BADAMA, Syria—June, 2011.
On the afternoon of June 6, 2011, eighteen year-old high school student Mostafa Hassoun jumped into the family’s white Skoda minivan; his father at the wheel, the van peeled out of the small farming village where he’d lived his entire life. The wheels of the Skoda spit gravel and kicked clouds of dust into the air as it bounced down the road, its side door flung open to allow women, children, the elderly and disabled to hop aboard.
Over here! Come on! Get in!
Braced behind the passenger seat, Mostafa reached through the open side door, pulling his fellow villagers into the van. The air was thick with an odd, incongruous silence filled only with the sound of the Skoda’s motor; the crunch of the tires on the road; a baby crying. Every now and then, a distant explosion; the rattle of heavy gunfire.
The entire village was on the run that day; President Bashar al-Assad’s military was making a brutal sweep through the Northwest province of Idlip, leaving a trail of carnage and destruction in its wake. Folks in Badama grabbed what they could, and beat a hasty retreat towards the Syrian-Turkish border, just five miles East.
The violence, while on the upswing, was nothing new to Mostafa: Two months earlier, his high school had been partially destroyed by bombs, the remaining structure taken over as a military base. All phones, email, and computers were under round-the-clock surveillance; the slightest criticism of the dictatorship was punishable by torture and execution. The white Skoda barreled and bumped down the narrow road, to Ain-al-Beida (or Ayn al-Bayda), a densely wooded mountain village on the Syrian side of the Turkish border.
The small town of Ain-al-Beida, with its usual population of under 2000, was stretched to breaking point as it absorbed thousands of displaced people, not only from Badama but the entire Northwest Syrian region. The influx of travelers swelled the city; people lived out of cars or makeshift tent cities, while a lucky few managed to rent or occupy rustic cinderblock houses. Water was readily available from two local mosques, but food was scarce; Mostafa foraged for fruits and vegetables in nearby orchards, where he found cucumbers, tomatoes, green beans, apples, beets, basil and lettuce.. Some days, he didn’t eat, surviving only on water.
On July 18, 2011, two weeks after pulling out of Badama in the Skoda, stealth-video uploaded to internet clearly displayed government tanks, snipers and plainclothes forces rolling into Badama, setting fire to trees and houses. There was nothing left to do but to leave Syria and cross the border into Turkey. Abandoning the Skoda under a tree, Mostafa and his father made their way across the Syrian border to a refugee camp in the unforgivingly hot, shadeless town of Reyhanli, where summertime temperatures typically soared to highs of 115.˚ In the Reyhanli camp, it wasn’t unusual for a refugee to take mini-showers as often as three times a day, to keep from overheating; impromptu mini-shade areas were rigged up with clothing, sheets and poles. Mostafa only had one set of clothes: a yellow tee shirt with black stripes, and a pair of khaki shorts—the ensemble he wore the day he left home—which he washed every time he took a shower. In the hot, desert climate, his wet clothes would dry in minutes.
Two weeks after landing in the Rehanly camp, Mostafa and his father were relocated to a different camp fifty miles away. Yayladagi—an oasis of wall-to-wall white canvas tents surrounded by wild-growing laurels, with their scent of bay leaves —was far cooler than the blistering heat of Rehanly; light fog descended on the settlement every now and then; there was even an occasional sprinkling of rain. Despite overcrowded conditions, an odd silence seemed to permeate the camp at Yayladagi; men smoked, saying little. Women tended children. Children were sent to the water tank for water, the younger ones accompanied by an adult, or an older child. Silent games of checkers recurred under the laurel trees, players’ brows deeply furrowed. Birds chirped from the branches of the nearby laurel trees, punctuated by the occasional faraway blast of a bomb—the reverberations unseen, but always deeply felt. For Mostafa, the sense of waiting, of being in-limbo too long threatened to consume him. So he kept busy. He registered as a Syrian refugee, applied for resettlement in the U.S., and got a job in a Turkish restaurant near the camp, cleaning and making sandwiches. (One month later, his Turkish employer, impressed by the teenager’s work ethic, entrusted him with the keys.) Perhaps most importantly during this time, Mostafa became actively involved with International Medical Corps, a U.S. organization that transports basic medical supplies to hospitals in Syria, and also distributes non-food items such as mattresses, clothes, and cleaning supplies to civilians stranded on the Syrian side. The undertaking involved a significant level of risk, requiring Mostafa to re-enter Syria repeatedly with clandestine deliveries.
Mostafa also dreamed of continuing his education; he took a high school exam in Arabic, and received a high school diploma from the Libyan government. He wanted desperately to learn English—but for now he worked, saving money to make a deposit on an apartment where he could relocate the rest of his family.
And, of course, he worried.
Mostafa managed to save enough money to rent a small apartment for his family in Turkish city of Antakya, the capital of the Hatay province. Mostafa’s mother and the three siblings joined them immediately. The new neighbors in their Antakya neighborhood were kind and welcoming, even protective of their new neighbors. A new, more hopeful chapter had begun.
In Antakya, Mostafa readily made friends. One day, he learned from a cousin about an educational opportunity that sounded almost too good to be true: a new nonprofit was offering English language tutorials to Syrian students over Skype, gratis. Mostafa signed up immediately.
It was a move that would change the entire trajectory of his life.
SEVERNA PARK, Maryland—September, 2015.
Maria and Jonathan Ulbricht welcome me into their Severna Park home, ushering me into the airy, spacious kitchen, graciously offering coffee. Outside the window, there’s a profusion of lush, grassy lawns and trees; an aura of tranquility resides over the secluded suburban street, lined with stately brick houses. The Ulbrichts’ youngest son, Liam, a Robert Redford-ishly handsome high school student, looks up and greets me from where he sits at the kitchen counter, finishing his breakfast. A framed photo of the Ulbrichts’ eldest daughter, Bailey, sits on a bookshelf, revealing a young woman with long, straight red hair, a face graced with freckles and a beautiful, winning smile.
Jonathan and Maria tell me Bailey is the founder and director of Paper Airplanes Tutoring, a nonprofit that offers English language Skype tutorials to Syrian students free of charge. Bailey conceived the idea for PAT when she was still an undergraduate at Carleton College in Minnesota. An International Relations major, she’d followed the Arab Spring uprisings closely, electrified by the outcry for democracy in the region—and then horrified, as she watched the Assad administration’s brutal response towards peaceful civilian protesters. While most of the world threw up their hands or turned a blind eye, Bailey was moved to take action.
