed to suppressing her thoughts, feelings, urges, interests, desires, ideas and anything else internal that could be suppressed, that she found she no longer knew how to talk. Until last week, she would always and inevitably choose the most cautious route, and the most cautious route was usually the right one. But she was no longer planning on doing anything cautious; in fact, she was working her way up to the boldest of moves. Did this mean it was time for her to speak openly with her friends as well?

“Chai?”

Huda looked up and saw her host, a very handsome young man named Adnan from one of Damascus’s oldest and most established families. Adnan made no secret of his refusal to believe in God, his suspicion of all governments of the world, and his love of Che Guevara. He had been in Turkey for about a year; before that, he had been working for the Syrian Arab Red Crescent society in Damascus, but organizing freedom protests in his spare time. Eventually, his employer, a humanitarian division of the Syrian regime, had caught on to Adnan’s extracurricular activities and fired him. The threats to his family had started after no more than a couple of hours, so Adnan had caught a shared taxi to Lebanon that night and flown to Gaziantep in Turkey a week later. His family was still in Damascus, and he had no contact with them, allowing them – and hence the regime – to think he was dead. Mutual friends occasionally sent him news of their welfare, so he knew they were still alive and still living their Damascene life.

Huda had befriended him through a Facebook group called Syria Justice, and he had offered for her to stay with him when she arrived in Turkey. She had no idea how he supported himself, but he seemed to have at least five jobs. He worked for the Syrian National Council, frequenting Gaziantep’s coffeehouses looking for small Syrian associations with whom the Council could partner. He recruited fighters for the Free Syrian Army. He coordinated collection of food and clothing packages to be delivered through an informal humanitarian corridor he had helped establish between Gaziantep and Aleppo. He played the kanoon in a band and taught music to children. And he ran a hostel. He had rented a large old run-down house on the outskirts of Gaziantep and welcomed orphaned young people like Huda to live with him. He didn’t charge rent and, as far as she could tell, none of the other jobs were lucrative either.

“Thank you. Some tea would be lovely,” Huda replied, blushing.

Adnan was everything she aspired to be: passionate, convicted, friendly and energetic. He was also very, very good looking.

He disappeared back into the kitchen and re-emerged with a rusty old copper pot in one hand, a box of Lipton tea bags tucked under his arm, and two mugs in the other hand, a little bag of sugar and a spoon tucked into one of the mugs. He crossed the little courtyard to the old sofa where Huda was sitting and sat down beside her, placing the supplies on a little stool.

“Where is everyone else?” Huda asked.

“They’re all out,” he replied. “I think there’s a theater presentation down in the town square tonight.”

“That’s right. They invited me, but I completely forgot.”

“You only arrived a few days ago. It’s good for you to rest,” Adnan put a hand on Huda’s shoulder and gave it a gentle tap. Then he put a tea bag in each mug and poured hot water out of the pot. “Sugar?”

“No thanks.”

As Adnan dipped two spoonsful of sugar into his own mug and stirred, wrung out his teabag with the spoon, then did the same with Huda’s teabag, she couldn’t help but gaze at his hands. They were soft but muscular as the hands of a kanoon player must be. She liked the way they went about doing what, in Huda’s experience pre-Turkey, was generally a woman’s job.

He handed her mug to her, and she thanked him, then asked, “And you? Why didn’t you go to the theater?”

“No reason, I guess. I just preferred to stay home.”

Huda didn’t answer, just sipped her tea while she tried to keep her eyes averted from his wavy hair, goatee, and intelligent-looking glasses.

“So, Huda,” Adnan said after a few moments during which he had leaned back on the sofa and tucked his legs up under him. “What do you think of Turkey?”

“I just arrived,” she giggled. “It’s too early for me to have an opinion. What do you think?”

“It’s no Syria,” he sighed, completely serious.

“No, it’s not Syria,” she agreed. “Do you miss it?”

“In a month, you won’t ask me that anymore because you’ll miss it too. I couldn’t miss it more. My body is here, but my heart will always be in Syria.”

“It’s odd, isn’t it, to come to another country because we love our own?”

Adnan took a slow sip of tea, then leaned forward to put his mug on the stool. Huda couldn’t help but comment to herself that his arms, too, were quite strong. Then he leaned back again and said, “Nothing in this war makes sense. Nothing at all.”

“Well, it’s an honor to be here,” Huda said brightly. “So far, I’m much happier here than I ever was there.”

He turned his eyes to her questioning.

Huda gasped ever so slightly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean… I mean… I really love Syria. I want to go back, too, just like you. But I’m glad to be here instead of living the lie that I was there.”

“Tell me,” he said, turning now to face her, cross-legged. He leaned forward and gently removed the mug from her hands and put it next to his own. Then he took both her hands into his and began to rub them softly. “What are you running from? What is your dream?”

Huda’s blood all rushed right into her head. She couldn’t remember the last time she had felt such thrill or warmth in her hands or, for that matter, at all. It was all she could do to keep his gaze and more than she could do to frame her words. She knew she should not tell a near-stranger where she came from or that she was Alawite or just about anything else about herself. But it was her heart that began speaking, not her head, as the words came tumbling out.

She told Adnan everything. Where her village was, what her family stood for, what she had studied at university, how she had realized in her twentieth year that there was no justice for a woman like her in their country, her disappointments ever since. She spared few details and kept talking about her desire to do something meaningful and her dreams for seeing human rights and opportunities for women and justice for all.

*Dr. Kathryn Kraft is a professor of MENA Cultures for the Master of Religion in Middle Eastern and North African Studies program. In June 2016, she was a keynote presenter at IMES’ Middle East Consultation 2016 – The Refugee and the Body of Christ: Exploring the Impact of the Present Crisis on our Understanding of Church. An accomplished novelist, Dr. Kraft was invited to share readings from Mourning Sham each day at the consultation.

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