Customers are coming to Nour Kashak’s table, curious about the Syrian mezze she’s selling. A customer points to a dish and asks what’s in it. Nour waves away flies and searches for a way to describe kibbeh.
We’re inside the auditorium of the Ahwahnee Middle School. On this Saturday, a community organization has styled it as kind of bazaar. Vendors sell dresses and artisanal jewelry, and a small crowd is forming around the henna artist. A week from now is Eid al-Adha, the Muslim holiday that celebrates Ibrahim’s decision to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, and this Eid bazaar is billed as a way to get your last-minute shopping done. It’s an effort to draw Muslims of out their homes and into the community. This is a public school, though, so the religious aspects are in the periphery, like an Easter egg hunt or a Christmas sale. There is a DJ playing reggaeton, a raffle and a bouncy castle. There is something for everyone, and that is the point.
Only 3 percent of people in Fresno identify as Muslim. The majority of kids at this school are Hispanic. But in the last two years, over 200 Syrian refugees have relocated here. More are coming. This event is a proactive measure, an effort not only to make Muslims feel comfortable but to educate the community. The hope is that by bouncing on the castle on Saturday, kids won’t be so confused come Friday when the girl with the hijab didn’t show up to class because of something called “Eid.” The Kashaks agreed to work the event to promote their catering business. But few people showed up.
A customer hands Nour a $20 bill. She’s out of change. She pauses for a moment to consider her options. The kibbeh are $1 each, and he only wants two. Nobody buys two kibbeh. It’s like ordering two buffalo wings. Nour loans him the kibbeh and speaks to her husband, Thafer Kashak, in Arabic.
“Come, come,” Thafer says to me. We’re going to the store to make change.
I follow Thafer to the parking lot. “The Muslims here, they bought me this,” he says. We take a moment to look over his late model Hyundai Sonata. “Nice, huh?”
Thafer drives slowly, still learning the streets of his adopted city. Lanes are wide and empty. No one honks their horn. It’s quiet. We drive by stores where not a single person is standing outside yelling to lure us in. In fact, few people are outside at all. We pass some pedestrians at the light waiting, with a maddening suburban grace, for the signal to tell them to cross. This is not the Middle East.
Geographically, we are between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Culturally, we’re nowhere near either. This is not a liberal enclave. A young professional moving into those other cities might flip through a local alternative weekly to get the lay of the land, conduct an informal study of the brunch scene and make room in their heart for a new bartender. Here there is no alternative weekly and so no column that describes the muted pleasures of a Saturday night trip to Cheesecake Factory. Fresno is the capital of California’s agricultural belt, and it is experiencing a phenomenon common in the parts of America that voted Trump: preventable death. Suicides have doubled since the 1990s, and drug overdoses among middle-aged adults have tripled. The death rate for whites is almost 40 percent higher in Fresno than the rest of California.
This area, where Thafer is making sure his donated Hyundai does not go over the speed limit, is represented in the U.S. Congress by Devin Nunes, a Republican. The congressman is a supporter of Trump’s Muslim travel ban. “There’s no possible way to screen them,” Nunes told CBS in 2015, fearing some of the 10,000 Syrian refugees the Obama administration was admitting into the country could be terrorists. Five of those refugees were members of the Kashak family.
Before the rumor of war, Thafer lived peacefully in an outer ring of Homs, in the neighborhood of Al-Kusser, where minarets shared the skyline with church bells. He served in the military when he came of age, as required by law. Soviet advisers taught him radar and the art of smoking cigarettes. But he didn’t re-enlist. He returned to his hometown with a desire to make something of himself. He had a grade-school education and a last name that didn’t necessarily open any doors. So he went into an industry where effort mattered more than education: food.
He made a living selling tahini, a creamy sesame seed paste. It is an ingredient in hummus, but contrary to what the hummus industry would have you believe, one may enjoy it alone. Thafer elected to spend his 20s indoors, roasting sesame seeds and looking over invoices. His machines were Turkish, some of them very old. His ear was so familiar with the hum they gave off, he could sense impending disrepair. They roasted well beyond their intended lifespan. He jerry rigged them, mending fractured parts, instilling in those inanimate objects a stubbornness to live.