Enrolling in Arabic class, she e-mailed over 60 organizations and contacted a Syrian expat to speak at her university, asking him if he knew any organization that might take her as a volunteer over the summer. He told her about an educational center in Reyhanli that desperately needed volunteers to teach and take care of refugee children. So that summer, in 2013, she made the trip to Reyhanli, working for eight weeks with a posse of young refugee children, keeping the kids’ spirits afloat with playground games, art projects and English lessons. She fell in love with the refugee community there, forming strong friendships; one family in particular took her under their wing, fussing over her, watching out for her best interests, making sure she had plenty to eat. She found that many of her Syrians peers were frustrated that the war had derailed their educations; they needed to learn English and pass the TOEFL (Test Of English as Foreign Language) in order to attend university in the West—but how were they going to do that without resources or teachers?
So Bailey stepped up to the plate, offering her friends impromptu English tutorials—at first, in person, and later, upon her return to the states, over Skype. As word about Bailey’s cyber-tutorials began to spread, more and more Syrian refugees requested to participate. Inundated, Bailey couldn’t take on everyone—but she couldn’t find it in her heart to turn anyone away; instead, she decided to recruit her fellow students at Carleton to help her shoulder the load, and suddenly, she found herself at the helm of an entire English language-learning program in cyberspace. The upshot was a new nonprofit, Paper Airplanes Tutoring.
At the table over coffee, Jonathan and Maria help me cobble together a timeline of their daughter’s four extended trips to the Syrian-Turkish border: after Bailey’s initial 8 week stint at the educational center in Reyhanli, there was a 3-week stay in December 2014 in both Reyhanli and Antakya, when Bailey and her friend Mike interviewed a wide range of Syrian noncombatants for senior thesis research. Upon her return to the states, Bailey applied for a Davis Peace Prize, winning a generous $10,000 grant that she used to revive a struggling test prep center in Antakya for which she created a computer lab, taught advanced-level TOEFL prep classes, and paid the TOEFL test fees of fifteen well-prepared students (the test comes with a $185 pricetag—an unattainable amount for most refugees, who barely have enough to eat). Upon returning from that third trip, Bailey made a U-turn after only one week, returning to Turkey to teach English for nine months on a Fulbright.
The PAT program has a profoundly positive impact not only on an academic level, but a personal one as well. The one-to-one nature of tutorials fosters rapport, solidarity and friendships between U.S. and Syrian students. Political awareness, empathy and cross-cultural exchange are just a few of the benefits, in addition to English language acquisition. Recently, Paper Airplanes Tutoring partnered with Students Organize for Syria (SOS), and currently engages tutors from over twenty U.S. colleges, as well from universities in Canada, Moscow, France and India. What started on a shoestring has now taken on a life of its own.
Severna Park feels a world away from the war-torn Turkish-Syrian border to which Bailey is so fiercely, unflinchingly drawn.
“She’s always been kind of a wild child,” Jonathan says speaking of Bailey, a little bewildered, but proud of his daughter, in spite of himself. “She’s just…” He shrugs his shoulders, searches for the right word. “She’s just…a very passionate person.”
GLEN BURNIE, Maryland— September, 2015.
Nan Ross, church mobilizer and volunteer coordinator for the Glen Burnie branch of World Relief, is busy today. In her early fifties, she’s tall, broad-shouldered and long-limbed, with honey-colored bobbed hair, gold-rimmed spectacles and a staccato, but determinedly upbeat quality. She reminds me of a very tall, lanky bird, all angles—a little bit herky-jerky—with a salt-of-the-earth, no-nonsense, resolute quality you’d find in any woman on a mission.
A dry-erase board clamped to a temporary wall divider in the World Relief office announces the imminent arrival of 41 refugees scheduled to arrive in Glen Burnie this evening, traveling by car from JFK; 37 will come from Myanmar (Burma) and 4 from Bhutan. Nan, her colleagues at World Relief, and a fleet of faith-based volunteers will provide the refugees with everything from housing and cultural orientation, to English classes and employment opportunities.
The small World Relief office in Glen Burnie is almost entirely staffed by folks who were refugees at one time. “Synath’s from Cambodia, Fathi’s from Iran, Joseph’s from Myanmar—and I’m your token American!” Nan says, delivering the last phrase like a punchline.
What’s her role at World Relief, exactly?
“I develop relationships with churches,” Nan says, inhaling sharply, as if to refuel herself. “To get churches involved with what we do.” Volunteers, culled from the congregations of churches, are severely needed: the office cannot function without their collaboration, their donations. She rattles off the list of the most urgently needed items with a kind of frazzled intensity—vans, basic household goods like rice cookers, bags of basmati rice and kitchen wares, baby items like strollers, baby carriers and car seats, furniture, winter clothes, places for refugees to live. Good old-fashioned money doesn’t hurt, either.
One local church, Abundant Life in Glen Burnie, has been indispensable, donating a 15-passenger van as well as a transitional house, and even an abandoned florist shop adjacent to the church property to use as a donation center. But even that gargantuan level of generosity barely dents the tip of the iceberg, considering the scale of need. The office is running on faith—literally.
The WR website states its mission in faith-based terms: “God STANDS for the Vulnerable;” “We STAND with the Vulnerable,” as well as (the more imperative) “STAND with the Vulnerable!” synopsizing WR’s mission to serve “those who are suffering from poverty and injustice…as part of God’s plan to redeem, reconcile and restore the world… ” But while WR has faith in abundance, finances are decidedly tight.
Making it from one month to the next is a precarious juggling act; the office is in a constant state of triage, going from crisis to crisis with little to no respite. Nan scrambles from week to week to keep the whole endeavor afloat; she seeks volunteers to drive refugees to medical appointments, teach English, to assist with cultural orientation and, most importantly, to “just be a friend.”
“Loneliness is the number one killer,” Nan explains, grim. “There are high rates of suicide—” The door of the small conference room swings open and a young World Relief worker pops her head in, asks Nan to open a window, then vanishes.
