Toys are everywhere in the small apartment in Vancouver, Washington. A sheet of paper posted at a child’s eye level shows the first, impressive attempts of a two-and-a-half year-old learning to print her name. From time to time while her mommy and daddy are talking to the stranger, she trades decorated headbands with her mother: a unicorn, tiny mouse ears, colorful ribbons. Sometimes the stranger is enlisted in the game of musical headbands as well.
It is such an all-American, child-centric scene — except that what Lujein and Alaa Alkaridi, the parents of this small child, are discussing centers around the painfully adult topic of the civil war that has killed so many men and women in their native Syria and has reduced much of their home country to rubble.
They are talking about revolution that rocked its way through the Middle East: Tunisia in 2011; the Arab Spring in Egypt in 2011; the Yemeni Civil War in 2015; a 2018 state of emergency in Libya, less than a week after a United Nations ceasefire went into effect.
For close to a decade, civil uprisings and armed insurgencies have raged throughout Syria, sparked by the tyranny of the dictatorial leader of that country, Bashar Hafez al-Assad.
“People felt that if they went out and protested, he would leave,” Alaa said. “But we were wrong.”
Syria’s bitter revolution began March 15, 2011, with what were known as pro-democracy protests, primarily in the capital of Damascus and in the ancient city Aleppo — then the country’s most populous city. Alaa calls it a young people’s revolution, but said there were “old people” involved as well. The primary goals, he said, were to express discontent with the Syrian government and to oust a president who had become a despot.
“They were dealing with the country as their farm, and we were their animals,” Alaa said. “Sorry to say that, but that’s the way it was.”
At the time, Lujein was studying English literature at Damascus University. Out of fear for her life, she did her best to hide her sympathy for the pro-democracy cause when people gathered on the streets chanting.
“I walked straight ahead,” she said. “I felt very afraid.”
It was a wise strategy, her husband said. At any moment, government forces could appear to violently disperse the protesters.
“Electrical cords,” he said. “That was the most peaceful weapon they used.”
But sheer terror was also a deterrent the government unleashed on its people.
“They teach us always to be afraid of the government,” said Alaa. “They can do anything they want to anyone who goes against them.”
Nowhere was it safe to criticize Assad and his government. Even the four walls of one’s home did not guarantee protection, Lujein remarked.
“Even in your own house, if you speak against the regime, you do so in a whisper,” she said.
Syria’s prolonged internal warfare has brought intervention on both sides. Currently, about 2,000 U.S. troops are stationed in the country. Iran, Russia and Hezbollah contributed support to Assad and his forces. Despite heated denials from the government, inspections have found evidence that Assad’s defenders have employed chemical weapons, including sarin, chlorine gas, mustard agent and other substances.
Both the U.S., and Russia, teamed with Saudi Arabia, have provided anti-tank missiles. Cluster bombs, banned by an international treaty to which Syria is not a partner, began dropping in 2012. Russia also supplied fuel air bombs, also known as thermobaric weapons.
The extended conflict has wrought chaos and lawlessness within Syria. Police stations simply stopped functioning. Theft, looting and kidnapping became everyday occurrences. Waves of murders swept the country. About 300 heritage sites in this historic nation have been damaged — some destroyed entirely.
Deteriorating living conditions and poor sanitation have given rise to disease. Formerly rare infectious conditions such as typhoid, tetanus, hepatitis, dysentery and tuberculosis have reappeared.
The United Nations estimates that more than 400,000 people have died in the Syrian civil war. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, more than 6 million Syrians have been internally displaced. Another 5.7 million have fled the country as refugees.
Among those who sought safety elsewhere were Alaa and Lujein Alkaridi. Aalaa is 35, and Lujein, 32. But for a tiny baby bulge, she is sinuously slender, with thick, dark tresses that tumble to her shoulders when she is not swirling them into a bun. Alaa has a trim, dark beard and deep brown eyes that convey focus and sincerity. Both have seen a great deal, and so much of what they have seen has been sad and disturbing.
The couple are part of their country’s Druze religious minority. This ancient sect, numbering about 1 million adherents worldwide, accounted for a little over 3% of Syria’s population at the start of the war.
Many among the Druze, including the Alkaridis, identify as Muslim — indeed, even their government identity cards in Syria listed them as Muslim. But the religion actually draws from several belief systems, and over the centuries the Druze have often been persecuted on grounds that they were not Muslim enough. For instance, Druze women do not typically wear hijabs. Theirs is a monotheistic faith that also incorporates Gnosticism, Hinduism and other philosophies.
Alaa’s mother was a teacher, and his father worked for the government-owned gas company. The family lived in middle-class comfort in Damascus. Alaa said he was a loyal son and good student until he hit adolescence and “didn’t want to listen to my mom.” His grades plummeted while his attitude became angry and defiant. Things did not look good for his family’s plan for him to become a dentist.
In Syria, he explained, a student’s academic and professional futures are all but determined by a single exam in high school. As a student, Alaa said, “I was not super good, super bad or super smart.” With his finger, he drew an imaginary squiggly line in the air: up and down, up still more, then down even deeper.
