What does a refugee look like?

I’ve always been fascinated by the human story. That’s why I enjoy traveling so much. When I’m on the road, I can learn about people, language, food, and culture. I can hear stories I wouldn’t otherwise hear, and I can learn from these stories. I can expand my understanding of the world.

A few weeks ago, I asked a young man to share his story with me because I knew there was more to him. Today, I want to share his story with you. I’ve changed his name and removed some of the details to protect his identity, but the rest of it is as he told me.

For the sake of this post, I’m going to call him George. George was our server at the bar where we had a meeting for an upcoming event. He’s about 30 and was a fantastic server all afternoon. At one point, in passing conversation, someone asked George where he was from. Syria, he responded, and immediately I had a million questions floating around in my mind. I didn’t know if it would be rude to ask, but I couldn’t help myself.

I don’t mean to pry, I said, but how long have you been here? I mean, when did you leave Syria?

I left in 2012, he told me. I spent two years in Turkey and then I came here.

He must have seen it in my face, that I wanted to know everything, because he paused long enough for me to ask. Before he excused himself to take care of other customers, he promised to come back and tell me his story.

I suddenly could care less about the famous people coming in and out of the hotel bar. All I wanted to know was what happened to this man and his family for the last five years. When I travel, I always seek to learn as much as I can – to understand someone’s story in this country or that. Why not at home, too?

Eventually, George came back to tell me his story. He was actually Armenian (how do they always find their way to Los Angeles?) and his grandfather was a victim of the Armenian Genocide. Two generations ago, his family fled Turkey and found refuge in Syria. It was only fitting that generations later, George would flee Syria and find refuge in Turkey before making the trip to the U.S.

Someone in my group stopped him — you went to Turkey? Incredulous that an Armenian could feel safe there, never mind feel safe enough to live there for two years. I don’t believe in fanaticism, he replied. He was referring to the complex relations between modern-day Turks and Armenians who hold on to the hatred and prejudices of our ancestors. Of course, you have to survive, I said. He disagreed. It’s not about survival. He told me the story of the genocide, one more version of history for me to file away in the “Trying to Understand the Armenian Genocide” folder in my mind. He ended by explaining that he doesn’t like the word “hate.” It doesn’t do anything for anyone. He had to find peace within himself.

We circled back to Syria. Do you still have family there? I asked. Yes, he answered. A sister. In Aleppo.

At the time of our conversation, the media was telling us the city would no longer exist by Christmas. Now, only a few short weeks later, they may be right.

My heart sank thinking of his sister. Do you talk to her often? I asked. Every day, he replied. I felt a little better. What struck me about this conversation is that not once did he sound angry, whether at the Syrian government, the rebels, the West, or anyone else. He wasn’t sad or panicked about the state of things in Aleppo. He was simply having a very real conversation with a curious girl in a bar.

I refocused. Are your parents still alive? I wondered. Yes, they’re here with me. That’s good. I didn’t ask why his sister had stayed behind.

Our conversation went in circles, touching on his identity as an Armenian, his status in the U.S., and his thoughts on what happens next. He mentioned the election, still to be determined at that time, and without hesitation I said, Let’s hope it’s not Trump. He offered me a different perspective. The U.S. is supporting the opposition right now, and if Clinton wins, she will continue the same tactics. Things will not change in Syria, he argued. But, he said, if Trump wins then the civil war comes here so…

There’s a saying in Armenian that I cannot translate, he concluded. What is it? I asked. You can’t just say that and then NOT tell me what it is. He did his best to explain. Basically, both ends of the stick are covered in sh** so whichever end you grab, you are going to get your hands dirty.

We continued talking, then he casually mentioned that he was kidnapped at one point in his journey.

They forced me to watch two beheadings right in front of me, he started to explain…

Can we get another round of shots? Someone from the table interrupted us.

For a moment, I was reminded of where we were, sitting in a cushy hotel bar where the only concern was the next round. I couldn’t wrap my head around the conversation I was having with this young man in front of me juxtaposed with the typical L.A. bar scene all around me.

He came back later to finish his story. Who took you? I asked. He isn’t quite sure. At the time, there were so many groups – anyone could take up arms and become an opposition group. This was before the Islamic State. He was stopped at a roadblock and he didn’t know who they were. They asked for ID so he handed it over. They noticed his last name, ending in -ian, as most Armenian names do, and that was it. He was taken. I didn’t even ask for how long, I was too engrossed in the story. I did ask how he got out.

$40,000, he replied. Holy sh**. Your family paid? I asked. Of course, he said, as if my question was ludicrous.

I couldn’t convey in words everything I was feeling in that moment. All I could do was take his hand and thank him for telling me his story. He was happy to do so. Later in the evening, we all thanked him for being such a wonderful server and we parted ways.

Thank you for telling me your story, George.

For my readers, I wanted to share this for many reasons. One, because I couldn’t keep it all to myself. I had to get it out. Writing is how I process things. Two, because I believe travel is the most powerful learning tool we have in this world and this is because we connect with others when we travel and we hear their stories. Mark Twain once wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Most of us don’t take the time to ask, never mind truly listen to someone’s story. I wanted to give you the opportunity to hear someone’s story by reading this post. If only to recognize that that bartender with the somewhat funny accent may have an incredible story hidden underneath his calm and peaceful demeanor.


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