Nan gets up, wrestles with a sticky window. “Our office just opened up 16 months ago and our budget this year…” She trails off, jiggling and tugging at the window, finally managing to cajole the frame about an inch. “It’s the humidity,” she says, pressing her full weight against the frame; the window abruptly yields another inch or two; Nan beams her optimist’s smile and flops back in her chair, a little spent from the tussle. “Basically, we cut our a/c so we can afford to hire an employment specialist. Because finding jobs for people is critical.” She leans back and looks at the ceiling, as if pleading with a higher power. “But then again, everything’s critical.”
According to the UN, there are more refugees in the world today than ever previously recorded—and more than half of those are children under the age of 18. As of this writing, 59.5 million people—that’s right, nearly 60 million people—are on the move as refugees or displaced people.
The conflict in Syria has been the biggest source of displacement recently, though not the only one. Since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, 6.5 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes; 4.1 million have registered as refugees. Of the 4.1 million registered as refugees, the U.S. has resettled what can only be considered a microscopic number, at best: a mere 1,600—or 0.03%. Some see this figure as miserly, given the scale of human suffering; others cite fear of terrorism as a legitimate reason not to accept Syrian refugees within U.S. borders. Germany has taken in around 800,000, while Turkey has sheltered close to 2 million. In response to pressure from advocacy groups, President Obama recently ordered his administration to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees in the coming fiscal year, beginning October 1, 2015. The process of vetting someone from Syria is painfully slow: a background check on a Syrian refugee takes the U.S. Department of Homeland Security roughly 2 years.
“Syria’s a hotspot right now,” says Nan. “People are like, ‘We don’t want them because, you know, they’re terrorists.’ But then… you have people who watch the television and are like, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ Last night I was watching the news and the refugees were trying to crush through the police barricade in Hungary, and then the police (used) pepper spray and tear gas—and I saw this pregnant woman, she just—went unconcious. She wouldn’t come to. And I just started crying. My heart just broke. I’m thinking, how can Americans look at this and not feel compassion? I understand some Americans’ concern that ‘it only takes one (terrorist).’ But we gotta trust the process. There is a human crisis.”
It’s hot in the room with the air conditioning turned off. Nan stands, takes another crack at the window, yanking until the frame yields completely. A trace of humid air drifts in. Fanning herself one hand, Nan informs me that currently, only one refugee from Syria has made his way to the Glen Burnie World Relief office, arriving in June 2015.
That one refugee is Mostafa Hassoun.
ANTAKYA, Turkey—December, 2014
It was on Bailey’s second trip to Turkey, in December 2014 that she met Mostafa. Although she spoke Arabic at an intermediate level, she still needed translators to help her conduct her thesis interviews with fluency—and, equally importantly, to introduce her to Syrian subjects with politically liberal leanings. Mostafa’s cousin, also an English language-learner in the Paper Airplanes Tutoring program, was one of the translators working with Bailey that December, and connected Bailey with Mostafa.
“I met him was in Antakya,” Bailey tells me when I catch up with her over Skype. She relays an event that stands out in her memory from the first day she spent with Mostafa in interviews. “We were walking down the street, deep in conversation because we had just had a very heated interview with someone he had set us up with—and we walked by an old man who I didn’t even see at first, who was hunched over and his nose was just pouring blood—he looked to be about 70 or maybe 75—and Mostafa saw him from far away. We were in mid-sentence and Mostafa just bolted and ran over to the man; I guess the man had fallen when he was crossing the street. He was Turkish, and Mostafa speaks a little bit of Turkish—but just barely—but he helped him up and started tapping people on the street as they were walking by (asking) for tissues. Finally he got some tissues and wiped the man’s face.” She pauses, remembering. “It was such an instinctual response, one unlike I’ve never seen—it wasn’t like, Oh maybe I should go help this man— he didn’t even think; he just went and did it. I think he just has an incredibly pure and caring heart at his core.”
Bailey perceived not only an innate kindness in Mostafa, but also an exceptional bravery. Alluding to the type of work Mostafa did with International Medical Core, she explains, “I know he was going in and out of Syria often to deliver basic medical aid to communities and hospitals, which was very, very dangerous—heroic, actually. He’s certainly not alone; most NGOs, even the State Department, operate by employing Syrians to go in and out of their country delivering aid, so—unfortunately there are a lot of Syrians doing this high-risk work because they have the best chance of making it out of there alive; they look like everyone else, they speak the language, they know the land, that kind of stuff.”
The stakes are high: if Mostafa had been caught re-entering, he would have been tortured; still, Bailey reassures me, the Assad regime is mostly concerned now with armed groups. The main concern for Mostafa was bombs, barrel bombs, and strikes from various militant groups—that sort of thing.
In Antakya, Mostafa helped Bailey and her colleague navigate the city of Antakya, introducing them to other Syrian refugees, going out for hookah, and facilitating her entry to the Syrian community there. It was an expansive and heady time; Bailey, her colleague Mike, and Mostafa would conduct up to four hour-long interviews per day, afterwards sharing lively and heated discussions, going over the day’s work, dissecting the interviews, while analyzing current politics.
The thesis research revealed some significant findings. Religious ideology wasn’t a motivating factor; security, however, was.
“The primary concern (for Syrian noncombatants) was, Is the group going to protect and provide security to my community? Are they gonna install a government that’s okay to me?” explains Bailey. She quickly hones back in on the silver lining. If the U.S. can make a moderate group be more successful against the Assad regime and provide (that same) sense of stability for these communities, it means that we can easily win the population back over. It’s not like we’re fighting against a radical religious ideology that people are just sucking up, you know? It’s really about security.”
During this time of conducting interviews in Antakya and Reyhanli, Bailey stayed with her close friends in Reyhanli, who were like a second family to her. Work was stimulating, and she had a strong support network of friends to return to every night. But, then, she hit a wall. On the last day she was scheduled to conduct interviews at the educational center in Reyhanli, and a few men, under the mistaken impression she was a U.S. intelligence operative, threatened her life, passing the message to Bailey through the center manager. The manager defended Bailey, insisting she was only there to work on behalf of the people, but the men were unpersuaded, and did not withdraw their threat. So, that afternoon, Bailey left Reyhanli by public bus, unsure of exactly who (or what group) threatened her.
“Antakya is fine, but Reyhanli not that safe,” explains Bailey. “There’s a lot of movement across the border, including armed groups. Crime rates have increased—you know, people taking advantage of a chaotic situation. I stick out with red hair and freckles.”
She credits her close ties to the community for saving her life. “My focus was always to get embedded in the community, because as soon as community members trust me, I’m much safer, definitely—and I was lucky to be taken in by this family that was very popular in the community; so, in that way, I was vetted.”
