“I moved to the US to write a book about…” and the topic of my book changes depending on so many factors, my mood, the identity of the person who asked and the language that I will use to respond, Arabic or English.  

I would answer “about Syria’’, if I have enough energy to discuss politics, especially if I have enough energy to do it in English, or if I already know where the person asking stands politically regarding Syria. I don’t discuss Syria in loud places. I don’t discuss Syria in a happy place. I don’t discuss Syria with those who have the luxury of considering Syria a debate topic or, even worse, an exciting, exotic subject. 

 “About Aleppo,” If I am in my nostalgic mood, or if I guessed the person asking wouldn’t know where Aleppo is and that would shift the conversation toward anything else. Anything less charged. Anything I didn’t really care about as much.

“About my mother,” is my answer either in a stupid, vulnerable moments or totally the opposite, as an assimilation attempts, trying to pass as another “normal” woman who moved to New York to write a memoir about her mother. 

Regardless of my answers, I moved to the US to write a book about the three of them and the three of them were killed by the Syrian regime.

To write about a regime checkpoint shooting my mother in Aleppo, meant I had to stare at that day over and over.  I printed the chapter of her death in six drafts. I read it out loud. Each time, I remembered small details here and there. My English improves so I notice more grammatical errors. I read it out loud. I hear my voice describing the scenes. I pause at that moment of the phone call of my sister telling me our mother was shot. I read it out loud to myself in cafes, libraries, a studio apartment I barely afford in New York, and on the depressing subway. I reread it. I accept that it was a tragic day so I would have a tragic chapter, but I am overly concerned that I might cross the line toward writing sentimentally about my mother’s death. 

In the first semester, I noticed that I was hesitant to write this chapter. Not because of its traumatic nature, I wanted a chance not to be that person, the one with killed friends and family members. I wanted a chance to dwell in denial that my life was not my life.  

Many classmates asked me if I write humor, “I wish” I responded. 

But then, the acute guilt of hiding her story became the elephant in every chapter. So I wrote it and submitted it to my classmates, who might forget my name over the years but remember me by: “The Syrian who wrote about her mother being killed”. 

Half of the first manuscript of this memoir would be my thesis to graduate from the MFA program at Columbia University, the only reason I was able to move to the US during the Muslim ban or Trump ban or whatever you want to call it. The submission date was the first of March. I asked for an extension. I used the regular excuses shamelessly. The pandemic and that English is not my native language. If they didn’t accept those excuses, I would’ve used my mental health card with shame, though. Gladly, they allowed me to submit at my suggested date the 21st of March.

See, the 21st of March is Mother’s Day in Syria. What can I do over Mother’s Day? While stuck inside the US on a pending asylum application. 

Cry, been there, done that. Write, been there and done that. Meditate, no way. So I tried to create a special ritual for her this year, the submission of my thesis.

Months after her death, the air-force intelligence of Aleppo, the Mukhabarat, came to arrest me and I had to flee. I never took roses to her grave, nor on Mother’s Day nor on her birthday (the 7th of September). So this thesis would be the roses on a graveyard. Is there anyone in New York who has a mother’s grave that can lend me to cry over? I will just go with red roses, her favorite, sit for a while, cry and ask her to forgive me in Arabic.

Meanwhile, the thesis would do just that for this year.

You see, I am surrounded by a small community of Syrians, mostly forcibly displaced, here in New York. And blessed with a huge network of Syrians, mostly forcibly displaced, all over the world. 

The day is painful for almost every one of us, the sons and daughters, I mean. I belong to those who lost their mothers and understood and believed that she was dead. I saw the bullet inside her body. I wish I didn’t.

But there are those of us, sons and daughters, who didn’t believe their mothers died. The world that hates refugees and their mothers prevented them from being near their deathbeds, to kiss the forehead and attend the funeral. So those of us live in an alternative reality where their mothers are still alive inside Syria. 

There is also another group of us, sons and daughters, who live consistently under the anxiety and fear that they would lose their mothers before having the official papers that would allow them to meet even for a few days in any country. A chance to have one more home cooked meal, to be there when she has cancer or when she heals. When the father is driving her crazy and so on. Every phone call with their mothers, regardless of how bad the internet connection is, might be their last phone call. The one before they move to belong to the group who was prevented from attending their mothers’ funerals or putting a flower over the graves.

But then there are a small group of us who can actually visit their mothers and celebrate with them. They are celebrating with guilt surrounded by all of our pain that they do it in secret. They hide their celebration. 

The day is painful for almost every one of them also, the mothers, I mean. They lost sons and daughters. They wait for any news of their detainees. They learn to meet their grandchildren only virtually. Their sons and daughters froze in time before their asylum journey. Our mothers deserve a life where we are not targeted, arrested, killed, or forced to leave indefinitely. 

In our asylum life, though, we have to do this Mother’s Day twice per year. Once as Syrians in March and once as we are surrounded by the cards, flowers, and celebration coming from every storefront in May.

My graduation commencement ceremony will be in May also. My sister won’t be able to get a visa on time, and I can’t afford to invite her, anyway. I can convince myself that friends are your chosen family once again that day. But still I want to leave one empty seat for her.

The book is for Marina, my mother

This essay is for her

And the empty seat with a red rose at my graduation ceremony is for her.

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