Being Those People by Erin Kayata
2012 was a big year for me: I graduated high school and started college, making me part of the third generation on my father’s side to pursue a higher education.
2012 also marked another occasion, unbeknownst to most of my family and I: the 100-year anniversary of my family’s arrival to America from Damascus, Syria.
Nicolas Kayata arrived in Providence, Rhode Island from Marseilles, France in October of 1912. According to my grandfather, Nicolas had been there for his schooling, fleeing a country that was torn with violence, even a century ago. My great-grandmother, Mary Echo, also arrived with her family that same year. It was the beginning of the Kayatas in America.
My dad’s father, affectionately known as Pe-pa, often tells me stories about his parents. His mother Mary was loud and vibrant: She read palms and tea leaves. She would go to parties with her finger cymbals hidden. She’d pretend to be too embarrassed to dance, but once people begged her, she got going, banging the cymbals she had snuck in in her bag. Pe-pa says I’m a lot like her.
My great-grandfather said two words for her ten, as Pe-pa puts it. He was short. His “alien certificate” reveals that he was 5 foot 5, the same height as me. Thanks to his unusual name, I was able to find many of his records on ancestry.com. The spelling of his name changed from “Nicolas” to “Nicholas,” and I wonder what careless person got it wrong on his other records, or if he changed it himself to seem more “American.”
I don’t really know what my great-grandparents looked like. There are only two photos of them that I’ve seen. For years, it was only a sepia-toned photo of them in the older years hanging in my grandparents’ den. My great-grandmother looked like Pe-pa, with deep creases around her mouth and a square face. Both look drastically different from the photocopy of their wedding photo that appeared in my grandparents’ living room last year. They are short, stout, and frowning. Both have poofs of dark hair and do not look like they’re enjoying their wedding day–but, maybe eloping to a church in Chinatown in Boston will do that to you. (In a Shakespearian twist, my great-grandmother couldn’t marry until her older sister found a spouse, so my great-grandparents ran away and got married alone.)
I want so badly to know more about their lives. I trace my finger along their greying wedding photo, desperate to see some of my features in theirs. The first time I finally saw the Syrian in me was again back in 2012, the first year that I remember becoming aware of the war in Syria. I recall looking at photos of the wreckage in Time, and seeing a photo of a woman whose face was contorted in sobs I’d never see here. I saw the same lines in her face as I do my Pe-pa’s, and realized I had the same lines in mine. I can’t un-see them now.
In 2012, I felt I needed to go to Syria. This was why I was meant to be a journalist. I wanted to honor the people who got me here, who began this tradition of education in my family. I felt like I had a place then as an ally of the Syrian community, representing the family who came before me.
My friends tell me there’s no way I’m ever making it to Syria. There are 4 million Syrian refugees, and that number is growing. In November, shortly after the Paris terrorist attacks, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker said he is “not interested” in taking in any Syrian refugees.
Governor Baker’s words have sundered my identity, and that of thousands of other Syrian-Americans in Boston. I am an American, born and raised, but so many people around me say they want nothing to do with my people. My history is ingrained, it’s a part of me, and I don’t know how to handle all of these new attacks on it.
A boy I went to high school with writes a Facebook status, questioning what these refugees will “even do” in America. I want to tell him that they’ll start a bakery, like my great-grandfather and his brothers did. I want to tell them that they’ll have children, who will have their own children, who will have their own children, like me. I want to tell him they’ll start groups to support other refugees who come over, that they’ll make a difference in the community, because this will be their home. I want to ask him where his family came from. Instead, I scroll past another image someone shares about how we need to help our “own” first. I wonder how they don’t know that these people are their own.
One day at work, I am sorting through the letters for my department when I hear two of the mailroom employees talking nearby.
“We can’t let these people in,” one says. “They’ll ruin us. They’re trained to kill.” He spews hateful stereotypes about Muslims, the Quran, and Middle Easterners in general. My heart pounds. I contemplate what to say. But again, I say nothing. I try to remain calm as I speed out of the room.
“How are you, sweetheart?” one of the men asks. I can’t look at him.
“Fine,” I mumble.
“Have any big plans for Thanksgiving?” he asks.
In my head, I tell him I’m going to see my father, raised by the sons of one of “those people.” I want to tell him that I’ll be getting dinner with Pe-pa, who is brilliant, silly, the best grandfather anyone could ever know, and raised by “those people.” I ask him how can be so nice to me, when I’m from “those people” that will ruin the country.
Instead, I tell him that I have plans. I never make eye contact with him. I run back to my desk and tell myself that I’m being silly, but for the first time, I feel like I don’t belong. I couldn’t imagine a world where you could not want my family, but be okay with me.
It’s easy to forget where you come from, especially when living in an Americanized culture. People try to tell me that I don’t look Syrian or that I’m not really Syrian, but every time I write down my last name, I am reminded of where I’m from and who got me here. I will not forget where my family is from, because it is as much a part of who I am as my name.
I also cannot forget the people who didn’t make it out like my family. They’re on the news every day, presented to a world fretting about a crisis that it doesn’t seem to care about. I want to help, but I don’t know what I can do. I look back at what I wrote in my blog four years ago, about how we needed to help. I feel more helpless now than I did then. I have this history, but unlike others with families from countries they can visit, I cannot access it. My ancestry.com records stop short, and what I can find is shoddy. It’s as if no one has cared for a long time.
But there is hope. I found out recently that after my great-grandfather came over, he started a society to help other Syrians coming to the country. Governor Baker has no power over the refugees coming in, and the ones that make it here get support. The Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition represents 130 immigrant and refugee groups in the region, and there are ethnic communities within that to help newcomers to the country. The Syrians who are here are coming out with their stories to educate people and show them that they are me. They are us.
I will probably never walk the streets of Damascus. I might stay quiet again when someone insults my heritage. But my presence, my influence, is everywhere I go, and I’m still proud to say I’m Syrian, no matter how many times someone tells me how I look, or tries to define me by what they feel. I still feel like I am pushing against the grain by being Syrian and being here. But this country is built on people like my family. We’ve been letting people in for as long as anyone knows, building up to what we are today, whether that’s good or bad. To make anyone feel out of place because of where they’re from…well, I urge you to take a look at your own history and get back to me.