In the more cosmopolitan, liberal city of Antakya, she could disappear into the maze of narrow streets, keeping under the radar. That evening, she told Mostafa what had transpired in Reyhanli, and off-handedly mentioned she was looking for an apartment in Antakya.
No no no no! He insisted, Don’t get an apartment—stay with my family!
So she did. For several days, before she was scheduled to fly back to the U.S. As a guest, she was given the only bedroom in the home. She ate breakfast and dinner with the family every night, “a large spread of eggs, cheese, olives, Helawie (or Helva), cucumbers, and tomatoes,” recounts Bailey. “Often his mom would pick up figs for us after as well, which were always amazing. I immediately fell in love with the family. In fact, his mom would wake up every morning at 7am with me and take me down to the park where I would run laps while she would sit on a nearby bench, keeping a close eye on me.” The Hassoun apartment was surrounded by Syrian and Turkish neighbors, a close-knit community of friends. Bailey remembers, “They would often call to each other, conversing across their balconies. We spent every night watching the moon rise above apartments and the nearby mountains, talking quietly in Arabic, sipping tea and eating watermelon. It was quite special.”
That December, Mostafa received a windfall: a letter from the UN, notifying him he’d been accepted to the U.S. Out of millions of applicants, he’d drawn a lucky number, won a lottery of sorts; World Relief would let him know his specific destination in a few months. Ecstatic, Mostafa messaged Bailey by Facebook; she called him right back on her cell, and then she, Mike and Mostafa went out for a celebratory round of tea and coffee at a popular café in downtown Antakya, near the old city. It was a magical night; the three friends sat huddled around a small heater, contemplating the future, basking in Mostafa’s good fortune, as Turkish music played softly in the background.
Unfortunately, Mostafa’s father’s application to the U.S. was rejected; ironically, in a kind of public policy catch-22, his association with the FSA may have disqualified him, despite the fact the FSA is openly backed and armed by the U.S. Or perhaps the rejection had something to do with his age—the reason remains unclear. In any event, the family encouraged Mostafa to grab the opportunity with both hands; they would look into other options, such as Germany and Sweden. Mostafa decided to take his shot, even though it would mean not seeing his family for many years; once within U.S. borders, he wouldn’t be able to leave until after obtaining citizenship—a process that usually takes 5 years or more.
In the last week of December, Bailey left Antakya for the states. Grateful for the hospitality and kindness shown her, she thanked Mostafa and his family profusely. She returned to Carleton, banged out her senior thesis, and continued her work as director of PAT, recruiting more tutors, getting the fledgling non-profit on its feet. Mostafa and Ahmed continued with their English-language education over Skype. The violence in Syria surged and increased on a daily basis; the world watched in horror as waves of refugees on the nightly news streamed out of Syria by car, boat and on foot, risking their lives in the process. Mostafa’s family held tight in the apartment in Antakya; Mostafa waited to learn from World Relief where he’d be relocated in the states. Bailey and Mostafa stayed in touch over email and Facebook. And life went on.
One day, in early May, Mostafa received word from World Relief that he was to be relocated to a place with a strange-sounding name. He contacted Bailey, who was now in the final stretch of her senior year at Carleton, to let her know the news.
I’ll be staying with World Relief Center in Glen Burnie,Maryland, Mostafa told her.
Oh no, no, no, no! Don’t stay with World Relief—stay with my family!
The circle had closed.
SEVERNA PARK, Maryland—June, 2015.
Maria Ulbricht is an ex-dancer turned nutritionist/yoga instructor. With blond, fly-away hair, a ballerina’s build, and a voice that rarely rises above a whisper, she might appear deceptively fragile—but the determination at her core is as fiery as it is understated. She remembers the day she and Jonathan made the decision to have Mostafa live in Severna Park with them, and their teenaged son, Liam.
“Bailey said (to Mostafa), You should stay with my parents! But Mostafa said , No, no—I don’t want to intrude, and she’s like, No, absolutely, let me just make sure, hang on. And she called me, and I talked to Jonathan and we both just immediately responded, Yeah.” Maria’s gaze never wavers as she recounts the story. “There was no question.”
But some people weren’t so keen on the idea. A few well-meaning friends and family members were concerned for the Ulbrichts’ safety, automatically associating anyone from Syria with ISIS and Jihad violence. Some cautioned them to lock their bedroom doors at night. Others advised them never to leave their visitor home alone. Would the family unwittingly be harboring a terrorist? Maria and Jonathan tried to allay the fears and quell the anxious voices clamoring all around them, reminding the naysayers of the good turn Mostafa’s family had done for Bailey when her life had been in the balance—but still, some people harbored reservations. At that point, Maria took a stand: when Mostafa arrived, she would stand by him 100%. No one she knew would ever hurt him, or make him feel uncomfortable or unwanted. She told her friends and extended family as much. She put her foot down.
“Not everybody was supportive. We chose to tell people who we trusted but even close friends were concerned,” recalls Maria.
“I think it was more about the publicity about ISIS than anything else,” Jonathan explains diplomatically.
Maria nods. “People were just so afraid.”
“They were totally freaking out,” says Liam.
“I will say,” says Jonathan (who understandably has no desire to paint anyone in a bad light), “that from my perspective, it was a very limited negative response. It was a small percentage of people that even knew what was going on.”
“That’s true,” says Maria. “Not a lot of people knew.”
On June 13, 2015, two days before Mostafa was scheduled to fly to the U.S., Bailey graduated from Carleton in Minnesota, and Maria, Jonathan and Liam flew to the midwest for the ceremony. Two days later, on June 15, Maria and Liam zipped back to the Chesapeake by air, while Jonathan remained in Minnesota with Bailey to help her pack up 4 years’ worth of belongings and make the cross-country drive back to Maryland.
“Everything was a whirlwind,” Maria recalls of the day Mostafa came to stay. No sooner had Maria and Liam returned home from the airport when a white pick-up truck pulled up in front of their house, with Samody (or “Sam,” the then-director of Glen Burnie World Relief) at the wheel and Mostafa riding shotgun.
“We were really excited to have him,” recalls Liam. “It was just my mom and I. We brought him in, and had dinner and we started talking right away.”
What did you talk about?
