"My boys": The Syrian street kids who found me

I was a professor far from home. They were refugees. With a camera, we saw the world through each other's eyes

Published September 21, 2014 12:00AM (EDT)

A photo of Assad, left, and Abdullah  (Emily O'Dell)
A photo of Assad, left, and Abdullah (Emily O'Dell)

All photos courtesy Emily Jane O'Dell

I first met Assad and Abdullah about a year ago, when I saw two Syrian refugee kids sitting on shoe-shining kits near my office at the American University of Beirut.  Covered in shoe grease, like a pair out of Dickens, they looked bored with shining shoes.

Assad, the smaller of the two, was missing a few teeth, and sweating in a threadbare sweater in the heat. Abdullah, taller but with a baby-face just as sweet, had a scar on his cheek that I mistook for a falling tear.

"Do you want to take some photos with my iPad?" I asked in Arabic, hoping to give them a break from the usual routine. To my surprise, Abdullah took the iPad in his hands and pointed it at the sky — infatuated with the interplay of branches and clouds.

When a low-flying airplane trespassed into the frame, the boys flinched and screamed.

"Sorry," Assad explained, "but when we see planes in Syria, they drop bombs."

Arms flapping, heads bent back, Assad and Abdullah began to show me how a body shakes when it's being struck with bullets. In a slow-moving dance, as if in a trance, they morphed into missiles hitting buildings and snipers shooting machine guns.

"When my uncle got his leg blown off in Syria, he was hopping like this," Assad said, hopping on one leg.

Watching them act out the horrors of their hometown, I tried to think of how I might help.

"If you could make any wish," I asked, "what would it be?"

"To go to school!" they said, telling me all about their school in Syria, which was blown to bits in the war. Since I knew that enrolling them in a Lebanese school would be impossible, I tried thinking of alternative ways for them to learn.

Seeing their joy in taking photos with my iPad, I proposed we try making some art together with photography, performance and film — patterned on a program I used to run at Brown University for at-risk Providence youth. Since Assad and Abdullah couldn't take time off of work, we agreed to meet on the run — in between office hours and shoe shines.

"Let's start with a play called ‘Waiting for Godot,’” I said. After I explained to them the plot of the play — two guys waiting for a third who never comes — the boys laughed, and noted the play's parallel to their own lives lived in limbo.

"We'll do it," Abdullah said, checking an imaginary watch on his wrist, and asking when Godot was going to show. Within minutes, they transformed before my eyes into Vladimir and Estragon. Didi and Gogo. A pair of Syrian street kids, vamping as tramps.

Rehearsing “Godot,” though, was just the beginning. Soon, they were playing different characters from their daily lives. The alcoholic landlord threatening to evict them. The policeman confiscating their shoe-shine kits. The shopkeepers chasing them away. When I took them on their first boat ride, Assad stood up in the boat, and declared, "I am Samuel Beckett!" "No," Abdullah replied, "I am Samuel Beckett!"

Whenever we meet on the street, we shine each other's shoes. Take photos of graffiti. Stroll the Corniche. Some days, I teach them Chinese. Ni hao. Other days, Indonesian. Terima kasih.  Foreign phrases I don't expect them to remember, but it helps to pass the time. Our only pedagogy is spontaneity — it has to be.

On curbs around Beirut, the boys view photos of my travels around the world. Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Iran. To them, my Ivy League credentials are of no account. All they want is a teacher — and any teacher will do.

On weekends, we venture outside of Beirut for a change in scenery. In the mountaintop town of Harissa, we climbed a 15-ton bronze statue of the Virgin Mary overlooking the sea. At El Rancho, a dude ranch in the hills, we encountered Lebanese cowboys and teepees. Perhaps because of my family's Native American history, I struggled in Arabic to explain the concept of a cowboy.

"I just don't want to shoot any guns," Assad said. He'd seen enough real shooting in Syria. Instead, he wanted to take one of the ranch's horses for a ride.

"This reminds me of my horses back home!" Assad said from his saddle, with a smile as wide as the corral.

"How many horses do you have in Syria?" I asked.

"None anymore," he said, "they all died in the war." Cows, cats, dogs, donkeys, butterflies, pigeons, and worms. All of his beloved animals, he said, were dead.

When it came time for us to walk to the exit, Assad took a detour to the saloon, and picked up a BB gun. With his eyes closed, he tried hitting the target. Bang, bang, bang. 

