finding a more authentic, playful life --- finding your story

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Running Into Your Past...

As many of you know, I have worked a great deal with Iraqi refugees --  trying to create awareness and change for these millions of displaced people. While in New York, I have done this through working with The List Project, selling paintings and writing various articles, a play, a book with Veterans Book Project and most recently, a memoir.

After touring the play for 2 years and finishing the book, I have taken a bit of a step back from advocating for Iraqis. I needed a breath, some space. I made a move across the country. I'm even doing a Christmas show for Pete's sake!

But one day, after climbing up the 3000 stairs of the elevated Chicago "El" train platform, I make fleeting eye contact with a man. I smile and turn away to look at the train map of Chicago (...still being new here and all) when suddenly I sense the man next to me.

"Excuse me," he says in broken English. I recognize the accent. Come on, really Chicago?

He shows me a piece of paper with directions written on it in English and sure enough, Arabic.

"Chicago?" he asks, pointing to his paper. Still not super fluent in the Chicago public transportation system, I look at the map with him, locating the Chicago stop in Chicago, both of us strangers in a foreign land.

"Yes, 11 stops from here" I offer at last, trying desperately to remember my numbers in Arabic before realizing I only learned 1-10 anyways.

"OK," he responds. "Sorry. I speak Arabic. No so English. I Iraqi." Of course you are. What else would you be? I smile.

"Asaalam al-aikum" I greet him, grateful to remember the phrase.

"Ahhhh!" He is clearly happy to partially recognize his own language. "You? Arabic?" he asks, confused.

"I only speak a little. Shway-shway," I answer.

"Ahh, shway-shway. Little! Yes! Very good!"

Once onboard the train, I try to explain that I advocate for Iraqi refugees, that I do plays and books to tell stories like his. Forget about it! Neither his English, nor my Arabic could help us through that attempted communication! He goes on to tell me that he and his wife and three children just settled in Chicago two months ago. They fled Iraq, spent a year in Lebanon until fleeing to Damascus for three years, waiting for resettlement.

"At end, Damascus very bad, no good, very bad," he adds with both hands gesturing no, as well. His face changes when he speaks of those years.

"But you are all safe?" I ask, needing to act out "safe" and let's be honest--- "you all". Why can I remember no other Arabic!?! What is the word for "you"!?

"Yes. Now. Ensh'Allah." There's one! Ensh'Allah, yes. Ensh'Allah: God-willing, they are now safe.

It's not easy, this transition to a new country, new city, new people, new culture, new language. It never is. Being a refugee has to be one of the hardest things there is --- especially one from Iraq, with all our prejudices and stereotypes in this country. I can see it on his face. But I also see the joy on his face meeting me...a possible friend, someone in some strange way familiar, or at least kind. I think it is no accident that I was to meet this man today. I think I needed it and I think he did too.

"Thank you," he says to me before he gets off at the 11th stop. "You very nice."

"Afwan," I respond. His eyebrows raise in recognition of my attempt at his language. "Yes! Afwan. You welcome. Very good!"

"Ma'asallama!" I shout out to him waving goodbye, now in full glory mode with my Arabic.

After I settled back in my seat, I smiled once again: my first Iraqi friend in Chicago; first of many, no doubt.

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