“He just told us about his life, basically,” says Liam. “He opened up pretty much right away. It was kind of difficult to communicate at first. Mostafa didn’t know a lot of words but—we got around.” Liam flashes a good-natured smile. “Plus, Google Translate helps.”
“One of my hesitations,” Maria remembers, “was, How do I greet him?” She desperately wanted to start off on the right foot. “Do I hug him? I mean, we’re wearing shorts and it’s summer and I don’t want to offend him. I just wanted to do the right thing and make him feel as comfortable as possible—especially after what he’s been through. But I called Bailey, and she’s like, No, mom, he’s super-liberal—you can hug him, it’s totally fine! And it’s true, he was very comfortable with us.”
One close family member, who’d been adamantly opposed to the the notion of Mostafa staying with the Ulbrichts, came to meet Mostafa; he expected to find some wild-eyed jihadist camped out in the Ulbricht living room. That preconceived stereotype could not have been further from the actual person he met. “When he met Mostafa for the first time there was this hilarious connection,” recalls Jonathan, “I mean—Mostafa walked in, they met each other, and he was like, Oh for crying out loud! He’s a sweetheart! ”
“We’re all really protective over him,” Maria states, with quiet but steely determination. “I feel like I’m his mother away from home, and I don’t like it when people say things about him or are skeptical about him. He’s—he’s really sweet. He’s extremely sweet. And he’s been through a lot. If people aren’t going to look at the humanitarian side of this, I can’t convince them. There are so many people suffering, it’s ridiculous not to to give him a chance.”
Bailey was overjoyed to see Mostafa safe and sound, but sadly only could stay in Maryland a week before she had to fly back to Turkey for her Davis Peace Prize project. Her sister, a filmmaker, was living in another state. So the Ulbricht household for the moment would consist of Maria, Jonathan, Liam and Mostafa, and an ancient yellow lab.
Mostafa had accomplished what thousands of refugees could only begin to dream of: he’d escaped a war-torn country and landed in the U.S. with kind and caring people who wanted only to help. The scenario has all the makings of a fairy tale-ending, a quintessential happily-ever-after.
So, you ask, what happened next?
He was overcome with depression.
Jonathan remembers the weeks that followed. “He struggled. He’d lost his community, his family. He was used to walking everywhere—walking to work, going outside his apartment, smoking the hookah with five other buddies and just being part of the community. And he missed that. I mean, you could tell: he was slipping.”
Part of the descent into despair was culture shock. A good part of it, understandably, was missing his family. Another contributing factor was suddenly having to function full-time in English, of which he had a grasp, but was nowhere near fluent. He had no car, no driver’s license, and—since there’s not much public transport in Severna Park—he was isolated. Without a social security number during those early weeks, he couldn’t go banging on doors, looking for work. Bailey had left for Antakya. Most days, Liam would go to school, and Maria and Jonathan would go to work; Mostafa started hibernating in his room, 14, 15, sometimes 16 hours a day, coming out only at rare moments to eat.
Maria, a nutritionist, spent much of her days working out of Whole Foods in Annapolis. She’d meet with clients in the café, or do computer work using the wifi there. She liked the atmosphere, the earthy vibe, the easy access to a salad bar. One day in May, a month before Mostafa was due to arrive at her home, she was at Whole Foods, ordering a coffee. The slender, spritely young man behind the coffee bar was in his mid-20’s; he wore glasses and a serious but kind expression on his face. Maria noted his intelligent manner and the spark in his step; she took to him immediately. On his lapel she read the name ‘Mohammed’. She asked the barista where he was from? Morocco, he said. Did he speak Arabic? He smiled and said he did. So she took a leap of faith and explained she would soon be hosting a refugee from Syria in his 20’s; was there any chance he might be able to meet him, spend a little time with him when he arrived in June?
“I was hoping Mohammed might be a connection between the Arabic and the English, a bridge. And when I asked him, he was like, Oh yeah sure, I’ll help in any way I can. Mohammed came through huge,” Maria says.
“Well, let’s call him by his real name now,” says Jonathan, correcting her with mock-sternness in his voice.
“Oh yes.” Maria breaks off, smiles. “He changed his name just recently when he became a citizen, so, he goes by ‘Aiden’ now.”
Aiden or Mohammed—by any name, he he was a godsend. “He’d stop by the house and pick Mostafa up and drive him to all sorts of places: DC, Baltimore, Little Italy. Mohammed loves Little Italy,” says Maria, obviously still struggling with her friend’s new moniker. “They’d hang out, get ice cream.” Sometimes he’d come over to the Ulbrichts’ house for a meal, or just to hang out and talk. The new friendship helped smooth Mostafa’s transition exponentially—but still, Mostafa found himself acutely apprehensive, especially about finding work.
Mostafa’s social security card arrived in the mail after a couple weeks, and, at Maria’s prompting, he applied for a job at Whole Foods. Mohammed helped arrange an interview with Human Resources. Maria accompanied Mostafa to the interview for emotional support; she helped Mostafa fill out the lengthy and confusing application, which ended up being “full of holes”; many spaces on the form went unfilled. Mostafa had no paper trail that could easily be input into the system. Human Resources managed to cobble together a work history for him, phoning the International Medical Corps for a reference, but other than that, contacting previous employers was problematic. They couldn’t request any transcripts from his high school because it had been bombed. The hiring process hit speed bump after speed bump; it started to drag on. A week went by, then another. And then another. After the initial burst of optimism, Mostafa started to lose hope.
“The Whole Foods background check was taking forever,” remembers Maria of that frustrating time. “He’d say, I just want to bag groceries, why do they need all this information? Do they think I’m with ISIS? ”
Maria went into Full Mother Jacket, calling Human Resources every day, trying to get the machine to budge. But despite all efforts, Mostafa’s job application stayed in a chokehold for over six weeks.
“I was calling Human Resources at Whole Foods constantly!” Maria laughs at the memory of her own desperation. “And finally (the HR woman) said , Okay, you need to stop calling me. I’m working on it. He’s hired, we want to hire him—but we’re having trouble with one particular number.” Maria adds, “They just didn’t know how to categorize him. You know, when Mostafa came over, he didn’t even have a passport. All he had was a little piece of paper saying that he was here in the U.S. through World Relief, with this teeny-tiny picture of him on it. No one knew what to do with that!”
