A short story by Sean Ulrich
“He’s done it this time.” I said to my older brother, Ahmed. It was about 6:00 PM on the 27th of January, 2017. School that day was hard, and I was in a bad mood. I was upset when Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, and worried about being in America as a Muslim. Donald Trump said proudly once that he would ban all Muslims from the country. That day, I was angry that he placed a travel ban preventing my parents from coming to the United States, from Syria. They had been planning on moving here, to New York, for years, and were going to leave on the 30th. We had been preparing for their arrival for a month, but thanks to President Trump, that arrival seemed like wouldn’t happen for a while.
* * *
When my brother and I came to America, it was 2012, and the situation was getting out of hand in Syria. My parents told us we were going somewhere safer. I was only twelve at the time, and my brother was sixteen. It was all really confusing to me, and I still don’t understand why they didn’t come with us. We ended up in New York City, where we lived with our uncle, Joram. He had arrived in 2011, to escape before it got way out of hand. He said we could come with him, but my parents thought the conflict would clear up soon. The next year, however, they realized that it wasn’t going to stop within the near future, so they sent us to safety. My parents went through all the procedures and technical stuff for us (which I still don’t completely understand), so we would be legitimate refugees.
* * *
“It will work out.” replied Ahmed, “Donald Trump can’t do this; it won’t last long. Mom and Dad will be here before we know it.”
“It’s been five years! We were this close to being a family again, and then he gets elected and separates our family and countless others!”
“Calm down. I’m upset too, but there’s nothing we can do about it for now. We’ve been separated for five years, and as much as I hate to say it, we can wait a bit longer.”
“Okay, but you can expect to see me on the streets protesting the ban very soon.”
“That’s up to you. Just be careful. Those protests can get out of hand.”
Ahmed seemed to never be stressed. He always thought things through, and almost never broke the rules. I was the opposite. I didn’t think much before acting, I got angry over the smallest issues, and was more likely to get into a fight at school, which was a bad thing partly because I never won.
Uncle Joram was working late again. He was really nice, but he wasn’t around too much. He was always working, trying to get enough money for us to survive, so my brother and I had to learn to be independent. Ahmed hadn’t had nearly enough money to go to college, so he was doing what he could by working at a grocery store during the day. Our apartment wasn’t anything fancy, but it had what we needed for the three of us. I felt like once mom and dad came, everything would be sorted out, and we’d all be happy. We all thought that they’d be here soon, but now the president messed everything up.
We waited until Uncle Joram came home around 7:00 PM to eat dinner. By that time, I felt like I was about to die of starvation. Dinner wasn’t too eventful; Uncle Joram asked me how school was, I said it was ok, and he asked Ahmed how work was, and Ahmed said it was okay. We weren’t really the happiest family, because we missed our parents, or, in Uncle Joram’s case, his brother and sister-in-law.
He was also in a bad mood about the travel ban, but I think it went even deeper. I think he secretly felt like a coward because he left before the real conflict started in Syria, and he got out pretty easily. Whenever anything came up about my parents, I think he felt guilty. I didn’t believe that he was a coward; if he hadn’t left at that time, we would have had no place to go.
* * *
“You’re very brave, and I need you to be brave even longer. We’re going to send you to live with Uncle Joram in America, okay? Dad and I will come to there soon, so we can be a safe, happy family before you know it. Listen to Ahmed and do what he says. I love you, Fathi.”
Those were the last words spoken to me by my mother before we left Syria. I had time to give my parents a hug and then we had to go. We were put on a plane and flew for a long time to an unfamiliar city. I spent the plane ride thinking about mom and dad, and wondering what they were going to do in Syria without us. I always remembered those words my mom said, and will never forget them.
* * *
The next few days were uneventful, but we knew my parents would be worried about the travel ban, just like we were. I went to school, and most people said they supported me and my family, and in social class my teacher called on me and a few other students who were refugees and said that the school was behind us, supporting us. There was one kid, though, who said that it was good Trump made the ban and that I should be deported, too. I tried to tell him I was a citizen, but he wouldn’t listen. We got into a fight and actually won for once, but I got in trouble. The principal told me that he understood I was stressed, but fighting isn’t tolerated in the school. I got an hour of detention after school, and so did the other kid, but I found it unfair because he was the one who started it by being racist in the first place.
When I got home at about 5:00, about to complain to Ahmed, I could immediately tell something was off. Both my uncle and Ahmed were at home, sitting down in the living room. Uncle Joram looked really upset, but Ahmed looked just as confused and worried as I was. Joram looked up at me, and looked at Ahmed.
“What happened?” I asked quietly. Uncle Joram replied.
“I received word, from your mother, that… your father was killed by a terrorist group in Syria.” I dropped into a chair, and Ahmed stared straight ahead. Uncle Joram continued “He wasn’t targeted, but he was in the area when they attacked.”
I got up, said nothing, and went straight to my room. My dad and I were very close when I was growing up. He taught me all sorts of things. I couldn’t believe I ever thought that things could be the same way again. I was angry at myself because I had fallen for the illusion of hope. At that point, I had no hope. I had given up on hope. Hope was never certain. Hope deceives. Hope makes you think that the world will be a happy place and everyone will live in harmony, but then you realize it will never be that way. The world just takes away more and more, until you’re left without anything. That’s how I felt at that time. All I wanted was to be a family again. Was that too much to ask? Just then, I thought about my mom. She had absolutely nothing for her in Syria. Not even her husband. I couldn’t imagine how she’d be feeling. I was focusing on myself, and I didn’t even think of how my mom felt, or my brother, or my uncle.
I went out, to my family, and I sat with them. It was better to not be alone, I realized. Coping with grief is a hard task, and whenever one does a hard task, they would likely want someone else to help them. We helped each other. One person was missing, though. It was crystal clear: Mom needed to come to America. If it wasn’t for the travel ban, they both would have been here already.
As soon as we heard that the travel ban was stopped for the time being, we were instantly filled with that feeling I had hated just a few days before: hope. We knew once my mom found out, she would get on the first plane and come here. She contacted us, we made arrangements, and she said that she’d get there as soon as possible.
It took a week for my mom to actually get there, because there were so many people trying to get to America. We weren’t in contact, so it came as a surprise when she called and said she was at JFK Airport, ready for us to come get her. It took almost two hours to get there from our apartment, but it felt like a blur. The airport was really crowded, and we searched all around for our mom. Ahmed saw her first.
“There!” He shouted. She was sitting on a bench, with a small suitcase, and looking down at the ground. She looked older than I remembered, but still beautiful. She looked up at us, with a mixture of happiness and sadness, and ran toward us, while Ahmed and I ran toward her, to hug her. We were crying, and she was crying.
“Look at you two! You’ve both grown up so much,” she said when we had calmed down a little. “Your father would have been proud.” Uncle Joram walked up to us, and though he wasn’t really crying, there were tears in his eyes.
“I… I’m sorry,” he said to my mom. “I should have done more, should have helped or-”
“There’s nothing else you could have done,” my mom interrupted, putting her hand on his arm. “What you did for my sons… I can never thank you enough.”
We went home, and talked all night. The good, the bad, everything. We talked about our favorite memories of Dad, and there was lots of crying, but it was good. Sadness isn’t bad, it’s necessary. It’s also necessary to move past the sadness to experience joy. A lot of the time, there is a mixture of both. I knew that I would always be a little sad inside, but I could make sure the sadness didn’t take control of me. The memory of dad was far from dead, and it was comforting to think of all the good that had happened when he was alive. I didn’t end up with the complete family I thought I’d have, but it wasn’t so bad after all.