I love to speak Arabic. It’s a language I started learning in high school at the Jewish community center. Then took in college.
One of the curious things about my Arabic is it’s very Syrian. Of course, this naturally raises curiosity in Israel, a country Syria doesn’t even recognize. As an Israeli, even if there was no war in Syria and I traveled on my American passport, I am not allowed into Syria.
So once I found myself in Haifa, northern Israel, talking to some Arab men on the street. I asked where a restaurant was. And the one man said to another: “fi hon 3arabi ajnabi”.
Translation: “there’s a foreign Arab here.”
Meaning I obviously speak fluent Arabic, therefore I am Arab, but my accent is such that I’m clearly not Palestinian or an Arab citizen of Israel.
First off, this is one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever been given. When I told the man I was Jewish the shock was audible- and delightful.
Secondly, the reason I have a different accent is because I speak Syrian.
How does an American Jew wandering northern Israel speak Syrian? How does an Israeli citizen at all speak Syrian, especially one who is not a Syrian Jew? After all, it’s a bit like a North Korean walking around New York City with a noticeable accent from Pyongyang. How did you get here?
It’s a question that puzzled many of my Arab friends. And my answer made them smile.
It’s because I learned Syrian Arabic from refugees.
As a college student, my senior year, after three years of Modern Standard Arabic, I had the opportunity to learn a dialect. And I had a choice. I could’ve learned Egyptian, the largest dialect of Arabic. The most well-known, the dialect of a lot of popular media, of songs, a kind of spoken lingua franca of the Arab world.
Or I could learn Syrian.
Because part of my desire to learn Arabic was to get to know my neighbors (at the time, I didn’t realize how literal this would be), I chose Syrian. Because Syrian, Palestinian, Lebanese, and Jordanian Arabic are all part of one family. And mostly mutually intelligible.
After a semester of Syrian Arabic in college, my Arabic lay mostly dormant. There aren’t a lot of opportunities to practice it in Washington, D.C., other than the occasional pleasantly-surprised taxi driver. Who sometimes gave me a free ride 🙂
So a few years ago, when the Syrian Civil War erupted, I found my Arabic suddenly useful. The story I’m about to tell is an important one if you want to understand how to learn a language. Learning a language effectively is 90% about your passion. If you’re motivated to use it- doesn’t matter when or where- then you find a way to learn it.
And motivated I was.
The Trump Administration had begun limiting Syrian refugee arrivals to the States. And most of the world stood silent- including Syria’s allies Iran and Russia- as Syrians were massacred by their own government.
I participated in a lot of protests, but I decided there were other ways I wanted to help too.
I found a brilliant program online called “Natakallam“, run by American entrepreneurs. Natakallam means “we speak” in Arabic. And the premise is that because people can use Skype anywhere and refugees are on the move, there is a way to help them make a living. And that way is by pairing refugee teachers with Syrian dialect learners, who then pay for lessons and conversations over Skype. It’s a fantastic way to learn the spoken dialect, especially at a time when we can’t visit Syria. And besides providing a much-needed income to the refugees, it builds emotional and social bonds between people around the world.
I’ve done the program for several years now. I’ve met inspiring people. Young people displaced from their homes. Now living in Lebanon, in Germany. Curious about Jews- and about Israel. In fact, wanting to establish relations with Israel and one day visit. It shattered all sorts of stereotypes I had been taught about Syrians- and I’m sure ones they had been taught about me.
Over the past two years, I’ve been speaking with Shadi. Shadi is a refugee from Syria. He is Kurdish, a minority ruthlessly repressed by the Syrian government. Whose language was forbidden to be spoken in public. Whose very people have been butchered by Turkey, by Iran, by Syria, and by Iraq. The latter, with chemical weapons. They are a stateless people in search of safety. A minority whose culture and identity have been viciously silenced- a silence matched only by the indifference of most western liberals to their fate.
And yet Shadi, despite being displaced from his home in Syria. Being separated from his parents. Despite a wife who is suffering from cancer. Manages to see the bright side of life too.
