Stranded With Syrian Refugees: 40 Hours Till Toledo

08/22/2016 01:35 pm ET

Reflections on my brief time with a Homs family stuck in Chicago for two nights after major flight delays and 4 years of displacement from Syria

Members of the Shebli family await instructions from their sponsor organization's chaperone.
Members of the Shebli family await instructions from their sponsor organization's chaperone.

Asleep towards the front of the grounded plane, Sufyan, Sultan, Mohammad, Rawan, Najah, and Farhan are visibly fatigued by their long journey. Lanyards around their necks indicate refugee status from the Syrian Arab Republic, and identify the organization responsible for permanently resettling them in the U.S.

For me, a night that could have been yet another mundane air travel botch turned into an inspiring encounter with a family that had just arrived in America to make a new life for themselves.

The two business travelers seated in my row on the excruciatingly delayed airplane had insufferable attitudes, both glued to multiple devices dealing with work responsibilities ― one in retail banking consulting and the other in advertising for a luxury car company.

The British man next to the window lost his reading glasses under his seat, leading to a temporary crisis for our row, just before he bragged about his firm’s bold use of advertising space on the exterior of the world’s tallest building in Dubai. But his grumblings about the pilot’s depressing overhead announcements were trifling. Life’s sufferings are all relative.

As we remained Tarmac-bound and confined to the jet, stagnant as the humid LaGuardia air outside, I curiously went over to the Syrian family to inquire about their trip itinerary.

Feeling powerless at the mercy of the airplane gods, during my next 4 hours with the Shebli family I felt a sense of purpose. If only for an evening I took them under my wing, extending as hearty a welcome as I could muster ― facilitating minor logistical details, and speaking their language.

Though I certainly couldn’t catch every word of their Bedouin-accented Syrian dialect, I was their bridge to understanding why, when, and how. Neither a professional interpreter nor refugee resettlement coordinator, I was happy not to languish in my own lonely airline purgatory. They offered me company, the security of their nomadic familial bond, and a distraction from the self-pity of spending a night at an airport hotel.

And I gave them perhaps some hope that America would be compassionate, flexible, and forgiving. We will open our doors and our lives to those struggling to overcome oppression and never-ending war. And in the meantime we will put our own tribulations in perspective, taking each small step with our new neighbors.

‘Sorry once again’

I suspended whatever angst I had about my own travel problems, sublimating them to help, albeit briefly, this earnest refugee family. I temporarily adopted them on behalf of my country, which instead of offering a cheerful greeting merely bestowed the gift of one banal airport letdown after another.

For a few short hours, I was in their shoes and they were in mine. Together we sat on a runway interminably, first in flight-control delay, then during intense thunderstorms, and finally amidst runway closures. It was my duty to interpret cockpit instructions: “Captain here, sorry once again.” After sitting on the tarmac for the maximum three hours, we didn’t arrive at O’Hare until late in the evening. Then it was time to confirm new tickets to final destinations, sort baggage issues, book hotel rooms, and wait for a hotel shuttle. At each point, I was their ad-hoc translator, informally explaining the situation in Arabic on behalf of their Chicago-based chaperone, herself an immigrant from Ethiopia ten years ago.

The American Airlines counter agent initially offered disappointing words about a “flight not being possible until Monday, or okay, Saturday.” It was only Toledo, a four-hour drive east, but their sponsor organization’s rules prohibited using a car to drive to Ohio.

They would need to stay two more nights before a quick Saturday morning flight, since the sponsor wouldn’t allow them to fly standby on Friday. For my part, I had missed flying standby on an earlier flight by just one spot. How do you say “standby” in Arabic? I didn’t know, but either way, what sufficed was a much-repeated “Ahlan wa Sahlan.” Mi casa es su casa, welcome to our place, and make yourself feel at home.

Their family journey had taken them so far already, from war-torn Homs through Jordan via Turkey briefly en route to the Big Apple, and they were almost finished. I begged the luggage counter attendant who would allow nothing to be claimed: “Please, they just arrived from Syria as refugees!” She replied: “No, you must come back tomorrow at 6 a.m.” I responded, “They have no clothes, no nothing, other than what’s on their backs.” We didn’t bother staying to talk with Salvador, the supervisor.

“Does Chicago have a sea?” one of the brothers, Sultan, asked me. “Yes, there’s a big sea,” I replied, unable to differentiate terms for large bodies of water in Arabic. “It’s called Lake Michigan.” “Is Toledo nice?” he demanded to know about their new hometown. “Well, it’s an industrial type of place,” I responded, without having much to add about the accoutrements of their adopted city. “But it’s definitely close to Detroit, which has a big Arab population.”

“Are you flying there with us?” Sultan, 20, wanted to know. “No,” I replied, his face dropping. “I’m just going to meet my brother in the Twin Cities, for a weekend rendezvous with our cousins.”

His father, originally a truck driver, peppered me with the standard litany of questions: Are you married? Why not? What’s your job? Farhan’s eyes displayed a tired confidence that better days were ahead, a calmness that, despite everything they’d been through, what was left would be ― not just good enough ― but a “big opportunity for my children, in carpentry and metalwork, which they’ve been studying already...And we know 10 families there, including my sister’s.”