“I don’t know that it was so much that an actual background check that was being conducted,” intercedes Jonathan, “or if they simply didn’t know what to do with him because he was literally in a category of one. I mean—he didn’t have a passport, he didn’t have a driver’s license, the ID that he doeshave doesn’t match anything they’ve ever dealt with before…”
“Those six weeks felt like an eternity,” Jonathan remembers, “Mostafa thought, I’m never getting a job. And he actually started talking about going back to Turkey! Maria and I were like, Just—let us keep working on this!! Even his friends in Turkey said, You’re crazy, don’t do it! Stay there in the U.S., there’s no life here! You’ll just stagnate…!”
It was fellow immigrant Aiden, who really bolstered Mostafa when he was at his lowest point. “Mohammed was huge in that moment,” Jonathan concedes. “He’d take Mostafa for a drive and say, Get a hold of yourself, what the hell are you thinking? Do you know how lucky you are? Shake it off, it’s gonna be fantastic!”
Maria recalls the day when the situation hit rock bottom. “We were in the car one day in the parking lot of Food Lion in Severna Park—me, Jonathan, Mohammed and Mostafa—and Mostafa said he didn’t believe he’d ever find work here, he wanted to go home. And all three of us were like JUST WAIT! DON’T THROW IN THE TOWEL YET! There we were, in the parking lot of the Food Lion—and Mohammed’s throwing his arms up in the air, screaming, You’re in the greatest country in the world! Stop crying! It was our all-time low moment,” Maria recalls, “but it was also inspiring, because Mohammed was so passionate about the U.S. He really believes it’s a great place.”
Maria believes that coming from Mohammed, the cry to rally packed a bigger punch than it would have coming from either her or Jonathan. Mostafa took his friend’s advice in the Food Lion parking lot that day, and decided to hang on. Not too much longer, the cashier’s assistant job at Whole Foods materialized. The job grounded Mostafa, gave him hope and integrated him into the world.
“Whole Foods has been absolutely fantastic,” says Jonathan. “We knew that once the pump was primed, he was gonna get as many jobs as he can, he’s gonna learn English—and will probably be fluent in Spanish and English, since he works with a lot of Spanish-speakers at Whole Foods. He wants to work, he wants to go off to college, he wants to study architecture in some form. He’s gonna do well, we just had to get him moving—get those shoes on and get out there!”
Through a friend of a friend, Jonathan heard about a unique living situation in downtown Annapolis, where roommates live in an apartment in a communal living situation founded on Christian principles. Some of the residents come to the apartment after a bout of homelessness; the apartment serves as a way station, a place for individuals and families to regroup after hitting a rough patch. The residents share rent, kitchen space and common areas, divvying up the housework and holding the occasional prayer or meditation circle; they give one another encouragement and respect as they take steps to consciously improve their lives.
Mostafa isn’t from a Christian background, but residents voted him without a hitch; perhaps they perceived a kindred spirit—another card-carrying member of a select club that has no borders, that of the uprooted and dispossessed. He thrives on the companionship, the ready access to a variety of people. He enjoys living near a bus line, being close enough to work to commute by bicycle. Mostafa has been sleeping on the couch in the common room for a couple of months now, camping out and making due, but an actual room is scheduled to come available in a few weeks, and then he’ll have a bed and a room to call his own. Step by step, Mostafa says, girding himself whenever anxiety threatens to overwhelm him. Step. By. Step. Maria taught him the phrase back in July, when he was stuck in the job application limbo; he chants it daily, like a mantra, an antidote for worry. And he still worries about so many things—getting a car, returning to school, obtaining citizenship. Getting his English fluent. Seeing his family again. Whenever the worries reach Wagnerian proportions, he stops himself, takes a breath. Step by step, he says.
One week after Mostafa began working his 39 hours-a-week gig as a cashier’s assistant at Whole Foods in mid-August, he began a second job, making sandwiches in a shop in the mall. Currently, he’s on the lookout for a third. With survival being his primary concern, he concedes his dream of studying architecture and design will have to take a back seat—for now.
GLEN BURNIE, Maryland –September, 2015
Outside the front door of the Glen Burnie World Relief Center, a tirade of impassioned Arabic flows, rising and falling in successive waves.
I’m here to take Mostafa to a dentist appointment. Nan, our lady of Volunteers, believes in multi-tasking. Nothing goes to waste here—least of all, time. When Nan and I spoke earlier this week, I’d asked if there might be a way to interview Mostafa, as well as the Ulbrichts. Nan had called Maria on my behalf, then promised to try to find a way for me to speak with Mostafa. Today, she needs someone to get him to the dentist. Enter freelance writer with a car, and voila! Problem solved.
But when I get to World Relief around noon, the front door is locked. Am I here on the wrong day, the wrong time? Do these people take lunch? I check the time on my cell phone; no, this is right, I’m good. Tentatively, I knock on the door. Once, twice, three times. I wait, standing at the front door, listening to a fervent discourse in a language I don’t know. Someone’s in there—someone with a point of view, someone on a roll. I hear footsteps and Nan opens the front door, sandwich in hand.
“Is this locked? I’m sorry,” she says.”
“Oh, I thought maybe you were closed for lunch?”
“No, no,” Nan says in a hushed voice. “It’s just—Mostafa’s got a telephone call.” She nods towards a closed office door to my right. “Wall Street Journal is interviewing him; they got a reporter who speaks Arabic.
“Oh, great! Maybe it’ll get some publicity for World Relief?”
“Let’s hope so,” Nan says, wiping a crumb from her mouth.
I take a seat about 3 feet from the closed office door, listening to the rapid crescendo and decrescendo of Arabic in rapid swells, followed by short silences; the sense is one of release after long period of holding back. Words gush like water breaking through a dam. I sit and listen, managing to catch a word or two, repeated at intervals: ISIS, and sometimes, Assad. The WSJ interview lasts about 20 minutes. Finally, there is a brief silence, followed by the familiar pattern of telephone goodbyes, the click of a phone. Then, nothing at all.
After about a minute, the office door swings open and Mostafa appears, wearing a dark green tee-shirt, khaki shorts, and a pair of well-worn running shoes. Nan approaches, her eyes lit up. “Well? How’d it go?”
“Fine. Fine.” Mostafa’s kind of amped right now, shifting his weight from foot to foot, as if all the energy he unleashed by the phone call now has nowhere to go.
“Wall Street Journal!” Nan clucks, like a mother hen. “You’re going to be famous!”