“My academic line is like this,” he said, laughing.
At last he decided to study engineering, the next best thing to a medical degree on the Syrian family status food chain. It took him eight years to finish his degree, instead of the usual five.
Matters of the Heart
One major distraction for Alaa was his growing interest in Lujein, a girl he had known since childhood. One day — he remembers exactly when it was in 2008 — he saw her at a gathering of their families.
“She was a nice child,” he said. “But wow! She grew up! She is beautiful.”
He committed his feelings to writing, a kind of poetry.
“It was very bad,” he said.
Lujein corrected him. “It was very beautiful,” she said.
Not far from the border with Jordan, in the southern Syrian city of As-Suwayda, Lujein also enjoyed a happy, comfortable childhood. Her father was a lawyer, and her mother worked as a pharmacy assistant. They were not wealthy — “it took my father 10 years to be able to buy a car,” she said — but they had a two-story house and a small garden.
Lujein’s family placed a high premium on education. Along with her two brothers and her sister, everyone became university graduates. Throughout their community, she noted, this was not always the case.
“Many families did not have these expectations for their girls,” she said.
Her family also was unusual in promoting friendship across gender lines. Lujein had as many male friends as a child as she did female. They all came to the house and played together and shared meals. Similarly, she was allowed to visit her friends at their homes, boys and girls alike.
“I was very proud of that,” she remembered.
Her father was well aware of the rampant injustices and inequalities within the Syrian government.
“But he never let us feel unsafe, ever,” his daughter said.
He had a huge library, and he read constantly. He was so well-informed that Lujein once asked if he would like to be president or a government minister. His answer was always no. He knew too much about what went on at his country’s highest levels.
It was her father who encouraged her to choose English literature as her field of study.
“He was so forward-looking,” she said. “He knew that English would be a weapon for me — that with it, I could do anything.”
After Lujein enrolled at the university in Damascus, Alaa began plotting his romantic moves. To say he was smitten would be a severe understatement.
“I love to see her, I love to talk to her, I think of her most of the night,” he said.
And yet in her presence, this normally boisterous, outgoing young man became strangely tongue-tied.
“I feel super-shy when I see her,” he confessed. “And I am not a shy person.”
Lujein had no problem accepting when Alaa invited her to outings with his own friends from school. But romance was not on her horizon, not at that point.
“My family prepared me from when I was a child to be friends with boys,” she said.
Particularly when it comes to matters of the heart, Alaa has a steel-trap memory for dates. On May 4, 2009, when he and Lujein were alone, he told her he was in love with her. She said no chance.
He messaged her later with the same declaration. Again, she politely told him to get lost. Two days later he visited her again. Again she said no.
So Alaa replied: “I will wait.”
But when Alaa showed up at her brother’s wedding with another girl, Lujein felt a surge of jealousy. He had two more girlfriends after that. One lasted for a month and a half. The other was a 14-day fling. Lujein called him and said maybe she had been wrong.
On Nov. 22, 2009, in front of the old Umahyyad Mosque in Damascus, more than 1,000 years old, Lujein agreed to redefine their relationship.
“I still have the T-shirt I was wearing that day, and she still has that dress,” Alaa said.
But both had degrees to complete.
And then the revolution began.
War and Separation
Almost overnight, Damascus became a war zone. As a student with a bit of the rebel in his soul, Alaa often longed to join the civilians who were fighting Assad.
“I wanted to join the revolution,” he said. “But I was not courageous enough.” Still, his sympathy for the protesters was no secret. All the time, he lived in fear for his safety.
With his degree in engineering, Alaa was accepted for two jobs in the United Arab Emirates. But with the revolution underway in his country, Alaa was not welcome there as a Syrian. Twice, his application for a visa was rejected.
Alaa had made it to Cairo by the time the second rejection came in. He decided he had no choice but to start a new life in Egypt.
Back in As-Suwayda, a city smaller even than Vancouver, where they are now living, Lujein was teaching English to kindergartners. As a sideline, she offered private tutoring in English. The revolution had wreaked havoc with Syria’s currency, devaluing the Syrian pound to near worthlessness against the U.S. dollar. Families were living on a pittance, the equivalent of $50 or $75 a month.
Alaa was not faring much better. In Cairo he lived in lodging designed for five or six people. But sometimes there were 15 or 16 men, all refugees from Syria, under the same roof.
It was so crowded, said Alaa, that “we used to sleep in shifts.”
Still, there was a sense of companionship amid a climate of fearful uncertainty.
“We didn’t have hope. We didn’t know what would happen,” he said.
Living in Dubai, his sister and brother-in-law sent him enough money to maintain his spartan existence in Cairo. Alaa began volunteering with a nongovernmental organization (NGO). Soon he moved to another NGO. Alaa knew it was unlikely that he would return to Syria. He also knew that if he did go back, he would face almost certain conscription.
Reunited But Still Imperiled
Once again, Alaa’s memory for significant dates kicks in: On Aug. 14, 2014, Lujein was able to join him in Cairo. For them, that is the date they considered themselves married.
