The moment he spots me through the glass doors, he breaks into a run, bounding down the steps, coat flapping, backpack spilling papers, arms open wide. Yazin’s hug nearly knocks me off my feet onto the cold concrete. His two sisters trail after him, a flurry of long, dark braids, beaming smiles, and exuberant chatter. They both have hugs for me too.
All three vie for my attention, interrupting and talking over one another during the five-minute drive from the elementary school to their apartment. Dara loves math. Yara loves her teacher. All three of them love school. When they were all out sick with the flu last week, Dara tells me, they couldn’t wait to get better so they could get back to the classroom.
Mun, their four-year-old sister, has burst out of the front door of the townhouse and is standing on the steps in her socks before I’ve even turned off the ignition at the curb. Afia, their mother, kisses me on the cheek, motioning for me to take off my coat. When I tell them I can’t stay, the kids’ faces fall.
I promise I will visit for longer next time. “Don’t forget, we have to go ice skating one of these days,” I remind them, waving as I close the door behind me.
I wish so much that America could know this family. I wish so much that everyone could see, as clearly as I do, that the intimidating, frightening picture of immigrants and refugees our president paints from his lofty podium is simply not the whole story.
Not even close.
We hear from our president about drug dealers, murderers and rapists crossing our borders. We hear about terrorists killing and maiming our neighbors with guns and bombs. We hear that immigrants are threatening our livelihood and our lives. No matter that statistical evidence does not support his claims, that’s the storyline, and we believe it because fear sells.
What we don’t hear about are the beautiful, thriving children who love school and have mastered English in a year.
We don’t hear about the father who works hard during the day and attends community college classes in the evenings to earn the lab technician certification he already holds but which is not valid in the States. The father who drives his children to school and doctor’s and dentist appointments. The father who tells me, “I wish there were 35 hours in a day so I could get it all done.”
We don’t hear about the mother who is caring for her family, learning to drive, diligently attending weekly classes, practicing her English. The mother who kisses my cheek and hugs me warmly and serves me sugary chai and a plate piled high with homemade kulicha. The mother who prepares a four-course luncheon feast for my family on her birthday.
We don’t hear about the families who literally ran for their lives, who lost virtually everything they owned, who saw friends, neighbors, loved ones massacred, kidnapped, sold into slavery. The families who step foot from an airplane 7,000 miles from their homeland with their belongings packed into six suitcases. The families who left mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins behind, possibly forever.
A couple of weeks ago, when we visited the Aldakes in their home, Azzat’s mother was live on the smart phone screen, propped on a table in a corner while we ate lunch on the living room floor. This is often the case when we visit, and at first, we thought it was odd – why was Azzat’s mother always on Facetime, hanging out on the phone screen in the living room?
But now I understand. She lived with them in Iraq; the kids’ name for her is the Kurdish word for “mother.” This phone screen is a way to stay close, to be with her in the ordinary, everyday moments, in spite of the thousands of miles between them.
Last winter, Azzat’s mother came within weeks of emigrating to the United States – the two-year security screening process was completed, her paperwork was approved, her bags were packed. When Trump issued his travel ban, her visa was deferred, indefinitely.
She waves to us from the phone screen across the room. Azzat’s mother speaks in Kurdish as she sits on the floor, slicing kiwi into a bowl. “She’s blessing you,” Azzat says, turning to Brad and me. “She is saying a prayer, thanking you guys for everything you have done for us.”
I can’t speak. I shake my head no, mumble thank you, wave and smile back at the phone. She’s got it all wrong. We are the ones blessed by her family. We are the ones who should be thanking her for her family. But we can do nothing but wave and smile, wait and hope. We can do nothing but pray she will someday be reunited with those she loves most.
Afia brings out a platter of fruit and pastries. We sit side-by-side on the sofa. I show her photos on my phone from our ski trip to Colorado.
I scroll back through months of images, show her the first photo I took of her family, in the Lincoln airport the afternoon they arrived from Iraq. They look weary, serious, a little bit stunned. Yazin, the boy who hugs me with abandon now, eyes me warily in that first picture.
The kids peer at the photo over my shoulder. They laugh, surprised I was there on that first overwhelming day: “We didn’t know you then! We didn’t even know who was taking our picture!”
They have come so far, across miles, around the globe, over heartbreaking terrain most of us can’t even begin to fathom.
I wish the rest of America could see what my family has had the honor to see. I wish the rest of America could experience what my family has had the privilege to experience. I wish the rest of America could understand that what Trump threatens from the podium about murderers, gang members, rapists, drug dealers and terrorists is not the whole story.
Not even close.
I wish America could see that these hardworking, resilient, joyful, generous immigrant and refugee familes are, in fact, the real story of what makes America great.