From Syria to Cincinnati: Mariam Alzoubi
This is part of a three-part literary nonfiction series about the immigrant and refugee women who took a chance on a new life in Cincinnati. Check out From Nepal to Cincinnati: Budhi Lamichane and From Mexico to Cincinnati: Angelica Pérez.
The Cincinnati day is washed in diluted sunlight and scattered raindrops. But at Tikkun Farm, the laughter echoes throughout the house as women from all over the world spin alpaca wool into yarn and brave the rain to check their gardens. We settle into a room, a comfy office with a wall covered in books and a window seat filled with shells, sea glass, and plants. In her traditional purple dress and black headscarf, Mariam sits down next to Rania, who’s translating, and we begin. I’m not fluent in Arabic, but I attempt to say Marhaba, which means hello, and Mariam smiles. Rania and Mariam have been friends since The Welcome Project and Heartfelt Tidbits became partners, as Mariam was apart of Heartfelt Tidbits during the transition. And even though they speak two different dialects of Arabic, as Rania is from Egypt, they understand each other well.
Every so often, a scrappy dog comes up to Mariam and we laugh as she shoos him away. She explains that in Syria, people didn’t have dogs as pets; they were all strays. Now, it’s what shocks her the most about America, especially when she sees people dressing their dogs in clothing.
After introductions, we dive into the interview, a back and forth volley from me to Rania to Mariam and back again. Throughout the whole conversation, emotions cast themselves into Mariam’s eyes, while she recounts memories dotted with both sorrow and happiness.
Mariam looks skyward and starts to pray. I catch the words in sha’ Allah, if God wills it.
As Mariam remembers her distant past, I have to hold back my own tears. She cries freely and we have to pause while she describes the moment she lost her husband in a blast. He stood in the yard, doing ablution, a washing ritual Muslim people do before heading into a mosque. Mariam stood in the doorway and told him to come inside as bombs went off sporadically around them. But he didn't listen and said, “Whatever’s meant to be is going to happen.”
And then a bomb went off.
We pause for a moment and the silence falls over us while we listen to the women spinning yarn in the other room. The sorrow in Mariam’s eyes doesn’t need translation.
Before we say anything, Mariam looks skyward and starts to pray. I catch the words in sha’ Allah, if God wills it.
Her husband worked as a lawyer and lived across the street from Mariam’s family while she grew up. Although they never spoke, as that wasn’t the custom, they often made eye contact whenever they were both outside. I picture one of those girl-next-door movies, where everything is communicated through weighted glances and smiles. One day, when Mariam was away, he asked her father for Mariam’s hand in marriage, and they were engaged.
In the two months leading up to the wedding, Mariam and her family made 25 dresses, dozens of pants and skirts, and about 50 scarves in radiant colors. When all the items were sewn with their final touches, they hung a rope in the couple’s future home to display everything. Guests strolled through to admire the beautiful, detailed work.
The one dress Mariam didn’t make was her own wedding gown. Instead, her in-laws picked the design, the material, and the tailor. Mariam wore the gown with a veil and a headdress donned with 25 golden coins – her village’s version of wedding rings. Mariam’s fiancé gave her family 50,000 Syrian liras to take Mariam shopping for the gold of her choice, part of which included the headdress, bracelets, and whatever else she wanted to wear.
On the day of the wedding, everyone in the village filled the street, and Mariam and her husband sat upon two thrones adorned with their gold and Mariam in her brilliant white, red, and blue gown while singers belted ballads about love and people twirled under stars.
After Mariam finishes talking, Rania turns to me and says, “After they got married, they were so much in love, and she said he would never go anywhere without her.”
When I ask Mariam about a happy memory, she doesn’t hesitate to describe their oldest son’s wedding, one of the last memories she has with her husband. Rania mentions that Mariam had a video of her husband dancing in celebration from that day. Mariam watched the video constantly, replaying it over and over in order to see her husband again. Her children got rid of it in hopes that their mother could move on and overcome the shadows of grief.
Even after losing her husband, Mariam held onto her home in Syria, with hope that it would one day be safe, and the nights would fill with the sounds of rustling wheat again.
