If you haven’t been following me on Facebook or Twitter this week, you may have missed my as-told-to piece with ‘Nadia Al Moualem’ for Vox.com. I wrote the story following an interview that lasted for several hours with Nadia and her family in early December (the names ‘Nadia and Mohamad Al Moualem’ are pseudonyms–the family has every reason to be afraid for their own safety, as well as their kids’ and grandkids’ in refugee camps in various countries near Syria.)
I left Nadia’s home feeling physically sick, which as far as I can remember has never happened in all of the years I’ve known, been friends with, and interviewed refugees.
I was in Nadia’s apartment with a friend, a translator who wants to remain nameless; he has stepped into the enormous whole left by the loss of this family’s older children.
Because he trusts me, they trusted me.
Within minutes of meeting, Nadia and I were gazing eye to eye in one of the most intense interviews I’ve ever experienced. I could see the quick way that Nadia’s mind worked, her impatience with ridiculous questions, the deep grief that rides just beneath the surface of her life every day.
She spoke about her lovely home back in Syria, the way she planted jasmine around the courtyard so it would fill the air when they ate dinner in the evenings; I pictured my own lovely home, about the same size, full of the memories of my daughters planting vegetables in our garden, our large family coming over to eat and play.
She spoke about her neighborhood in Daraa and I saw my own generous, warm neighbors who stand in the street and chat while our children play.
She talked about her children and I saw my own girls, growing into strong women like Nadia’s second daughter who studied religious studies and planned to use her education in a career that was just beginning.
And then “the event” happened. When Nadia and Mohamad spoke, they kept saying, “the event.” I asked our translator what “the event” was and they taught me the Arabic word: “thawra” (ثورة).
It was the revolution that swept through with chaotic maliciousness and took all of it, the life they had lived and the place they had been and the country they have loved for generations, as far back as anyone’s ancestors could remember.
They told me war story after war story, details of which I have researched and confirmed and dug into for weeks, but I cannot bring myself to say the words today. (My ability to turn away from the destruction of their country is a luxury I get by being born in a time of peace in a rich country where my skin and religion are in the majority. I feel that privilege deeply, but I also know that I have to pace myself these days.)
Nadia said several times, “There is no Syria. It is only war.”
I wrote about the war in Nadia’s voice because I wanted to capture the raw emotion I felt listening to her tell the story and because it was the only way I could get the words to come.
But I want to be clear: She did not, as many people keep saying, need me to give her a voice because she is voiceless.
Nadia Al Moualem has a voice. It is a lovely contralto voice. There is steel in her voice—it is the voice of a woman who stood in front of a solder and told him that if he killed her son, she would kill him (“Did you have a gun?” I asked. She looked at me with tender impatience, “Of course not. But still, I would have killed him. I would have done anything to protect my son.”)
Nadia’s voice is the persistent, competent voice of the matriarch who is confident you are turning down more cake only to be polite and she will not accept that, not in her house. I drank a cup of tea, three cups of coffee, and a bottle of water while we talked. I ate a gigantic piece of tres leches cake topped with hand-chopped pistachios; she bought the cake at HEB and decided pistachios would make it better (she was right). I tried to put my fork down several times and she would stop talking to gesture at the cake; I force fed myself at the end. At several points in my recording of our interview, I could hear the steady rhythm of her knife on cheap ceramic chopping up bananas which she slipped unbidden onto my plate. There were heaping plates of strawberries, grapes, and bananas. The coffee was so rich I could have left my spoon upright in the cup—in other words, perfect.
War has not dulled Nadia’s love of a well-laid table, even if that table is no longer the long one where her children gathered, but instead an inexpensive square coffee table hiding dingy carpet in an anonymous apartment in Austin, Texas.
Nadia’s voice broke only when she described her children and grandchildren. Again, I saw my own babies in the pictures she showed me on her phone: the spiky haired granddaughter with the chipmunk cheeks made me remember what it felt to hold my own middle daughter at that age. I felt again the spidery tickle of her pigtails on my cheeks while I tied her shoes. I remembered kissing those full cheeks after her bath, the smell of lavender baby lotion clinging to the folds of her neck.
Nadia poured her story into me while she talked.
That day, along with the cake and coffee and tea, I ingested whole every detail Nadia told me. I stuffed the details into every available part of my head and heart. I was full with it. I dreamed about it that night, the missile bursting into my house while my own husband slept, my own children scattered around the country, my own raw sobbing-desperation to have my babies around me again.
I couldn’t find any distance. I couldn’t figure out how to write about it. Normally I write quickly, the result of years of crafting graduate school papers during babies’ naptimes and short preschool days.
But this time I could not. For weeks I could not. I tried to describe myself walking in the apartment—how it felt, what I saw—but I collapsed under the weight of this story every time.
Nadia’s story clung heavily to my arms and legs. It blocked my mouth so that the words could not come.
Finally, in desperation, I just started typing what she told me, transcribing the recording more than writing. I edited it for clarity, but it’s her voice, through translation, from our interview. It came out, all at once, one morning in January.
I did not give Nadia a voice, I carried her voice inside of me with all of its fire and energy and force.
It is an intimacy I’ve never really shared with another person, a sense of letting her sit inside my skin and use my hands, use my English, use my connections, to tell the world what happened to her.
I’m not sure if that experience can or will ever happen again.
All I know after weeks of listening to that interview over and over until I have it all but memorized, after looking into her hazel eyes while she spoke, after witnessing the love she shares with her husband and the only daughter who is left, is this—Nadia and her family are not a political issue. They are people. She is a mother like I am a mother. She is the kind of fierce woman I want to be.
Her daughter and granddaughters are worthy of jobs where they will thrive and homes where they can put down roots. Her sons and grandsons are not frightening terrorists, they are good providers and tender fathers who only want to find a place where they and their families can be safe.
They are the victims of a brutal war by their own government, the victims of anti-Syrian rage in the countries where they jostle with millions of other asylum-seekers for any scrap to feed their families, and now the victims of an executive order that targets them because they are Syrian, because they are Muslim.
Nadia Al Moualem does not need me to give her a voice, she needs the world to stop and listen to her rich voice speak about happened to her and what’s at stake now.
The refugee debate has raged around us, a ceiling of noise, and I remain seated in that living room, one Christian woman from the US listening to four Muslims from Syria. We drink coffee and eat cake and look at pictures. And I think—if only people could sit with me, if only they could hear Nadia, if only they could feel that palpable love and determination and grit in the lilting rise of her strong, strong voice, everything would change.
Everything would change.
Many of you have been asking how to help. In addition to supporting SARA (which is helping to pay for the Al Moualems’ rent right now), I wanted to give you a chance to communicate directly with the Al Moualem family.
Leave notes in the comments below or on my Facebook page for Nadia and Mohamad Al Moualem under the status update for this post (you can private message me as well—I’ll see that it gets to the right place). I’m going to gather them into a scrapbook to give Nadia, along with the story I wrote with her, in the weeks to come.
The Al Moualem family and the other Syrian refugees in Austin have been floored by your support this week. Keep it up. They need to know that in this moment of extreme grief—the knowledge that the indefinite ban on Syrian refugees means her family cannot and will not be able to come over, maybe ever—they have people who love and stand with them.