Her family took a different view. The day before she left for Egypt, they held a sort of faux wedding reception for her in As-Suwayda. Friends and family came to celebrate her. Lujein wore a white dress and veil, like a proper bride. The only thing missing was her groom.
With the help of her brother and his — both lawyers — they were able to complete the paperwork for a marriage license. About two weeks later, they held a party on a boat on the Nile to mark the happy end to their long-distance courtship.
Through his NGO work, Alaa had become a leader among Cairo’s displaced Syrian community. These connections helped Lujein find a job quickly. Her father had been correct: Her fluency in English made her an attractive job candidate.
The couple found housing near Giza, home of the Great Pyramids on Cairo’s outskirts. Right away, new problems began. Egypt is a devoutly Muslim country where calls to prayer echo through every city and village many times a day. Neither Alaa nor Lujein made a habit of daily prayers. Lujein did not wear an abaya or hijab.
It was 11 p.m. when they returned to their house one night to find five men waiting in front of their building. The men demanded to know who was this unveiled woman who was accompanying Alaa. He retorted: Who are you to ask?
Just as tensions were about to escalate still more, the building’s guard appeared and verified that Alaa and Lujein had a legal certificate of marriage.
Then, a few days later, a group of men with knives attacked their house. It turned out they had seen the couple’s marriage certificate, where their religion was identified as Druze.
“And in Egypt, it was not safe to be Druze,” Alaa said.
The pair ran into trouble as well when people in Cairo noticed they were wearing gold wedding rings — a sign in Egypt, they said, that the wearer of the ring is not Muslim. They quickly bought cheap silver rings to wear in public.
“Women and men, they yelled at me,” Lujein said.
To Alaa, it was clear that he and Lujein could not remain in Egypt. They went to the Cairo office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and told them about the attack on their home. They completed the paperwork that would allow them to seek asylum. Then they awaited an appointment for their RSD — Refugee Status Determination — interview.
Months passed, then two full years. By this time, Lujein was pregnant. She balked at undergoing the prenatal scan their interviewers required until her doctor assured her that at her stage of pregnancy, their baby would be unharmed by an X-ray.
Soon after taking office, U.S. President Donald Trump issued a ban on immigrants from Syria. The new policy made their RSD interview especially difficult. Their interrogators grilled them not about their troubles in Cairo, but about what they had fled from in Syria.
“They wanted to know about our situation in Syria, not Egypt,” Alaa said. “They wanted to know if we were eligible to travel, if we were safe people, not dangerous.”
But even while asking tough questions, the interviewers were smiling, “trying to be nice,” Alaa said.
By this time Alaa was working with St. Andrew’s Refugee Center in Cairo. Through the group’s legal department, he followed the news in the U.S. and in Syria. He feared they would never be allowed to leave Egypt.
“Then suddenly,” he remembered, “they called us.”
A U.S. court had stopped Trump’s ban on certain immigrants. Almost four years had passed since they began the process of seeking asylum. Their daughter, Leen — her name means “flexibility” — was already walking and talking.
Alaa and Lujein needed one “U.S. tie” to establish where they would settle. Alaa had no idea where or what Vancouver, Washington, was, but he did have one friend from Cairo who was living there. That friend who became their U.S. tie is now a neighbor. It did not take them long to meet six other Syrian families living in Vancouver.
In near-lightning speed, the pair found jobs, both using their language skills to work with refugees. Working as a peer support specialist for Lutheran Community Services in Beaverton, Lujein calls herself a “semi-counselor,” and says her dream now is to earn a graduate degree in counseling. Alaa works at Catholic Services of Oregon.
They befriended an American family who invited them to their home for Thanksgiving dinner. And one of the best things that has happened since they arrived here in August 2019 came out of a chance meeting between two mothers at a park.
While their daughters played together, Lujein confided to a woman she had become friendly with that she did not know what she was going to do about day care now that she was starting her job. After only a few months in this country, Lujein had encountered the dilemma of so many U.S. working mothers: Day care was going to cost more than half her salary.
Lujein’s new friend had an easy solution. Bring her to my house, she told Lujein. At first she would not even accept Lujein’s offer to pay her, but finally they agreed on a fee.
“Leen is so happy,” Lujein said, adjusting the latest headband her daughter had placed on her long, dark hair. “She loves them, and she has started making full English sentences.”
Going to work is a kind of emotional salve for her, Lujein said. “It gives me a sense of purpose, and relieves the pain for me,” she said. Working helps her forget the pain that is Syria, a country in constant chaos. She worries that her brother, a lawyer, could be called to the military any day. She worries about the deprivations her family back home must endure.
“My family, they are suffering, and I cry every day,” she said.
But a bright spot is the new baby girl who will join their family in May 2020.
“Alaa likes to say that America is the land of chances,” Lujein said. “I believe in that, too.”
Lujein’s dream is to open an Arabic community center to service the many people from the Middle East who are living in the Portland and Vancouver areas. Within five years, Alaa and Lujein hope to be U.S. citizens.
And then, said Lujein, “I will visit Syria once again.”