Talking to him, besides making my Arabic fucking fantastic, always reminds me of what I have. I’ve faced- and face- very real problems. I am an unemployed sober alcoholic and survivor of 30 years of abuse with PTSD, currently going through a lot of culture shock. And talking to Shadi reminds me that alongside these problems, I have a lot to be thankful for too. I have friends who host me, I have food, I have two passports, I am not from a country in the midst of a civil war. It reminds me of very good things I have, and to remember the millions of people who don’t have them. Including my dear friend.
I’ve been spending the past few weeks recovering from jet lag, looking for a job, looking for a home, running out of money, figuring out my identity, healing from abuse, and so much more. And I felt, as I often do, that a call to Shadi might put things in perspective.
What’s so remarkable about Shadi is that he’s so empathetic. That his woes don’t stop him from seeing other people’s challenges. In fact, they illuminate his heart even more. Which is why for about an hour he wanted to know how I was doing, to hear what it was like being back in America for now, how my job search was going. He wanted to hear about the challenges of finding a job in Israel, he wanted to hear how I was doing. And he genuinely cares.
It felt so good. I miss Arabic, I miss Shadi, and I find that speaking in another language helps me access different feelings I have trouble expressing in English. Every language contains unique knowledge and creative expressions, fun twists of phrase. It’s fun, it opens the mind, it engages me and my deepest passions. I sometimes prefer to speak in other languages. I haven’t spent much of the past several years speaking in English. And now that I’m surrounded by it, I occasionally have trouble finding the right words. Life sometimes imitates reality- I originally wrote that sentence: “I occasionally having trouble finding the right words”.
English is also the language in which most of my abuse happened. Words carry a certain weight, a certain connotation for me in English. A weight I’ve managed to make progress lifting through hard work. But still feels different. In other languages, my thoughts feel a bit freer, a bit more creative, and sometimes lighter. Even easier than my mother tongue.
So after giving him a thorough update on my life, he wanted to update me on his.
Boy was it an update.
Shadi has waited patiently for five years as UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, has processed his application to move abroad. And hopefully build a new life while the country he called home is torn to pieces.
During those five years, he has been teaching students like me with Natakallam. He has also been volunteering at an NGO, trying to get a paid job. He has been living in a refugee camp, subsisting on the little aid the U.N. and foundations give him. Even as his wife works at another NGO, bringing in a little extra income to make ends meet.
I should add that calling me a student of his is a disservice to our relationship. Shadi is someone who is my friend. Someone who I share very deep feelings with. He is even someone who convinced me to go to Israel when I wasn’t sure. He is someone who is supporting me now that I find myself, for the time being, in the States. I also know a lot about him- his family, his wife, his parents, his Kurdish identity. And the challenges that come with living in a refugee camp in Iraq. You know your lot is pretty rough when you’re escaping to Iraq.
Because of the inanity of Middle Eastern politics, I can’t see Shadi. Entering Iraq on an Israeli passport is suicide. While it is potentially feasible through the Kurdish airports in the North (Kurds have had excellent relations with Jews over the centuries), the Iraqi government periodically shuts down their airports. Also, ISIS is around. In short, now is not the ideal time to visit Shadi, even if I had the money to do so, which I don’t.
So for two years, we’ve been talking almost every week. Every year for my birthday, the only gift I ask my friends is to buy conversations for me so I can keep talking to him and he can keep earning a living. I can’t imagine my life without Shadi in it. And I’ve never met him.
But I know him well and he knows me in ways some people I’ve met face-to-face never have- or will. We have a special bond- as minorities, as empathetic people, as survivors. As friends. And I’m grateful to him, to Natakallam, and to my friends who make this connection possible.
So now for Shadi’s update.
In the past few weeks, Shadi was given notice by the United Nations that his refugee application was rejected. Countries are cutting back their refugee intakes- Shadi wondered outloud if some people took a look at his wife’s cancer diagnosis and didn’t feel like footing the bill. Even though he is one of the hardest working people I know, and has so much to contribute to any country he’d live in. I suppose even the most “enlightened” countries make a cost-benefit analysis when it comes to human lives.
