Ali is from Kobane, the mostly Kurdish city in northern Syria that was almost completely destroyed last year during intense fighting between Syrian Kurds and ISIS. Soon after graduating from university with a degree in French he left Syria to look for work, arriving in Erbil in early 2014. He found work as a street vendor, selling sunflower seeds and nuts by the main highway running through Ankawa, where we live. His usual spot was right on our route to and from choir, so we passed him a couple of times a week. Each night he smiled us, and his friendly greetings got more and more effusive until one evening, several months ago, he waved us over and started a conversation. (I’m still working on the being friendly and outgoing thing.) That’s when we learned his name, his background, his story about leaving Syria. We didn’t really want any sunflower seeds, but got a little bag anyway, and, with characteristic hospitality, he refused to let us pay. Every night for a while he would chat with us on our way home.
His warm and aggressive friendliness had an air of desperation about it, like he needed to prove to himself that he was more than a street-seller. When a man in a Mercedes-Benz drove up and bought some nuts he said something in French to the guy, who shrugged, not understanding. Ali called out “BA in French!” after him as he drove away. He still didn’t let us pay for the nuts.
When I asked him about his living situation he smiled and said, “Life is hard.” His sister was in Turkey, but he was trying to get her to Erbil. Then, after several weeks, we didn’t see him anymore and haven’t seen him since. Ali could still be around, with a better job somewhere. Or he could have gone back to Kobane to rebuild, though I doubt it. Or he could have tried his chances in Turkey, or continued on to Europe, with tens of thousands of others. The life of a refugee defies easy description. Unimaginable suffering. Boundless resourcefulness. Constant movement. A different Syrian took his place at the sunflower stand.