Thafer’s mother worried about him. He was growing bald and developing a potbelly. He turned 30, and she wanted him to produce something other than tahini. Grandchildren, perhaps.
Nour’s family knew the Kashaks. When Thafer and Nour first met they were not alone. Nour’s family sat around them, watching the pair develop chemistry, practicing a version of dating in keeping with their conservative upbringing. The customs of her faith advised against an unmarried couple meeting alone, warning that temptation would be a third wheel. Nour didn’t rebel. She embraced her faith. Even today in America, when a man extends his hand she will not shake it but rest an open palm over her chest. Her desire to remain a good Muslim would be a lifelong pursuit; she looked for the same desire in a husband. Their courtship was not a daring romance but a sober appraisal of one another. At 31, he drove his own car and slept in his own apartment. He had reduced life to a manageable size and made headway because of it. Plus, he could make her laugh.
They honeymooned in the resort town of Mashta Al-helou. They had a daughter and a son, Deema and Basil, who are now 15 and 17. Nour taught Thafer about things in life unrelated to tahini. They took their kids on vacations. They spent days off visiting cousins around the city. Sometimes the whole family would go to a little outdoor cafe and enjoy the cool night air. Thafer and Nour would smoke hookah and let their kids run around.
Then the war came. First slowly, then suddenly. They remember being worried about how close the gunfire was getting. The kids rooms had windows to the street. Nour began making them sleep all together in the living room. Thafer worked more, squirreling away money. Early one morning a car bomb exploded outside their apartment. Deema was 9 years old. She woke up to find her father missing. Nour assured her that he was fine, probably had stayed the night at the factory. Thafer walked in, to everyone’s relief, and said they were leaving Syria.
Thafer’s chin hovers over the steering wheel as he looks for the turning lane. This is the beginning of my two-week-long interview with him. He does not tell me, right away, about any of this. He does not walk me through the morning they left Syria. How he watched Nour lay some things on the living room rug. All that time she spent worrying it’d stay clean, that one of the kids might spill something, those domestic worries already seeming part of another life. How he watched his wife fold up the rug and swing it over her shoulder. How he regrets not helping her gather more things. A relative said they were overreacting, that the fighting would die down and they would be back within a week. He does not tell me about abandoning his car at the border. How they crossed into Jordan on foot, Nour still carrying the rug. He doesn’t know me yet, so he hasn’t yet looked me in the eyes and told me his factory was blown up and that soldiers live in his apartment now.
Instead, he begins with a subject he’s more comfortable with. He puts his hand to his chest and tells me: “I make tahini. The best.” I tell him I like hummus, but I’ve never had tahini. He looks at me with wide eyes. We park and he engages the handbrake. “You have to try,” he says.
We enter a dollar store. Thafer walks toward the checkout lane. He is still learning English. He takes out a $20 and gestures with one finger. The clerk seems confused. “You have to buy something to get change,” she says. A line is starting to form behind Thafer. He smiles at her, not understanding. For an excruciating amount of time nothing happens. Thafer’s $20 is limp in midair. People are staring. As a journalist, one always debates whether to bear witness or to intervene. This is just a small example of the indignities of being a refugee, but I’ve seen enough. I buy a Dasani water for $1.79. Thafer counts his singles. He tells the clerk thank you. He aligns the bills the same direction before placing them in his wallet, a habit from his merchant days.
We’re back inside Ahwahnee Middle School. The DJ is still playing reggaeton. A costumed Mickey Mouse and Pikachu are dancing with the children. Thafer is sitting down on a plastic chair. Having done Nour’s chore, he reaches for a Pepsi and begins to relax. A Latino man tries to buy a Sprite with a large bill. Thafer’s face turns to panic. He gently hands the $20 back to him and raises a finger. Neither of them speaking English. The Latino man raises a finger sympathetically, both of them communicating in a pidgin sign language.
Nour keeps handing me kibbeh. The turnout is underwhelming. At this pace, she’s going to have to throw away most of the food. When I try to suggest I’m full, she starts in on the desserts. The Latino man returns with a dollar bill. Thafer smiles and says, “Thank you.” Their son Basil isn’t here today, but their two daughters, Deema and Lulu, 3, are sitting next to them.