“Oh,” Mostafa says. He gestures as if absolving himself. His hands fall to his sides. “I just want to help my country. That is all.”
He’s young—aged 22 now—with dark brown curly hair that’s receding slightly and mobile, fluid features that change expression on a dime. One moment he appears wired, the next grimly exhausted, shapeshifting from cosmopolitan young man, to boyish, unsophisticated greenhorn, to sorrowful, bereaved old-timer. His eyes are as blue-green as the Aegean, his nose prominent and dignified; Groucho Marx eyebrows, elfin ears, a 5 o’clock shadow—and a contagiously disarming smile. The September humidity curls the hair above his ears, giving him the air of a young, albeit swarthy, Caesar. Nan introduces us; we shake hands.
“CBS News, and now Wall Street Journal,” Nan coos, with pride.
“Wow, CBS, too?” I ask.
A look of discomfort flickers across Nan’s face; she flashes an apologetic smile. “Well, the CBS guy talked to him but…” She shrugs. “I’m not sure he was quite what they were looking for.”
“What were they looking for?” I ask Mostafa. Mostafa shrugs.
“Well,” says Nan, “the guy from CBS said they might eventually send a crew but… I don’t know. They may be looking for something else, a family or something…” She smiles at Mostafa, reassuring. “But…he said you were a sweet kid, though.”
Suddenly I feel like I’m in a Hollywood agent’s office. Good audition, but you’re not right for the part. Sorry, kid, you’re not our type. Get us someone more…Syrian, please. I can’t help wondering, is CBS reporting is the news, or casting and creating it, sort of like a mini-series? I can just hear the following dialogue played out in some imaginary Hollywood office in my mind:
-Get us a refugee for the spot, will ya? And make it pronto!
-Here ya go.
-This one? Are you kidding me?
-Yeah, what’s the prob?
-No, no, no, this one’s all wrong. He’s so…2014.
-Well, what are we looking for exactly?
-I dunno. Someone Syrian.
-He is Syrian, Bob.
– Don’t get me wrong, he’s a sweet kid! Just totally wrong for the spot…
So, CBS gave Mostafa a drive-by, but he didn’t fit the bill. But what is the bill, exactly? Nan inferred that maybe the problem was Mostafa is single; is that because a single man, unattached to a family, might fit the stereotypical notion of a terrorist, or someone who could become sufficiently lonely and alienated enough to turn into a terrorist, given just the right levels of stress, isolation, and economic instability, compounded with a generous serving of PTSD? If Mostafa had a wife and kid, would that make him more media-friendly? More consumable to mainstream American viewers? More…Hallmark?
Nan brings me back to earth. “Okay, so it turns out the dentist was cancelled after all,” says Nan to me. “No ride to the dentist necessary—sorry.”
“That’s totally fine,” I say. I turn to Mostafa. “Do you need a ride back to Annapolis?”
Mostafa says, “I have no car.” He smiles by way of apology.
“Where can I take you? Are you hungry? I’ll take you to lunch.”
He says, “I get a discount at Whole Foods. Whole Foods is best for me.”
So Mostafa and I get into my 2003 Subaru and head to Whole Foods. The September day is hot and humid, sticky; the a/c in my Subaru hasn’t worked for seven years, so we open all the windows and let the wind rush in, drowning out our voices as we make conversation. Crossing the Naval Academy Bridge, something shifts—what it is, I’m not sure—perhaps it’s the speed of the car, blue sky above, the wide blue-gray expanse of water below—but suddenly there’s a sense of freedom, of busting out.
I laugh and tell Mostafa I’ve only been in Annapolis since late May, and don’t know my way around, so just shout out directions, please.
“I’m always lost in Annapolis!” I yell, over the wind.
“Me, too!” he laughs. “Where are you from?”
“You miss California?”
“A lot. Annapolis is nice, but too hot!”
“I have a friend from Syria in California.”
“You should visit him. You’d love it. Where in California?”
“San Francisco,” Mostafa says. “He’s gay. So he’s happy there.”
“Everyone loves San Francisco. Most beautiful city I know.”
“Totally beautiful. Every corner, a view. You should visit sometime.”
Mostafa looks out at the waters of the Chesapeake; says, “Well, I am here now.”
At Whole Foods, Mostafa and I settle at a counter in the café, facing a window. Mostafa has some fruit, I have salad. We both have bottles of water. He tells me about leaving Badama in the Skoda, the 2 weeks of waiting in Ain al-Beida, the scorching heat of Reyhanli. He shows me video, on his cell phone, of the August 2013 chemical attack at Ghouta, Assad’s handiwork: children and adults writhing in pain, backs arched, twitching, frothing at the mouth, dead and dying bodies lined up in rows, frantic first responders running from body to body, in a futile effort to save lives or at the very least, relieve suffering. The scene is completely horrifying—pure apocalyptic science-fiction. Except it’s real.
“Assad says ISIS did this,” says Mostafa, “but only Assad could have this kind of weapon. ISIS is nothing compared to Assad—nothing! He is a bad man.” He tells me of his childhood friend—his first friend—randomly shot by snipers on the street in Badama. He says, “They killed him for nothing—just for fun.” And then he looks at down at his cell phone, though there’s nothing on the screen. He looks at it a long time. Tears—they’ve caught him by surprise. He fights to hold them back; they fall anyway.
“I’m sorry,” Mostafa says. “I’m sorry.”
“No, don’t be.”
He wipes his eyes. Rubs his forehead. Checks email on his phone. Mercifully, a message from Maria appears—a much-needed ray of light. His face brightens noticeably. Cheered, he shows me her text; the message consists of three words: Okay, my son.
“She calls me her son,” says Mostafa, deeply touched. “She is my mother in this country. In this country, I am her son.” He shakes his head, marveling. “Maria is amazing. Bailey is amazing. Bailey’s whole family is amazing. I have my jobs because of them. I have my place to live. I have my friend, my bank account—all because of them! Without this family, I am nothing! They—they are amazing.” He returns Maria’s text, hits send.
What would he like to be doing in ten years?
“Architecture,” he says. “Architecture and design.” He waxes poetic over buildings in Paris. In Syria, as a high school student, he cut out images of Parisian architecture, plastered the walls of his room with them; their intricate design and detail fascinated him, and captured his imagination.
But right now, he has to choose: “Either I study, or I eat. And I have to eat,” Mostafa says stoically.
