Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Beside the golden door

I've been thinking about my maternal grandmother a lot, this week. She was born in rural North Dakota in 1922, to immigrant Norwegian parents...but lost her mother at three, and from that point much of her childhood was scarred by tragedy, deprivation, and outright violence, abuse, and neglect. By the eighth grade, she'd exhausted the limits of the local one-room schoolhouse for farm kids. To continue her education--and it must have been largely her own idea, because certainly no one was championing her talents at home-- she'd need to move to town, Williston, to attend the high school.

I've been to Williston, both as a small child and more recently, as the oil boom has rendered it utterly unrecognizable. In the late 1930s, I don't know that there was any such thing as an emancipated minor, so my grandma had to find room and board with a series of townie families. One of these was a Syrian family.

I'm *almost* more curious about their story, now--how on earth a Syrian family landed in Depression-era bumf*ck North Dakota in the first place. Grammy didn't talk about her childhood much, understandably, and so I don't know these people's names, their faith (though I suppose they might have been part of the Syrian Christian minority, because how exponentially more difficult would it have been to be Muslim in the rural frozen north?), how they'd come west, or when.

But the fragments of fact I know are these: that a family of Syrian immigrants, whose own lives couldn't have been easy, took in a malnourished wretch of a 14-year-old and fed her. Put a roof over her head. Introduced her to pita bread, which she spoke of with great fondness (and probably to garlic and garbanzo beans, too). Taught her that dandelion greens were edible (like Katniss, you guys!). Taught her to cook (...after a fashion). Let her work it off with babysitting, and claw her way to a diploma and a future.

There were other families, I know. Other jobs, before she wrote her sister in Seattle and pleaded a toothache (a lie), begged her to wire money for a dentist, and promptly cashed it in for a train ticket the hell out of Dodge. Probably, many or most of the same things would have happened to her. The same dominoes toppling, the same butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon to lead her to Seattle, to her husband, her daughters, me. But somewhere back down the line, I owe a debt to some Syrian refugees I'll never know. They took a hungry, desperate, terrorized child into their home, and helped save her life. The only response I can live with is to pay it forward.


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