The DJ has started playing Lulu’s favorite song: the remix of “Despacito” featuring Justin Bieber. Lulu unseats herself and waddles over to the dance floor. Deema sees her and gets off her phone to follow. Lulu moves away from the costumed Mickey, suspicious of the giant mouse. “She’s scared of it,” Deema says laughing. Lulu is mouthing the lyrics of the song, but she keeps turning over, unable to really let loose with the giant rodent so close by.
Thafer watches his daughter from the perimeter. “Very famous, this one,” he says, referring to the song. I’ve never heard it, I say. He raises an eyebrow. “Everybody know ‘Despacito,’” he says.
“I put the words into the phone one time,” he says, referring to the lyrics. “Very bad!” he laughs.
I look puzzled. But despacito just means “slowly” in Spanish.
“Yes, but what happens after… after… you know?” he says, gesturing a forward motion with his hand. We listen to the song. He knows I speak Spanish and waits for me to take in the lyrics. I look at him. “See?” he says laughing, “Very bad.”
The family has a recording of Lulu practicing the song in her room. She sings the Spanish verses with the same ease as the English verses. She speaks Arabic to her parents but not always. She is a citizen of no country. She was born in Jordan and now dancing to reggaeton in America, seemingly at home anywhere, blasé about it in the way only 3-and-a-half-year-olds, or serious cosmopolitans, can be. She holds a green card like the rest of her family. That status became a political target last year when the Trump administration blocked re-entry of legal U.S. residents originating from certain Muslim-majority countries.
Lulu doesn’t worry about things like that. Lulu doesn’t jerk her head when balloons pop, the way Deema does. She hasn’t felt war. She hasn’t worried her father wouldn’t make it home. She hasn’t been woken up by a car bomb. She is afraid of things that can’t hurt her, like Mickey. The family wants to keep it that way. Lulu throws tantrums from time to time, but no one in the family gets frustrated with her. Deema is different.
In Syria, Deema lived as innocently as Lulu lives now. She would tug at her mother’s dress for money to buy shawarma and run off with abandon. “She cried for a week about a doll we left behind,” Nour says, now in the living room of their Fresno apartment.
The Kashaks’ living room is bare. There are no family photos or school awards, none of the memorabilia a family collects over the years. The couches are a ‘90s brown.
Deema remembers that doll. “I remember everything about my neighborhood, and I don’t want to forget anything about it,” Deema tells me.
Before agreeing to this interview, Deema sat alongside her father and Reza Nekumanesh, director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, to negotiate the terms of what this would entail (two weekends, everything on the record unless explicitly told something was off the record, and the ability to clarify statements that might have been lost in translation). It was Deema, not her older brother, speaking for the family. Both siblings have a strong command of English, but the younger Deema carries herself as if she is the older one.
Even outside the family, she stands out. There are over 30 other refugee families in Fresno, but Nekumanesh asked her to speak at an upcoming political rally. She’s nervous about it, actually. It’s in a week and she hasn’t written anything.
Deema is a high school freshman. The lessons are less rigorous than she’s used to. Her classmates are learning the algebra she already learned four years ago. But making new friends is harder. “When I see other girls at school wearing this,” she points to her hijab, “I try to say hello.” Deema checks her phone intermittently, sending WhatsApp messages back to her friends in Jordan. Her phone case is shaped like an oversized yellow banana. A reminder of a childhood interrupted.
The Kashaks do not use air conditioning, but they have a small fan. They have a television set, and Thafer has learned to cast YouTube videos onto it. On the patio, he has a hookah pipe where he goes after Fajr, the morning prayer, to burn some coals and call his family in Jordan. He sits out there before sunrise, speaking Arabic into his cell phone, tobacco and morning mist collecting around him; he could still be in the Middle East. When the sun rises, the silhouettes in the distance, contours of what could be a castle or a mosque, reveal themselves as a DSW shoe store.