Mostafa no longer believes in God, or religion. He’s seen it lead to too much destruction. Where is God, he asks me, in the Syrian civil war?
“Before I’m Muslim but now, no, I don’t believe—now I don’t believe.” He shakes his head, looks down at his cell phone, taking a moment to translate these abstractions. “For four years, people pray and pray to God to stop the killing, and stop Assad, and nobody answer. Where is He? He kills people to go to the sky and have a new life in heaven—why? No, we need life here!” He gestures with zeal to the earth. “There are people here! I don’t see God. So—Christian or Muslim, pray or don’t pray, believe or don’t believe—just be good with me, and I will be good with you. That’s what I believe now.”
What’s his hope for the future?
“I hope the killing stops and the people (of Syria) make freedom.” Suddenly, he looks exhausted—not tired, but deeply, profoundly worn out. He gazes at the blue sky above Whole Foods. “And I hope to complete studying,” he says with a firm, definitive nod.
ANNAPOLIS, Maryland—September 25, 2015
I want to make sure that all the facts in the story are correct. Between my non-existent Arabic and Mostafa’s evolving English, I’m worried a few facts and figures (and maybe entire narratives) have been lost or significantly altered in translation. I text Mostafa and ask if maybe I can meet him and Aiden at Whole Foods, and go over what I’ve written so far, make sure it’s accurate. Aiden can translate parts of what I’ve written into Arabic, since he’s fluent.
Mostafa texts me back:
How is 9 pm? Aiden has a little time then.
Can I get a ride to Whole Foods with you?
– Totally. 8:30 ok?
True to form, I get totally lost in downtown Annapolis, bumbling through the maze of one-way streets, circling the capital various times in a daze, asking inebriated tourists for directions. Finally, I reach his place, twenty minutes late. He’s waiting outside, hands in pockets, taking in the scene. It’s Saturday night in downtown Annapolis. A mural-lined courtyard is lit up with festive strands of Italian lights. People, young and old, stroll along the narrow, streets of brick from another century, eating ice cream, goofing around, taking in the sights. A bedraggled accordion player sits outside the entrance to the ice cream parlor, a tip jar at his feet, filling the night air with off-key, plaintive melodies. Suddenly, the whole world’s exploded into a Fellini movie.
I wave to Mostafa, pull up in front of the building. He sees me and approaches the Subaru, moving his hands in time with the warbly, warped-sounding accordion music like an exuberant, loopy conductor—and for a moment, the whole world is his oyster, his creation, his film to direct. For a moment, it feels as though his hands are orchestrating not only the rise and fall of the music, but everything within sight of him—the people, the cars, the city lights, the night breeze—the entire world swirling around him. For a moment.
“Music! Music, tonight!” says Mostafa, approaching the car with his sense of humor at full-tilt. He hops into the car with comedic flair. His mood is contagious; I can’t help cracking up.
“I’m so sorry I’m late!” I wail.
“Nah, it’s all right,” he says.
As we pull away from the downtown scene, the music fades, disappears entirely.
“Oof,” he says, inhaling deeply. “Last night I don’t sleep. One hour only, between midnight and 1am.”
“Oh, no! Why?”
“I don’t know,” he says shaking his head, looking straight ahead. He smiles, exhausted, looks at the windshield. “I’m—I’m all tangled up,” he says. “Yesterday was a big holiday for us. You know Eid?”
“No,” I admit.
“Eid al-Adha…? It’s a big holiday…” Mostafa sighs. “I talk to my mother on the phone, my father, my brother in Turkey. My sisters in Sweden and Germany. Everyone, we…talk. All night, I’m thinking, Last year, we were all together. This year? We talk on the phone.” He’s smiling, but the words catch in his throat.
I want to say something encouraging, but all I can think is, Five years is a long time to wait to see anyone you love. Rather than say something hollow, I nod, clasp the steering wheel. Mostafa looks out the window. There’s silence for a while.
“Maria took me shopping today,” he says, switching to a lighter note.
“Shopping for clothes!” he marvels. “For me!”
When we walk into Whole Foods a little after 9pm, the workers on the night shift greet him warmly, forming a little circle around him. Mostafa, my man, says one heavy-set young woman sporting a man’s haircut, man’s posture, man’s demeanor. (“He is she,” Mostafa apprises me later, with respect in his voice, when we head back down the escalator to the parking garage. “He looks like he; but he—is she.”) Mostafa gives his co-worker a fist bump, a little embrace. Yo, Mostafa, ‘sup? comes from a tall 20-something guy with dreads sporting the signature orange Whole Foods vest. There’s a high-five here, a soul-shake there, more greetings all around. A nod and a wave to a young Latino guy stacking lemons over in produce. The others are accepting of him, welcoming; he’s genuinely well-liked. There’s no aura of apart-ness; he embraces everyone equally, fluid in his interactions, a genuine social bug. Mostafa tells me he’s learning Spanish as well as English at Whole Foods. “The workers from Mexico are teaching me—they are so nice,” he exclaims. “So, so nice!”
He swoons in wonderment at his good fortune in landing here, surrounded for the most part by kind people and discounted food to eat; here, at Whole Foods, for 39 hours a week, he keeps his mind off his worries with the simple, but life-saving act of work—however humble it may be. Working with Zen-like focus, he bags groceries and rounds up stray carts in the gargantuan, cavernous parking garages, greeting customers, observing the U.S. in all its oddball glory and post-modern strangeness, grappling with English and Spanish simultaneously. “Whole Foods is amazing,” he says without a trace of irony or holding back. “I love Whole Foods.”
Aiden sidles up to Mostafa, joining the small crowd of cohorts, says he’ll be free in a minute or so, just give him a second. Mostafa nods, turns to me, asks if I want anything.
“Naw, thanks, I’m good.”
“Are you sure?” he asks, without budging an inch. It’s not a question.
“Um. Okay—maybe water?”
“Just water? Sure.”
I watch him disappear down a florescent-lit aisle lined with water bottles of competing shapes and sizes, brands, vitamin enhancement options, electrolyte levels—and I can’t help but think of him three months ago, newly arrived in the states, abruptly untethered from his family, his whole life a blank slate; I think of those initial weeks at the Ulbrichts’ house when, lacking work, he found himself without any focused, sustained activity to keep his mind off the anguish of the past or the colossal uncertainty of the future; I think about how daunting it all must have been.
And I think about how far he’s come—step by step.