by JILLIAN GREEN DIGIACOMO
Special to Montclair Local
Abdul Alargha came to New Jersey several years before he was able to secure the visas to bring Rana Kurdi and the children here to be with him. Like so many Syrian refugees, theirs is a harrowing tale of separation, strength, and survival. Their story of escape and how they made their way to Montclair is important and compelling but it’s not the story I am going to tell. Right now, I’m going to tell you a love story. It’s the story of how Rana and Abdul met, 17 years ago, in Damascus, when there was peace and life was good.
I have been tutoring Rana in English for the past several months. The other day, I asked her how she and Abdul met. Rana’s English is improving but not to the point where she can answer this question. So at the end of our lesson, when Abdul came to pick her up, I asked him. His response was nothing like what I’d expected:
“You’re not going to believe me when I tell you,” he said. “I had a dream about Rana, three years before I ever set eyes on her.” I looked at him suspiciously but was rivited as he shared with me the following story.
In Damascus, as it is in many traditional societies, the older women spend a great deal of time trying to find suitable matches for the younger generation. This custom is known as khotba. Seventeen years ago, Abdul’s grandmother decided that it was time for Abdul to get married. She gathered pictures of the young marriageable women in her community and tried to interest him in setting up a khotba, where he would visit with the hopeful candidate and her parents. Abdul refused. He was a modern man and had no interest in meeting his future bride through such an awkward and archaic system. But over the course of many months, his grandmother would insist on showing him pictures with the hope that he might somehow change his mind.
One day, as he halfheartedly sifted through a new batch of photos, Abdul froze. He stared at one of the pictures in disbelief. He was certain that he had seen this girl before, three years earlier, in a dream. In the dream, the girl was dressed in traditional bridal attire. She smiled at Abdul who turned to his grandmother and said, “Who is she?” The grandmother answered, “She is your wife.” Abdul had not thought of that dream until the moment he saw Rana’s picture looking straight at him. Right then and there, in what Abdul described as an overly dramatic gesture, he pulled a random ring off of his own finger, handed it to his grandmother and said “Yes, give this to her. She is the girl I am going to marry.”
But wait, that’s not the end of the story! Abdul agreed to the khotba and soon, he and Rana met for the first time. I was not surprised to learn that it was love at first sight for Abdul. But I was absolutely floored when I learned that Rana, upon first meeting Abdul, looked at him and said, “I don’t know why, but I feel like I have known you my whole life.” Abdul and Rana have been happily married ever since and Abdul asked me to include in this story that on the day they met, he vowed to Rana, “For the rest of my life, you are the only woman who will not only be with me but who will ever hold my heart.”
Every day in the news, we see devastating images from within Syria. We count numbers of refugees and calculate strategies of fighting forces battling for control of that country. We debate religious extremism and fret over the possible threat that refugees may pose if we let too many across our borders.
But for me, what has been missing in the coverage of Syria is that before the war, before the strife, before the ruin, there were people, regular people, living their lives like people do all over the world. The human beings in Syria ran businesses, sang songs, raised children, haggled over prices and worried about their cholesterol.
Yes, Rana and Abdul are refugees. Yes, they are Syrian. And yes, they are Muslim. But they are also two people who met and fell in love.
In the midst of this war, through the chaos of this human tragedy, I hope that sharing this one love story proves that no matter how different we think those who live in foreign lands are, to be human is to love.