He works in a Lebanese restaurant, cutting vegetables as a line cook. One night the restaurant was short staffed and the owner asked if anyone knew how to make falafel. Thafer volunteered, having no idea how to make falafel. Thafer went into a back room and called Nour. She gave him her recipe over the phone. At the end of the night, the owner declared it the restaurant’s new falafel recipe. One Tripadvisor review reads, “The falafel is the best I’ve ever had, and I’ve traveled extensively in the Middle East.” Thafer smiles. “Nice, huh?” Nour slaps him on the shoulder. “It was my recipe,” she says laughing.
Thafer shows me YouTube videos of sesame seeds roasting. He gets on one knee and moves his hand across the screen. “This one, very old machine,” he says, 10 minutes into a video. “Always break, you know? Fix, fix, fix.” As the video ends he goes to his phone and before I can suggest something else begins another. “This one, like the one I have.” He uses the present tense. Thafer is excited that there is an audience. Deema checks her phone and Nour makes more tea. They’ve had their fill of tahini videos on YouTube.
I ask Thafer about restarting his business in America. His demeanor changes. He tells me this machine costs $40,000 to import from Turkey. A fortune for a line cook. When Nekumanesh first got him his job, he warned Thafer that the restaurant was nowhere near his apartment. Thafer took it anyway. “Thafer would bicycle to work in 100-degree weather,” Nekumanesh told me.
But all that hustle barely covers rent. “I’m 51,” he says, pointing out how a young man can work two jobs and save money, but finding work as a 50-year-old is different. He receives envelopes from Nekumanesh, help from the community. The federal welfare program SNAP provides aid with groceries.
In our time together, I’ve never seen him show frustration or complain. The only thing he’s disparaged in my presence is other people’s tahini. But on this subject, for the first time, he is genuinely gloomy. He stops playing tahini videos, and we talk about something else.
A week has passed. The television is showing a news broadcast from the Middle East, but the volume is turned down. Lulu has been granted citizenship from Syria. A gift of sorts. One of Thafer’s brothers accompanied their mother back into Homs. She fell ill in Jordan and wished to see her country again, not wanting to live the rest of her days as a refugee. The fighting has subsided, five years after Nour rolled up her carpet. The city is again under control of the regime—though calling it a city may be a reach. From what Thafer understands, few things are still left standing. The tahini factory he invested so much of himself in is gone. The apartment is still there. From pictures, they think only one side of the building is missing. Whatever remained was taken over by the regime, the living room serving as a machine gun nest.
Acting on Thafer’s behalf, a brother put in paperwork to make Lulu a citizen. In a few years she’ll be able to apply for American citizenship, too. For now at least she has what was denied to her by war: a place in the world. Thafer and Nour are happy their daughter is finally free of the limbo she was born into. But whatever identity she chooses to adopt, her understanding of Syria will come from what they teach her. The culture, the language, the traditions are the only the things they were really able to carry out of their country. Even if the war ends, they have no intention of returning.
“Maybe when we are very old, me and her will visit,” Thafer says, looking at Nour. “But for the kids,” he points at the floor, “this is their country now.” Nour holds her husband’s hand and agrees.
I ask the question I’ve been putting off. “What do you think of President Donald Trump?”
Thafer turns to Deema to translate. “We hope he helps all refugees.” I ask about the tone of American politics, I point to the television screen and ask if they have seen anything that has made them feel unwelcome. “We feel very welcomed,” he says. “America has been very good to us.”
They don’t say an unkind word about the president. They don’t speak ill of Nunes, who doesn’t want them here. They don’t criticize Fox News or use this opportunity to clap back. They decline to weigh in on anything political. Their gratitude is sincere. But perhaps in their reticence lies an indictment of America: Such is the state of affairs that even in their own living room they are cautious about what they say.
It’s also because their odyssey feels far from over. That car bomb has rippled through the years in various forms of anxiety.
They survived those lost years in Jordan, never completely losing hope that the U.N. might help. When it did, resettling them in the U.S., they had a saddening realization: Their family and friends weren’t coming. They felt guilty celebrating their arrival in California, as their loved ones observed on Facebook.