But at some point, the bombing grew stronger, denser, and then people showed up to draft her youngest son, Saad, into the war.
“She said she couldn't bear it ’cause she'd already lost her husband and she felt that this could not happen. And she knew that you know, eventually, he would no longer come home. So they decided to flee and they walked across the border,” Rania translates.
Conditions weren’t much better at the refugee camp. Instead, the bathrooms for the whole camp sat about a mile away, and every time it rained, water seeped through their tent. Nine members of Mariam’s family crammed into the fabric house, and they all knew they couldn’t stay there. So people smuggled Mariam and her family close to a city on the Syrian border and they walked to Irbid, a city in Jordan located between Syria and Israel.
Mariam recalls the need to keep her head down, to keep a low profile, because officials would take people randomly and send them back to Syria. Her nephew was one of those people.
During this time, Mariam and her family still held onto the hope that Syria would be restored to the home they once knew. Restored to the rolling hills of chickpeas, lentils, wheat, potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons, lemons so large they were called “utters,” and all the fruits and vegetables one could possibly name.
She recalls her beautiful house, overlooking those rolling lands and gardens that grew with an abundance of olives. Rania, who visited Syria growing up, mentions that apricot trees decorated the sides of roads, their branches bending with ripened apricots and skimming the heads of people who walked by. She says that if you cut open an apricot, the stone would swim in the syrupy sweetness. We laugh as Mariam makes a bowl out of her scarf and mimics filling it up with beans. In this moment, I can picture a postcard Syria, with sunsets caressing the clouds and people going about their day with relaxed smiles that crinkle their eyes.
Out of all the memories Mariam shares with me, the image of women sitting on plush floor cushions as they pass eggs, yogurt, olives, pomegranates, and bread around the table stands out the most.
Mariam’s leans towards us, full of animation as she talks about their lands. They grew everything and rarely went to the store. Throughout the day, 30 hens clucked away, and each morning, Mariam’s family milked the cows and made homemade yogurt, or dehydrated the milk and rolled it into balls of cheese to place in olive oil. Even their olive oil was made from the fresh olives harvested in the yard.
“It wasn't just me,” Mariam says. “This was how all Syrians lived. Everybody had their little house on a little piece of land and they planted everything at home and they rarely needed to get anything from the store.”
Over 20 people lived in Mariam’s house, and as head of the family, they’d put a chair out in the yard and tell her, "You don't have to do any work. We'll do everything for you.” So Mariam managed the planting and harvesting.
Each day, when the sun crested over the horizon after the men went to work, the women of Mariam’s village gathered together. Whoever woke up first would call all the other women and invite them over for breakfast in her backyard.
Every daughter-in-law would prepare a dish at home, and then together, they’d set up a long sheet of metal to bake fresh bread on, sort of like soft, thin pizza dough, and then put the dough on a dome to finish cooking. Mixing with the scent of fresh bread, the aroma of mint would drift through the air as tea leaves and sugar boiled in a large kettle with freshly picked mint. All morning, tea would pour into tiny, delicate crystal glasses, endlessly refilling as the mothers laughed and shared daily updates.
Out of all the memories Mariam shares with me, the image of women sitting on plush floor cushions as they pass eggs, yogurt, olives, pomegranates, and bread around the table stands out the most. I can just picture the daughters fluttering about in the background, a symphony of clinking glasses, sizzling bread, and laughter as dappled sun filters through the trees. It’s this community of women, so open and dedicated to each other, that makes me realize how different America must be for Mariam. Here, there are no morning gatherings, no large lemons dangling from trellises along the streets, and no domes large enough to bake the fresh bread that was customary at every breakfast.
“Now I'm just sitting at home watching the road out of the window and I have no one now.” Mariam glances out the window as she shares this revelation, and I can’t help but wonder if instead of the bright green grass and cloudy sky of Cincinnati, she’s picturing one of those backyards.
Mariam continues talking, and Rania rests her hand on Mariam’s shoulder before translating, “She says she doesn't want you to think that she's, you know, saying bad things about being here. She says at least there’s the safety and security. This is something priceless… She feels safe, and she doesn't want you to think that she's unhappy here, but she just misses that gathering and everybody together that she used to have back home.”
