I AM HAVING a hard time studying for my GED. The big blue prep book is sitting on my shelf near the front door, sort of staring at me, waiting for me to pick it up and learn about Sherman's march to Atlanta, or how to solve for x, but my mind keeps wandering back to that last day in Damascus, two years ago. . .
Three large suitcases gape open on my bed, and all my things are sprawled out across my floor. The jasmine from our garden is in bloom, and I realize, breathing in the rich fragrance, that this is the first time I have ever really thought about that smell. Really thought about it. It fills me with a longing that I cannot place, a mix of regret and anticipation, like I suddenly know my city better than I ever have, just as I am about to leave it. That feeling will stay with me all the way to New York, then to Tennessee. All the way to now.
My father insists I pack one of the suitcases with gifts for my host in New York, his former employee, who will give me a room in his house and a job cutting hair in his barbershop in Brooklyn. My parents and I refer to my "visit," never to my living arrangements, for fear that someone from the government might be listening. But everyone knows. All of our friends in the building come in small chattering groups, tears staining the cheeks of the women whom I have known my entire life but may never see again. This is my last day in Syria.
There is a girl who lives upstairs, Rima, and for the last year we have been talking in secret, mostly through text messages but also hanging out together when we can, when both our parents are not home. In that year we have become very close. But whenever we are in the presence of others, especially our parents, we act formal so that they won't suspect our intimacy. On my last day, Rima comes into the kitchen with her mother and I nod hello. Our mothers talk for a while about my visit. "America," says Rima's mother. "Yes, America," my mother replies. "New York!" I have coffee and they have tea, then after a while they leave before another of our neighbors comes in. I nod goodbye to Rima, wish her luck and peace, wonder if I love her. But thoughts like that only trap me in the past, and what I want is to imagine a future once again.
I studied more than a year to take the test for the twelfth grade. A person's performance on this one test determines whether he can go on to higher level education, whether he will be a worker or an intellectual, and so on. Even though my father, and my grandfather, and his father before him are and have always been barbers, I believed I wanted something different. I hesitate to say more, because they have built so much, they are very respected. But something different. I can cut hair, I enjoy cutting hair, but I do not want to do it forever. After working with kids who have autism, I have considered studying that condition, perhaps through the field of psychology. It felt good helping people in that way.
Then, just before I was supposed to take the twelfth-grade test, I got my visa to come to the U. S. It was a huge shock. My grandfather, who has traveled to the U. S. many times, was going to renew his visa in Beirut where there is an embassy. He asked if I wanted to apply, and I shrugged my shoulders — why not? The odds were so small, we both smiled and chuckled about it, the absurdity of even trying. At that time, it was easier for a seventeen year old Syrian man to win a million American dollars than it was for him to obtain an American visa (I mean that — fewer than one percent of one percent of us get this visa). But because the stakes were so low, because applying meant spending a few days in Beirut with my grandfather, for whom I am named, whom I love, and who takes me to cafés where I am not supposed to go, I said yes.
We were sitting at the desk of an American man, in the American embassy, speaking in a rudimentary Arabic. The embassy man hardly knew any of our language, but my English was pretty good, and so together we were able to ask and answer all his questions. I think my helping must have impressed him, because when finished with the questions and said, OK, you're all set, come back in two days, he meant the interview was finished and we would be issued American visas. My grandfather smiled and stood up and led me out onto the street. I did not say a word the whole time until we got a few blocks away. Then I asked what had just happened. I did not understand. I thought I knew but it made no sense, and so I was confused about what had actually transpired in the office.
"You got a visa, Khalid," grandpa said. "He gave us both visas. We have to come back in a couple of days to pick them up."
Family photos. My grandparents. Me as a little boy. My father used to dress me up like that, draw on a mustache as a joke.
Still to this day, I have a hard time believing it. I was shocked, but also scared — a visa that other men would literally kill to get, a visa that corrupt men would pay millions of dollars to have, in my passport. And, despite the excitement, I think somewhere in my mind I knew this meant the end of everything I had ever known.
Two months before the test for the twelfth grade, before my fate was to be decided in Syria — what sort of student the government would allow me to be, what sort of soldier, what sort of man — I boarded a plane for JFK airport. I lived for a year in Brooklyn, then moved to Nashville to live with a family who I knew as a child in Damascus. The man and my father have been friends for a very long time.
Now, I have everything on hold until I get my papers or until the U. S. kicks me out. I mean, that's sort of a joke but it's serious, too. Right now my status is pending. I have applied for asylum, they have taken my biometrics and given me a social security number, but the interview for my permanent resident status has been delayed for months. My lawyer keeps telling me to wait. She has heard nothing.
