She was married when she was 14. This was customary in Syria.
By the time she was 16, she had two sons. The expectations for her life were simple and clear: to be a good housewife.
But that’s where customary stopped, for Asmaa Albukaie found herself with an unexpected craving to watch American movies. And to learn English — a totally unnecessary skill for a Syrian housewife.
She says: “I don’t know why. I think it’s a gift from God. The gift from God to let me love the movies and love the country, the culture — American, American, American way. …
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“There is a huge love between me and this culture. But I never expect I will be one day here.”
• • •
So she hid in the bathroom.
She watched American movies on her laptop, and she practiced English in the mirror. She can’t remember precisely which movie stirred something within in her. Maybe “Titanic,” when Kate Winslet left her rich fiancé for Leonardo DiCaprio — the fact that the heroine could make up her own mind.
“(Because) then the little American woman inside me start fighting for the right: You have to learn English. You have to complete your studies, you have to do this.
“Of course, I don’t expect that one day I will need (English). It’s just for being a woman, exactly like an American woman, to decide. Because Syrian woman cannot decide.”
She asked her husband if she could finish high school. And even bolder yet: to go to college.
“I told him I wanted to study. I told him I will clean the house, nothing will be different. So he accept me to study. But the beginning was hiding in the bathroom.”
She finished high school, and in 2011 she started her master’s degree in library science — a field she chose because of its far-ranging fields of information. It was the same year the war started.
• • •
Asmaa’s Syria was a peaceful place, a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities, with a history that spanned scores of religions. The apostle Paul, if you remember, was converted on the road to Damascus.
“In Syria, we had 50 different religions. … My father never teach us how to hate people. He teach us how to love others. He said most of the time, share with this group of people, their food; share with this group of people their song, share this and share that.
“We are a very Muslim family. … We fast and we pray, all of us (wear hijab). … So we are practicing (Muslims), but I never heard from my family member that we should hate this group, or this group is not considered in heaven; or this group, God will not love them.”
So the war seemed unreal.
“I didn’t believe it. My personality, I like a lot of fun, and probably because I watch a lot of movies, (the war seemed) probably like a small game. I didn’t believe it. But when I saw the blood and the bodies, and the bomb in front of my own eyes, I know it is a real war.”
And it had collateral damage: Asmaa’s husband disappeared.
“When the war started, nobody can decide whatever you want. You cannot decide except you have to leave — or you have to stay.”
She fled with her sons to her parents’ home in Damascus, leaving her nearly finished master’s degree behind — as well as her quest for a Ph.D. and teaching at the university. She dreamed of teaching women they could be educated and strong and decisive.
“I wanted to stay in Syria. It is my home. I don’t want to leave Syria.”
But she thought of her children and their safety.
“That’s why I say, ‘No more stay in Syria,’ because otherwise I will lose my children.
“As a mother, you can see when they try to take the small calf from the mother, how the mother gets mad. Imagine about the human.”
Asmaa asked her father for the unthinkable: money to travel, she and her sons — alone — to leave Syria.
“(I told him) I have to be safe, and I have to depend on myself. My father cried. …
“And he said I know you are smart; you will be safe. But I am really scared because you are only a girl, you will leave the country without a man.”
But women all over Syria were finding themselves widows. At the border into Jordan, it hit Asmaa. Instead of asking for a bribe, the official told her to just go and never come back.
“When he say that — you will not come back so you will not cause us a problem — I thought, wow. Is it the last time I see my family? Is it the last to see my father, my sisters, my whole family? My whole friends, my university? …
“His word was true. I have been outside of Syria three years, and I will never be able to come back. Especially after I arrive to United States and get refugee status. They will not let me (back) in. …”
In Egypt, Asmaa and her sons applied to be refugees. They had no say about which country would accept them.
“I thought it was kind of luck to be in United States, because I love United States. … I believe in luck. It was a big lucky.”
• • •
Asmaa and her sons, now teenagers, arrived in Boise on Nov. 20, 2014.
“When I came, my heart was full of love with this country already. Imagine when I came finally to some place you love, how love you will show. Sometimes, even if people look at me in a strange way, I keep smiling. … I never keep not smiling.”
Shortly after she arrived, Asmaa was going into the bank as another woman was leaving. When she saw Asmaa’s scarf, the woman said, “Oh, my God, the Muslims are coming.”
“Because I wanted to practice my English, I ignore what she say and said, ‘Hi, how are you?’ (The other woman sucked in her breath), ‘Oh! She speaks English!’ She was really terrified. …
“For me, I was really excited. I wish I could explain to her I was so excited to learn and practice my English; I have been studying in the bathroom for long time, so please don’t be scared of me. I wanted to be her friend.”
In that way, Asmaa learned about Americans’ stereotypes — and fear — of refugees.
“I know from American movie, American people are really educated. That shocked me when they say, is Syria near to India? I say, whoa, no, it’s not near India.