It's little surprise that their favorite word is majnoon. Syria majnoon. Syria is crazy. Lubnan majnoon. Lebanon is crazy. Polis majnoon. The police are crazy. Koolo majnoon. Everyone is crazy.

Maybe it's because I don't have kids of my own that I enjoy spoiling these kids rotten. Maybe it's because I was adopted that I tend to look out for children whose parents are struggling or far away. Maybe it's because I am far from home myself that I feel unsettled too — we are strangers together in a strange land.

Every night, around 8 p.m., my phone begins to flood with emoticons. To help the boys practice reading and writing — and stay in touch with their families in Syria — I bought them smartphones.  The emoticon of a young boy running in a red shirt —that's Assad.  The boy sleeping with his head on the desk — that's Abdullah. As for me, I'm the brunette in a pink blouse giving a wave. Since Assad is borderline illiterate, he likes to write in emoticons, but Abdullah and I encourage him to type in words.

As much as I look out for my boys, they look out for me, too. Whenever they see men harassing me on the street, they rush to my defense. Whenever I pass by them with groceries, they offer to carry my bags. And whenever they see me carrying a latte, Assad offers me some wise words: "You drink too much coffee."

My boys are good boys. Their parents raised them well. When they traveled to Syria a few months ago to renew their papers, they returned to Beirut bearing a gift for me from the war: delicious sweets from Damascus.

First boat ride. First ferris wheel. First bumper car. I am a witness to their growing up. Each new adventure we share reminds me of a milestone they're missing back home.

My boys — nobody cares about my boys. They're a statistic, collateral damage, a generation lost. But to me, they are so much more: mini-masters of the absurd, brave survivors of trauma and best friends in the fire. From them, I am learning the power of resilience, and the importance of friendship. From them, I am coming to understand hopeless hope.

"You know, we love you like our own mother," Abdullah once said, while flipping through photographs I'd taken of them on the road.

"And I love you like you're my own children," I said. I never dared to call them my boys, until they called me "mom."

While running last-minute errands before heading off to Indonesia for the summer on a Fulbright, I noticed a Lebanese soldier in the distance carting a Syrian street kid away. I ran toward them, when I realized the boy was Assad.

"Stop! You can't take him!" I said, trying to keep up with the soldier's stride.

"Of course I can," he replied, adjusting the M16 on his back.

"But he's my son," I said, to all of our surprise. The soldier laughed. Assad was obviously not my son. My boys are not my boys.

"It's illegal to work on the streets," the soldier said.

"But he's just a child," I said, adding that Assad's only wish is to go to school. The soldier's patience with me was wearing thin, just like the brown sweater that Assad insists on wearing every day.

"Where are you taking him?" I asked.

"To jail," the soldier said, pushing Assad along. Assad looked at me, and told me not to worry -- that he would be fine. He'd see me when he was free. I wondered if jail was a better alternative for him than working the streets.

"But he's not the problem," I said, hoping the soldier wouldn't ask me to define what the real problem was.

"Listen, I'll give him one more chance, but after that, he's going to jail," the soldier said, releasing his grip on Assad. Shaken, Assad took a deep breath, and wished me a safe trip to Indonesia. It was the last time I saw him, before leaving Beirut.

While watching the news one night in Indonesia, I learned that a car bomb had exploded in front of a mosque in Assad and Abdullah's hometown. Among the dead were a woman and child. What if that child was Assad or Abdullah? I had no way of knowing. I worried all summer long that I'd never see them again. After my plane touched down in Beirut, I hit the pavement to find them.

"Where are my boys?" I said.

After searching their usual haunts, I rounded a corner, and bumped into Abdullah, sitting on his shoe-shining kit on the same street where we'd first met. Surprised to see me, after my three months away, he stood up, and wiped away a fresh tear that matched the scar on his cheek.

"Ni hao," Abdullah said, smiling through his tears. "Ni hao," I replied, amazed he hadn't forgotten his Chinese. But the twinkle of hope in his eyes had dimmed. Later that night, my phone buzzed with a message from Assad: "Send me photos from your travels."

What does the future hold for my boys? I shudder to think. The world has failed them. I am helpless to heal their wounds. All I can do is love them -- and love them I do.

By Emily Jane O'Dell

Emily Jane O'Dell is a professor at the American University of Beirut. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, NPR, Huffington Post, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter @emilyjodell

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