Encounter

How An LA Traffic Jam Introduced Me To My Syrian Neighbors

Chatting up her Syrian Uber driver on the way to LAX, she discovered that they were practically neighbors. Then she unearthed a much more abiding tie.

Here’s something I never thought I’d say: There’s an upside to the Los Angeles traffic.

It was only because the ride to Los Angeles International Airport, 24 miles from my home, took a whopping 96 minutes that I chatted up my UBER driver. We were heading into the terminal by way of the Sepulveda Tunnel, a bottleneck-prone maw that was surely modeled after Dante’s First Circle of Hell.

“I’m heading to Mobile, Alabama where I was born and where my family landed in 1913 after emigrating from Russia. I haven’t been back in over thirty years and we’re having a family reunion.”

After talking about myself for our first ten minutes in Limbo, I’d like to say it was genuine curiosity, but it was also the desire to get a five star rating that inspired me to ask my driver where he was from. Kanas tells me that he wishes he could go home to Fairouzeh, Syria, but can’t. His hometown is located a few miles south of war torn Homs. Fleeing religious persecution as a practicing Catholic, he arrived in 1990 and he and his family have been unable to return since 2009. As we inched our way to the terminal, I learned that Fairouzians have banded together, resettling five thousand villagers in the United States, and there was a sizable, thriving Syrian community practically in my back yard.

As it happens, my visit coincides with an attempt by former Alabama state senator and now Attorney General Jeff Sessions to ban Syrian refugees from settling in the state. At our family reunion, my relatives tell me they support such a ban because we don’t know “their people.”

We’d fled pogroms in Russia, part of the wave of more than two million Eastern European Jews who came to America between 1887 and the start of World War II. Most of us arrived looking like the bus and truck touring company of Fiddler on the Roof, with nothing more than a letter vouching for us from a family member who’d already immigrated, the clothes on our back, and a case of cholera or TB. My family became bootleggers, and although my great grandmother didn’t “technically” own a brothel, she rented out rooms to women who had remunerative but short-lived relationships with gentlemen callers. Two of our cousins went to “camp,” as we call it in our family after Truman’s Justice Department found them guilty of financial improprieties in our family business. Others were communist sympathizers and union organizers. So “whose people” should inspire apprehension?

Landing back in Los Angeles, I tracked my driver down and promptly received a dinner invitation from Kanas and his wife, Fadwa, at their home. Kanas recounted how he’d followed his brother to America and the slow process of raising money to bring family members over, a story that mirrors my own family’s journey. My great grandfather Hershel immigrated only after his brother sent word that Russian Jews could make a life along the Gulf of Mexico. It took several years to save enough to send for my grandmother and her sister to cross the ocean, in steerage, to join him. The Hawaras live much the way the Gurwitchs did when we first arrived: enjoying traditional meals in a multi-generational household, pooling financial resources, and marveling as the first generation of American-born family members become professionals, doctors, and attorneys, and assimilating into our larger melting pot.

It’s so easy to forget how short a time it’s been since my family, “my people” as we say in the South, were otherized. It would be a stretch to say that we were welcomed with open arms when we arrived on American shores. Relatives were denied membership in social clubs and did business only with other Jewish merchants. I can recall only one kindergarten classmate in Mobile inquiring if I had horns and a tail, but it wasn’t until 2015 that a Jewish girl was allowed to be presented at Mobile’s debutante ball. I’m equally appalled by the attempted travel bans and nativist rhetoric as the spate of vandalism at Jewish cemeteries and threats to JCCs. Our nation has responded to the abhorrent chemical attack with tomahawk missiles, but we will we be willing to take in even one of the surviving families? To date, the president hasn’t shown any willingness to reconsider his hardline stance. What responsibility do I, whose ancestors were twice strangers in a strange land, bear in turning back the rising tide of tribalistic epistemology?

It turns out that another Jewish daughter is asking herself the same question. “I think there is a global humanitarian crisis that’s happening, and we have to come together and we have to solve it,” Ms. Trump told NBC when asked about the refugee crisis in Syria. This is great news, right? Ivanka, our best hope of the All in the Family Administration for advocating for women’s empowerment is fresh off her victory at preserving funding for Planned Parenthood. No wait, that didn’t work out. And was it really because she was moved by the images of babies killed in chemical attack that convinced Trump to send those missiles? ‘Cause that didn’t turn out so well either.

Maybe dinner is a first step. If you’re lucky, like me, you might even get to taste something as delicious like Fadwa’s kusha mashi, a zucchini stuffed with lamb and rice, which, not surprisingly, conjured warm memories of my grandmother’s Russian recipe for stuffed cabbage.

Annabelle Gurwitch is the author of the just published essay collection Wherever You Go, There They Are.