Bus rides are truly powerful. They can be times of great contemplation, of delighting in music, making a new friend, of falling in love with the scenery around you, or falling in love with the stranger next to you. So goes this tale for the young man sitting next to me, but before you stop reading in order to seek out something far less cliche, let me begin by introducing you to the gentleman. He is a young, Syrian man seeking asylum from his home just outside of Damascus that was being bombed.
Bus rides are generally quiet, but after recently leaving my raucous study abroad group for adventures on my own, I sought camaraderie and friendship, and the ride from London to Cardiff was four hours long. The first thing I noticed was this young man reading Arabic and so I inquired about where he was from and if I could practice some Arabic with him( I had recently been in Morocco and the lovely Arabic call to prayer still echoed in my mind with the clarity of the sunset that it serenaded).
He obliged with a smile, eager for a friend of his own. And we began to share our stories, though he divulged his with hesitance, for it was nowhere near the study abroad trip I had recently completed. It was a story of survival. He told me of his family back home, his mother and father still living in their beautiful village in the countryside of the city he has fled. He told me of the date-groves near the house, and grapevines that gave the most wonderful fruit. His words painted a picture for me of the home that his heart so ached for.
When we arrived at our destination we continued the conversation over coffee, and this is when heartbreaking details began to reveal themselves. Over the next two days, he would share with me of his temporary asylum in Greece and sneaking over the border into the Balkans three times and being sent back twice. He told me of the nights spent in the frozen forests walking through France, of the many illegal passports he purchased just to reach the UK, a safe place to stay and one that would not deport him to the violence of Syria . He told me of the weeks without food as he and a group of four others who sought asylum walked across the European continent in search of safety.
He told me of the reality of the conflict in Syria, in words and from eyes that I’d never seen it before. I was ashamed for my ignorance. He showed me, with pride, the raffle ticket for the US visa which they award 50,000 of worldwide, each year, and my heart swelled with tears as I thought upon the US passports in my backpack. Here in Wales, he waited, he was safe but not free. He could not work, could not go anywhere but London and Cardiff, as he awaited his UK ID, he could not hear from nor write his family, and in all this heartache, he managed to give and to share with me. I was undeserving of the kindness of this man.
As we talked, he showed me around Cardiff, and invited me to make Syrian dinner (it was his night to make dinner for his roommates (four other asylum seekers, only one of which he could fully communicate with)). As he hunted down the food for the meal, he taught me new Arabic words that he used in the Halal butcher’s shop, and the small Syrian market.
In his house, I once again felt the overwhelming kindness of these strangers, even in the midst of their stories. Each of them has struggled to get to this place of safety, leaving behind families, friends, loved ones. One of the individuals there was a Kurdish activist and he endeavored to share with me his story, too. This man’s name was Kiwa, and he will be a story of his own.
Dinner was enjoyed with a mixture of several languages and lots of laughter and smiles, card games ensued and the night was full of smiles and delight. And at the end of the night, he walked me home or, to my hostel for that evening. We talked as we had the past several days, but there was mournfulness, I was to leave the next day, and so new words began to enter the conversation.
“Girlfriend”, “visiting parents”, “wife”, “marriage”, words unfamiliar to this bond of friendship we had formed, and I saw a longing. A longing for a friend to spend time with, to pass the endless days of waiting for a visa, a longing for the freedom that being American ( even if by marriage) meant for him and his family. A longing to see his family again, a longing to have a family, a longing to have someone to stand beside as you watched your home fall to pieces, watched your family trapped in the storm of war. The proposal was gentle, casual but heart-wrenching. It was a proposal that sought survival and happiness within the survival. We all fall in love with the happiness that comes in the stranger sitting beside us, whether we’ve never met them and their smile brightens our day, or their eyes echo the love of a the years of life behind you both. The instinctual pursuit of what we all seek in life, to be happy, to be loved, this is what we need to survive.