When Mariam and her family fled to Jordan, they hadn’t planned to come to America. Mariam never thought she would end up here. So I ask her what she had heard about the States.
“We didn't know what to expect,” Mariam replies. “All we knew was that they didn't speak the language; they wouldn't understand us; we wouldn't understand them. My people were telling me, ‘Why are you going there? You're just going to go there and be miserable because no one knows what you're saying.’ And then it was much better when I came here because of all the people who've been around me and helping me, so it was much better than the expectations that I had.”
It’s this community of women, so open and dedicated to each other, that makes me realize how different America must be for Mariam.
But despite the expectations and the reality, loneliness lingers. For the four years they lived in Jordan, Mariam’s family managed to stay together. Her youngest, Saad, even married. But on the way to America with her children, grandchildren, and Saad’s new wife and their expected child, the executive order banning Syrians from entering America was put in action. I can’t imagine what this moment felt like, saying goodbye to your family, and never knowing if you’d see them again.
Only Mariam and Saad made it to America though. Saad’s wife gave birth last year, and Saad has not held his daughter yet.
Like Saad’s wife and daughter, the rest of Mariam’s children are scattered around the world. She has a daughter named Naenma in Egypt, who lives with her husband and children. A son who’s married with children in Germany, and three more sons in Jordan. Although technology allows them to video call each other, Mariam doesn’t know if she’ll ever see them again.
And as she talks about them, her voice thickens with unshed tears.
Is there anything we can do? I want to shout the question, to scream it at people passing by. I have to swallow the lump in my throat to talk, and I can’t help but think: If it’s this hard for me to hear, how hard is it for you to endure?
When Saad and Mariam made it to America, they were greeted by an organization that helps immigrants and refugees transition into their new housing. But after moving into their new apartment, their door stayed shut. No one checked on Saad and Mariam for three months. Unable to speak English, unsure of how to get anywhere, and scared to leave, they ran out of food.
Rania tells me, "I remember one time she told me her son was ready; he said, ‘I'll just go. I'll just go to the police station and tell them, you know, I don't know, deport me or something. We can't live this way.’"
But then a heavy knocking on their door echoed through the apartment, and although Mariam and Saad feared answering it, the knocking wouldn’t stop. Finally, Mariam opened the door to find an unknown woman standing outside, asking if they were okay. Mariam motioned to her mouth that they needed food, and the woman – who turned out to be their neighbor, Mary – took them shopping at Kroger’s and bought them everything they needed. Mary then helped Saad and Mariam find a translator and a doctor.
“For her to actually ask for food is a very big thing, because I know her well and she would never, ever – if she is starving, she will never tell you,” Rania says. “So they must have been really, really in a bad state at the time. So this is something that she would never forget, she says, the kindness of that neighbor.”
At the end of our interview, I couldn’t say goodbye to Mariam without asking the one question that ends every Women of Cincy interview: “Who’s an influential woman in your life?”
“She says, ‘Everybody I've met has left some kind of mark on me,’” Rania translates. “But her mother taught her everything. She used to teach them how to cook, even when they were really, really young. She says, ‘We were eight sisters.’ When they were about 12, when they started getting into their teen years, they started teaching them how to bake the bread, so then they're old enough to be able to watch the brick oven, and know how to operate that. They lived on a farm, and the tractor and stuff they used for planting, but they would go and do the harvesting and gather crops in the summer. Her mother used to gather all the sisters at 2 a.m. and they'd go down to the lands to harvest the wheat, the lentils, the chickpeas, and all that stuff. They used to go at 2 a.m. and stay all the way till noon… She got married close to 20, so her mother taught her for six years or so, intense teaching. She taught her how to cook, how to handle a home, how to manage her own farm.”
When the interview is over, I tell Mariam Shukran, which means thank you. But the words don’t seem adequate. There’s something to be said for the snapshots of her life she’s shared: the resilience, the pain, the perseverance, the happiness. Thank you isn’t enough to cover all of that. Despite the depth of her losses, she manages to carry on, holding her head up, laughing with people through language barriers, and praying each day for her family to come home.