The local ABC affiliate ran a segment on their first Thanksgiving, a Norman Rockwell portrait of their lives in which Thafer’s only quote is, “First Thanksgiving. I and my family is very happy.” Of course, nobody’s lives are that uncomplicated. Every member of the family wants to reclaim something that was taken from them, to shed the identity of refugee and get back to how they saw themselves.
For Deema, it is being a girl. Just being a kid with friends. She gives speeches, interviews and speaks on behalf of her family. Her parents respect her in a way other teenagers might envy. But she’s been forced to trade her childhood for it.
Thafer seems to be doing his best to cover up the wounds. Basil mentions to me that his dad is only optimistic “when other people are around.” Thafer would never complain or show vulnerability to a journalist. He isn’t going to talk about Trump and let a conservative pundit say Syrian refugees are ungrateful. He isn’t going to talk about Bashar al-Assad, with family still in Syria. He isn’t going to tell me what hurts. But it is my job not just to transcribe “I and my family is very happy” but to listen to the his voice when he explains tahini, to watch him slip into a more confident version of himself. The refugee years required that Thafer loosen his pride, that he accept charity to feed his family. It is obvious that if there was any way for Thafer to have control over his life again, to return to a contest where credentials or connections didn’t disqualify him, he would take it. But he is a practical man. Raising $40,000 for a sesame seed roaster would take him far into his 60s.
I tell Thafer I have something to show him. I pull up Alibaba, the Chinese ecommerce site, on my phone. We scroll through the different sesame seed roasters for sale. There is one for $1,500.
He speaks to Deema in Arabic.
“He is asking if that is the real price,” she says.
Thafer zooms in on the pictures. I lend him my phone and he paces around the living room, scrolling through Alibaba on his own. He returns to show me something and asks, “This one only $500?” It seems that way. He debates himself, postulating questions like, “But maybe break easy?” before offering “But only $500!” as a counterpoint.
“How much tahini this one make?” I look over the specs, but it doesn’t say. “Maybe very slow,” he says, before again reminding himself, “But only $500.” A manageable size. He rubs his chin.
Deema is sitting unnoticed amid a crowd of protesters. The rally is called “Honoring the Labor of our Immigrants ” and 93 people have checked in on Facebook. The threats to DACA and Muslims make these two groups natural allies, as Nekumanesh sees it, to countervail whatever MAGA is. Nekumanesh is co-hosting this event for that reason. Deema is both an immigrant and a Muslim, but she is here to lend voice to a different group: refugees. At the moment a Latina artist is at the microphone, reciting a poem about the difficulties of establishing an identity in the United States.
Deema sips water nervously. She’s wearing her hijab and heels. She is a reluctant activist. She doesn’t chant along. She doesn’t seem to enjoy resistance. But her phone is without the playful banana case today. It’s back at home, with the rest of that part of herself. She is here on business.
Nekumanesh invites her to the podium, and she walks up with her prepared speech. After just a year of studying English, Deema comes across like a native speaker. She conducts herself in public like an aged diplomat. After her remarks, Nekumanesh will come to the microphone and give the line he delivers to everyone after they meet her: “And she’s only 15.”
Deema settles into the podium. A local news affiliate is standing by. The protesters go quiet to hear her speak.
“My name is Deema Kashak. I was born in Homs, Syria,” she says. “In 2012, my family decided to leave Syria because they found that our lives were in danger.” She relives her journey for the crowd, but she doesn’t indulge more than a paragraph on her story. She lends the majority of her time to others. “We are here today to celebrate Labor Day, and we are also here to support the immigrant laborers.” She looks up from her speech to make eye contact with the crowd. “If you are an immigrant laborer you know the struggle that the immigrants face.” They struggle to find jobs to support their families. They struggle to learn English, the key to any decent work.
She ends her speech with a humble request. “As you can see, there are a lot of laborers in need. As citizens, we have to support them and make them feel appreciated in the United States. Thank you.”
Deema walks off the makeshift stage and back to her place in the crowd. A photographer asks for her name and a few more details about her life. Some of the other protesters want to talk to her. Deema understands her role in all this. She is a model refugee.
But instead of marching, she decides to leave early. She got invited to lunch with what could very possibly be new friends. She is not a refugee by choice. She just wants what her father wants: to not feel like one anymore.