In addition, Shadi’s wife’s NGO lost its funding and shut down. His own NGO where he volunteers, in a truly Orwellian story, is ending his volunteer position. They are not going to continue his job- which they don’t even pay for. It’s an absurd situation straight out of an Adel Imam film. It’s like telling someone they have to stop cleaning your house for free. I don’t even have words for how asinine this is. If only I hadn’t seen some things just as stupid during my own time working in the non-profit sector.
On top of this, Shadi’s wife is about to have a baby. Obviously something that started well before this woe befell him. And, in a kicker, the various foundations working in his part of Iraq have cut back food supplies.
I was in shock.
It’s moments like these where I realize that even as I hop from couch to couch, apply to jobs, get faceless rejections from jobs, and harness every ounce of my being to move forward, I have a lot to be thankful for. And I frankly stand in deep admiration of Shadi’s strength in the face of such chaos and uncertainty.
Meeting people like Shadi has made me much more thankful for the gifts I enjoy as an American. For the freedom I experience on a daily basis that I almost don’t think about. For the food I eat. And to remember that with all the challenges we face, other people are struggling alongside us. Don’t forget them.
So with that, I told Shadi I’d schedule more times to chat so he could make a bit more income in the coming weeks. When I said this, he made very clear that he wasn’t asking for help. He might even be annoyed that I wrote this post. He simply wanted me to tell me what was going on in his life- we’re friends and I care about him. But I’m going to risk his anger and put this out here anyways because he deserves better. I wish I had the money and the political power to give him the decent opportunities he merits. But the one thing I can do is keep talking to him- to keep us both moving forward and give us hope. And to give him a chance to earn a living against unimaginable odds.
So I’d like to ask one basic thing. I’m in the middle of a job hunt, I have none at the moment. But I don’t want your money. I want you to help Shadi. I want you to go to Natakallam’s website and purchase one or more conversations- whatever you can afford- and make sure they’re put under my name. So I can spend that money and time with Shadi. And help him move forward in building a life during such a stressful and uncertain time.
Survivors have to stick together. And to help each other survive. Shadi does that for me, and I do that for him. And you can help. Away from the mind-numbing political debates and legislation and policies, this is one concrete thing you can do to make someone’s life better. Put aside for a moment your feelings about the headlines and do something to help a human being in need– today.
There is nothing more beautiful than the gift of language. Learning Arabic has opened me to new cultures, new music, new food, new history, new ways of seeing the world- and my self. It has even enlightened my own view of Judaism- not a small number of our own works are written in this language.
Most of all, Arabic has helped me make friendships. Friendships like mine with Shadi that shatter stereotypes, that build love, that move beyond the angry headlines. And into our homes and our hearts.
Please, to whatever extent you can, purchase conversations for me and Shadi to keep talking. To keep his hope- and his family- alive. Go to Natakallam and direct anything you’re able to give in my name, “Matt Adler”. And besides keeping my Arabic fresh for future videos and adventures, you’ll give one of the kindest people I know a bit more money to survive. And the compassion he deserves to move forward.
My birthday is in two months. Consider it an early birthday present. For me, for Shadi, for the idea that two people who’ve never met should care about each other.
May this year be a happy new year for everyone. Especially for my Syrian refugee friends like Shadi, who deserve every ounce of happiness they can find amidst the turmoil on God’s good earth.
One day I’m sure Shadi and I will be sharing a cup of tea, laughing after overcoming so many hardships. Basking in the sunlight of the mountains of Kurdistan, or maybe even in Tel Aviv.
But that day isn’t here yet. So I hope I can count on you to help the best friend I’ve never met.
My cover photo is of me at Rosh Hanikra, Israel’s northern border. One day I hope it will be open so I can visit Lebanon, hop over to Syria, and meet my neighbors face-to-face.