Amman, Jordan – February 2015
As Thanksgiving approaches, I look back at the previous year and reflect on the amazing love and compassion I’ve received. While I could write a book on all the people who’ve helped me out, I owe the most to the Syrian and Iraqi refugees I worked with in Jordan. They ignored our differences and took me under their wing when I didn’t have anyone else.
I arrived in Jordan at a tough time. I had quit my job in Turkey early and didn’t have a backup plan. I landed at a hotel restaurant in Amman, Jordan, not knowing a single person or a word of Arabic. It was a leap of faith and could have easily turned out terribly, had I not lucked out with my coworkers. The main crew I worked with was composed of myself, an Iraqi refugee, and two salafist Syrian refugees. I’m white, Mormon, and don’t speak any Arabic. There was every reason for this to blow up in my face.
The leader of the restaurant staff was abu Abduh, a Syrian refugee. He spoke no English and I spoke no Arabic, so he bridged the gap by yelling Shaku maku Jimmy! every 30 seconds, or whenever one of us enters the room. Shaku maku is Iraqi slang along the lines of what’s shakin? and my name isn’t Jimmy, so it got old. Fast. Abu Abduh used to be a taxi driver in Homs, Syria, but fled to Jordan as he became trapped between ISIS and the al-Assad regime. He was loud, obnoxious, and would give you the shirt off his back. He was the patriarch of our strange family.
Next came Thamer, another Syrian refugee. Young, serious, and a strict salafist. Due to his religious views, ISIS thought he would be sympathetic and tried to recruit him. He immediately packed his car and sped to Jordan. We regularly argued using hand gestures and a collection of profanity that we both understood, but could never stay mad for more than five minutes.
Finally, there was Muhseen. He’s a former Iraqi Army soldier who also worked with American forces. He originally lived roughly 15 minutes from one of the locations I served in Iraq, close enough that I’ve probably given his son candy at some point in the past. Muhseen’s brother worked as a barber on a US Army base and was murdered. He then found a bullet wrapped in a note that said “LEAVE” on his doorstep. Muhseen left with his family in the middle of that night.
I didn’t know a soul in town. I didn’t know a word of Arabic. This didn’t matter. They took me under their wing, teaching me customs, phrases, and how to sneak into local establishments. They each had different backgrounds and fascinating stories, far more interesting than anyone I would meet in town. I stayed there with them for a month. We ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily as a family. I originally went out exploring most days, but then winter set in and the rain became regular. I explored the city less and less and spent more and more time with them. We couldn’t communicate intelligently, but we learned to joke and bridged the gap by calling each other charmuta (bitch), zebra (for the black and white aprons we wore), or the names of various Israeli politicians.Not everything was perfect. We had regular arguments about smoking in the kitchen or washing feet in the sink. Thamer would yell at me almost daily for throwing away old bread- He explained to me that it is a sin in Islam to waste any food when it could be given to a hungry person or animal. I learned quickly not to throw old food away, but he still assumed it was me whenever it happened and we wore out our voices screaming unintelligible insults at each other. Then his goofy smirk came out and everything was back to normal. This was a microcosm of our time at work. A hot, enjoyable mess.
I’m not sure what I should say to them now. Thank you isn’t nearly enough, but it’s all I have.
Thank you for trusting me despite my military background and missionary religion.
Thank you for all the amazing food.
Abu Abduh still lives in Amman with his family and is waiting to hear back from the Canadian embassy regarding staying in Toronto. I don’t have the heart to tell him how much nicer Vancouver is.
Thamer still works at the hotel and is waiting on asylum status in Sweden.
Muhseen works in Amman at a different hotel. He is waiting on approval to bring his family to the United States. We remain good friends.
The author is soon headed to Greece to work at a refugee camp. If you would like to donate supplies for the refugees, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Money will not be accepted.