‘Pay for your own snacks’

Repeatedly, they asked in the manner that any frustrated travelers express a desire to have something, anything, confirmed about logistics that are up in the air. “Is our flight on Saturday? What about our bags? Who will take us back to the airport? Is the food free? How much does the hotel room cost? Did you make a reservation?”

I gave my best responses, so they wouldn’t feel as if they’d slipped through the cracks of the refugee intake system. “The airline has confirmed your six tickets. Your bags can be picked up tomorrow. A shuttle bus from the hotel will take you back to O’Hare. Your meals are all covered by the organization, but you need to pay for your own snacks. My own room is around $100, but hopefully the airline discount will reduce that!”

Sultan looked at me in shock, calculating what their three rooms would cost for two nights after low-budget life in Mafraq, Jordan. The family didn’t elaborate on whether they’d lived in the city itself, or in Zaatari, the refugee camp that has become a permanent settlement on its outskirts. “Don’t worry,” I said, “Everything is covered by your organization.”

I felt like their minder for a few fleeting moments, though I hoped the family didn’t see me as an interloper supervising their movements after entry into America earlier that day. As if to assuage any doubt about my intentions, I explained that my next flight was to Fargo. “With my new ticket I hope to fly to North Dakota, a different state to the northwest of here, in the morning. But you’re going east, to Toledo, Ohio, part of the way back towards New York City.”

The Syrian refugee family heads to the Best Western Hotel near Chicago's O'Hare Airport.
The Syrian refugee family heads to the Best Western Hotel near Chicago's O'Hare Airport.

But then, the hotel failed to dispatch the regular nighttime shuttle driver. Best Western claimed he just hadn’t shown up to work. Luckily, David, an Arabic-speaking driver for a different branch of the same hotel pulled up, and I ran along the curb to shoo away other guests who were headed to a Best Western in some other suburb. I felt bad for pulling rank. “They traveled days to get here. It’s their first time in America, four years since leaving home! Can you just take us to the O’Hare Best Western?” David said, “Okay, sure,” then joked, “But you just have to tip good.”

My hotel stay at the same lodging as the Shebli family wasn’t quite complimentary, and I wasn’t promised a knock on the door for 7 a.m. breakfast. But I did have the good fortune of distracting myself from an otherwise miserable flight experience with the genuinely difficult stories of a family uprooted from their homeland and finally taking the last few strides ― with me, next to me, behind me, in front of me ― towards their new Promised Land.

The chaperone, a gentle woman who grew impatient by factors well beyond her control, asked me to confirm with the family how many rooms they needed: “Were double beds okay? Is ‘the woman’ his wife, or should they be in separate rooms?” “How should I know?” I replied. I had just met the family. I hadn’t processed their paperwork to come to America. I was just along for the ride to lend a helping hand to some other wayward travelers.

First night in the U.S.

Once the rooms were almost sorted, a tall, angry Southern man with a grey goatee bust into the lobby and asked me candidly, “How’d you get here faster than me? I waited forever.” I said, “I’m with them,” pointing at the family of six crowded into the corner, and adding, “Relax, we also waited hours, and they traveled internationally.” He proceeded to unload a dose of Dixie ire on the young Latino behind the counter, clearly overwhelmed by a flood of weather-delayed guests. But the Syrian family remained calm, and were promised a pizza pie to satisfy their hunger. Yet the group was split, with the father insistent about sleeping first then eating in the morning. Two of the boys were ready to chow down. “Did you make sure there’s no pepperoni or Canadian bacon?” I asked. Their handler said, “Oh, of course, everything is on us. We got this.” Most in the group kept making the universal sleeping gesture with their hands, unable to express their wishes beyond the simplest English words.

On their first night in America, the three brothers and their father pose with a fellow traveler.
On their first night in America, the three brothers and their father pose with a fellow traveler.

After I helped secure two new blankets from downstairs to help deal with the American-strength air conditioning, the eldest son, Mohammed, 22, wanted to know, “Can we drink the water anywhere in America?” “Yes, I know in Jordan you can’t trust it, but it’s drinkable everywhere here.” Then Sufyan, 17, asked about sugar for his tea, pointing first at the refined white Domino sugar, and then at the artificial stuff. “Well, that’s not real sugar. It’s manufactured,” I said, searching for the right Arabic word. Splenda packets for a splendid first night on American soil.

Any sense of temporary displacement, the dislocation of a voyager, is multiplied by an unimaginable factor when you’re a family of refugees seeking shelter from something more serious than inclement weather. Yet of course being stranded in Chicago was better than being subjected to severe turbulence in the sky that Thursday evening.

And as much as I love plane small talk, I’ll take getting stuck with gracious Syrian refugees any day, over a couple self-absorbed business travelers moaning about their messed-up schedules.

One day maybe I’ll hear from members of the Shebli family who’ve made their permanent livelihoods in Toledo, helping the city live up to its medieval Spanish reputation as a bastion of tolerance and coexistence.

“We have no plan ever to go back to Syria,” said Sultan, unbothered by the long series of minor travel hiccups. “Life, school, and work, our future is in America.”

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