If I got a green card, I would apply for a real job, and then definitely apply for school. But if I spend all my time studying for the GED, even if I take the test and do well, and they tell me I have to leave? What then? At this point, leaving the U. S. would be almost like leaving Syria two years ago. I would have to start all over, from nothing. Here, I have already started making a life.
And the thought of another test disappearing from my grasp, the thought of yet again staring down at my own empty hands — this thought is too much. So the GED book stays on the shelf, near the door, where I can watch it watching me.
Even though I don't know what I will do if they deny my green card application, I know I'll figure out something. So much has happened in my life. I have been through so much. Not only war, but other shit, so much shit, which is still too difficult to discuss. Sometimes I feel like I have lived a whole life, like I am forty years old, or older, and then, when I feel that way, I have to tell myself — I really don't believe it — that I am in America, that I am on my own, that I am only nineteen years old.
There was a time when I smoked two packs of cigarettes and drank half a kilo worth of ground coffee every day. I ate a lot of sweets, too. That was when I was about fifteen. My school had been blown up by the rebel army, my neighborhood had shrunk to only a few square blocks, my friends had been kidnapped, tortured and killed for no reason. I started going to a school that was only a few students, mostly children of government officials. Those were difficult years, but it's funny now, because despite everything I look back on them fondly.
Still, I have trouble sleeping — I sleep maybe two or three hours a night, sometimes four. As depressed as I was then, the trouble I've had has only increased since I've moved to Nashville. I like it here, I have been able to get my own apartment and work a job where I've learned how to repair Apple products, and I can start to imagine what my future my look like. But for all the problems I had back in Damascus, since moving to Nashville I feel like my anxiety has doubled. The waiting, the fact that everything could be taken from me at any moment, here and in Damascus: my home, my life, my family . . .
I'm not a citizen of anything. I'm a citizen of nowhere. To be a citizen, or to have a home, you have something to connect you with that place. And nothing connects me with any place right now. In Syria, a lot of the places I used to go have been demolished, and a lot of my family has already left. Even when I see them—my dad twice now, and my mom once—there is something missing.
I did work in an orphanage in Damascus when I was sixteen years old. I worked there three days a week cutting their hair. On the second day I had a five year old kid tell me that both of his parents were dead. His dad was in the army and had been killed in the war. His mom stayed at home. But one night a bomb hit their house and she was killed. It was — wow. When he told me his story, he was still smiling. He didn't really know what was going on. After meeting him, something changed in me.
I have met a lot of people in Nashville. Most of the time I let people believe whatever they want to believe about me, about where I am from and who I am. A lot of people assume I'm from Europe, people think I'm French and I let them believe it. If I say I am from Syria then people make a lot of assumptions about me that are wrong, and if they think I am from Europe then what they think is probably closer to the truth. Besides, I get tired of dealing with Arab people. We have an expression: no one will fuck an Arab like another Arab. It doesn't sound as good in English, but I think the idea is clear. I constantly have to watch out so that I don't get taken advantage of. It has happened so many times. Then again, people have been so kind, so helpful in other ways. The family that let me stay with them. The owner of the store where I work.
I am trying to look forward, trying to have a life in this present place. I want to study and take the GED, to know how to solve for x. I want to find a better job. I have done some work interpreting for medical patients with the Nashville International Center for Empowerment, which was hard, emotionally, because the people I was helping were having such difficult problems — cancer, heart, diabetes, so much illness — but it was rewarding, too. That's the kind of work I want to be doing. I think eventually I could be a good psychologist. In Syria only the crazy people go to see a psychologist. But here, where it's accepted, where psychology is not taboo, there are still people who could benefit who do not seek help because, I don't know, they can't afford it. I think I could help solve that problem.
I have cut back on my habits in the past couple of years. Now I drink five or six cups of coffee. Maybe two cups of Syrian coffee that my mother has sent me, which has cardamom in it and reminds me of the smell that pervades certain neighborhoods in Damascus, the cafés where my grandpa likes to go. I make those coffees on the stove in the Syrian style, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. I will have a few cups of American coffee, too, throughout the day. I have a Keurig that makes it easy, at home and at work. I smoke less than one pack of cigarettes in a day now, at least on the calm days. I still love sweets, especially cheesecake. But in general I don't eat nearly as much. I don't need to. Most days, I eat one meal and that is enough. My appetite has all but disappeared.