Wonder and Worry, as a Syrian Child Transforms


Memories of Home

Two weeks later, Mrs. Mohammad and her two daughters were propelled into a local Walmart by Bayan’s sheer force of will. She longed for a pair of sparkly purple sneakers, and begged, nagged and nearly cried until her mother agreed. As they navigated the aisles, mother and daughters looked like members of two different families. Mrs. Mohammad wore her head scarf, neck-to-toe gown and shawl, while the girls were in leggings and skinny jeans.

The question about when Bayan would start covering her head loomed over her and her parents. As they were in Canada, her mother was willing to postpone it until seventh grade.

“No!” Bayan yelled when she overheard her mother talking about it. She looked ugly with her head covered, she thought. “When I’m in grade nine — maybe,” she said.

But the next day, Bayan and her mother slipped inside a building a few blocks from their apartment, where the 10-year-old kicked off the brand-new sneakers and knelt. Her mother draped a thin scarf over her daughter’s head, expertly folding, tucking and pinning until it covered her hair without a strand showing.

Photo

Eman Mohammad helped her daughter Bayan put on a headscarf before she attended the Islamic school at a local mosque.

Credit
Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

This was Islamic school at the mosque, a new fixture of Bayan’s Sundays. For several hours, she studied written Arabic, verses of the Quran and Islamic values with other children. It was the only activity of hers that the sponsors had not been involved in planning; that day, they were taking the rest of the family to a Santa parade, which Bayan was disappointed to miss. Sunday mornings were a compromise between Bayan and her parents: the single time each week, for now, that she would cover her head.

For the main lesson that day, the teacher, Maimoonah Ali, an 18-year-old whose parents came to Canada as refugees from Eritrea, passed out colored Popsicle sticks and instructed the students to snap them. The sound of splintering wood filled the room. “Sometimes there are tests in life,” she told the children. “And sometimes they break us.”

Then she collected the remaining sticks into a tight bundle. One by one, the students strained and failed to break them. “It’s really, really difficult to break things when they’re all together, right?” Ms. Ali asked. “And that’s exactly like us.”

But it was not clear how much the class was going to do to help secure Bayan’s Syrian identity. In English, she could read at “Cat in the Hat” level, but her Arabic reading was worse, because the war had interrupted her schooling. Bayan was supposed to repeat the verses that a classmate was saying that day, but her partner did not speak Arabic, and Bayan could barely understand her. She was the only Syrian in the school.

Other classmates’ parents came from Algeria, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Mali. Half the population of Toronto is foreign-born, a reflection of Canada’s openness to immigrants. In her apartment building, Bayan has friends whose families are from Israel and China.

When her father picked her up, she could not take off her hijab fast enough. During lunch at home, as she chatted in English, he interjected: “Arabic!” She continued in a mix of both. When she talked about the stick exercise, her father gave a look of recognition. “I was Bayan’s age when they told me the same story,” he said.

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