“This is my goal: I have to educate people; I have to let people know what is Syria, and I have to let people to love what is Syria — as I love United States. …”
Recently, Asmaa gave a TEDx talk in Moscow and began with her grandmother’s explanation of where babies came from: Put some beans in your hand and in the morning, you would have babies.
“I get married after a few months and of course, I get two babies. But not because of beans. The only thing I was doing a lot was watching American movies. …
“(But what) I need people to understand is that not everything they hear is the truth. My grandmother told me about the beans but it wasn’t the truth; everything people hear about Syria isn’t the truth.”
So with great patience, humor and sensitivity, for the 18 months she’s lived in Boise, Asmaa tackles stereotypes and misunderstanding.
One woman told Asmaa she was afraid of Muslims because she’d heard that women put bombs in their hair under their scarves.
“I told her, well, if I have a bomb here, the first one killed is me because the bomb is in my head. It is my hair; believe me, you can touch it if you want.
“She start laughing. When she say it, she was really serious, but she was really laughing when I say it this way. … I make it like a joke even though it’s hurting like (she sucks in air) — can you imagine somebody tell if you have long hair and you cover it, you have a bomb in your hair? Like what you are talking about? It’s my hair.”
One of Asmaa’s teenage sons was beaten up earlier this year for being Muslim — and she only wants the perpetrator to feel the burden of forgiveness, to not sit in jail fermenting hate.
“That mean the hate start and grow in this country. … I run away from hate. I just came to U.S. for peace.
“I hope for the country to be better and better. To stay the most strongest country in the world, we have to work for it. … We start to hate each other, believe me, no matter how big it is, no matter how strong it is — if we hate, the country will not be strong any more.”
• • •
It is a big responsibility Asmaa feels.
“I remember I am representing my country. I am representing refugee. I am representing Muslim people. I don’t want to represent that in bad ways because I will let people feel afraid more.”
Within six months of her arrival, Asmaa had her first job, proudly paying taxes like everyone else. She now works full time as a case manager for other refugees, using her experience and empathy to help them adjust to American culture.
“It wasn’t easy. But now I made it. I feel like everybody can make it if they believe in themselves. If they love the country, they will make it, they will succeed. …
Her biggest dream is to resume her studies and go for that doctorate, this time in psychology to help refugees deal with trauma. And she’ll trade her dream of teaching at the university in Damascus for teaching at Boise State.
“I need to be part of the Americans who help others who need. I don’t want to be the ‘others who need.’ I want to be the people who help build the country and be part of the helpful citizen. … ”
Asmaa is heartened by how Idahoans, who might have started out being afraid of her as a Muslim or Syrian or refugee, have come to laugh and smile and be her friend.
“I believe in that. We can change the world to be a better world, and we can keep this country very safe. … We are human, and we should love each other because we are human. …
“Love give you more power than anything.”
Ramadan, the 30 holy days of praying and fasting between sunrise and sunset for Muslims, will end this week.
Asmaa Albukaie:“There are so many goals for Ramadan. It’s not just to keep yourself hungry and thirsty, but the reason (is) to teach you how to be patient. And also to feel about poor people (who) don’t have food.”
It’s a time of giving money to charity.
“And also to remember you are doing this for God. When you practice and when you feel more patient, that will help you to be a more good person. Being patient, not to say bad word, not to lie … to love others, to respect others … not only for Ramadan. This is practicing for 30 days to be better person for the whole year.
“But … not only for ourself. When we don’t say bad word or we don’t hurt anybody, we are good for the community. That’s going to make the whole community better. … ”
Asmaa Albukaie says that even she gets afraid listening to television news.
“Sometimes when I hear people on TV talking about Muslims, even I am scared. I am scared of being Muslim; can you imagine?
“And you grow with a family full of love for everything; you know exactly what your religion means. But with all TV, you feel scared of your religion, you feel scared of yourself.”
She assumed Americans would be much more tolerant of each other’s religions but found that ideal tarnished.
“I heard people speak about Mormon in bad way. And they are very nice; I have a lot of good, good friends from Mormon. …
“And so for me, I start having goals to celebrate with everybody their religions.”
Because they arrived near the holidays, Asmaa was determined to celebrate Christmas — having developed a fondness for the holiday from, of course, American movies. She couldn’t afford a tree until after Christmas Day.
“I celebrate way after people celebrate, but because I love (the holiday), I celebrate in January. All people take Christmas tree out, but me, I set it up. … I feel like when I set the tree, I feel a lot of love in my home. I don’t know why. It’s just a feeling.”
She recently felt honored to light a candle at the memorial ceremony for the Jewish Holocaust — a bridge between cultures who seldom mingle.
“That’s why my goal is to share with everybody their celebration; not just be Muslim and presenting Islam here, (but) presenting Islam with love for everybody. This is my goals.”