The Unanswered Question

“How long more?”

My husband asks this question enough times for me to know he’s not wondering how long our walk will take to get to the river. We’ve done it a million times. He’s asking me how much longer we’ll be staying here in Turkey, how much longer we have to wait for our lives to move forward, and how much longer we have to live at the mercy of politicians’ decisions.

“Merhaba. Merhaba.” We murmur a Turkish greeting as we pass by a small boy kicking a beat-up soccer ball in his front yard, then to a woman peering around the corner, pinning white shirts to a line. She nods her head at us.

How long more?

Sometimes he asks this question pointedly, squaring his face with mine and expecting a specific answer like I hold some magic key to that knowledge. This time though, his question is more like a statement, a phrase that is ever pulsing in his veins. Three words syncopated with our footsteps on the street, coming up and out from within him, like a great, heaving sigh.

I still don’t respond to him as we continue walking down the dusty cobblestone street, fruit trees bursting over us, the river sparkling up ahead, a pregnant cat sauntering nearby. But I lean in close, matching my walking pace to his, and squeeze his hand. I may not have an answer but I hope this gesture conveys my solidarity and dissolves the not-question still hanging in the air. Hey, whatever’s going to happen, we’re in this together.

Closer to the river now we see my mother-in-law at the water’s edge, throwing day-old scraps of bread to the ducks. She waves us over and points into the water. “Babies!” she exclaims. We look over the fence at four fuzzy ducklings. Watching her unwrap more bread from her purse — an extra loaf she bought at the bakery just for the ducks — I’m struck by how alone she is here. My husband, too. Strangers in this country, fleeing their homes because of the God they believe in. They didn’t choose to be here. And they can’t choose to leave. They ache over the burden of carrying a title they did not want: refugee.

It’s hard to describe to other people all the subtleties of how our lives are impacted by the travel ban, continually phrasing and rephrasing it. I tend to craft my words carefully, like how my mother-in-law chooses her fruit and vegetables at the Friday bazaar. Slowly. Picking up each one, examining it, smelling it, pressing it, before the finality of placing it gingerly into her sack or back on the stand.

It’s difficult to explain what we’re going through when well-meaning people touch us on the arm in the middle of the coffee line at church. “How’s your heart?” they say gently with a tilt of their head, twenty other people around us, all stretching out their hands to grab a sugar packet or spoon.

We don’t want to be here, is what I want to tell them. This waiting on the edge of our seats is making our hearts sick. Do they know of the arbitrary dates we give ourselves to be in the US? Maybe by his birthday, this summer, her wedding in the fall. And as each date passes we feel the dragging drop of disappointment.

How long more?

He cannot even leave the province without a permission slip, quickly constricting his world to a 90-mile radius. I want to tell them of his interactions with condescending police officers, blase and vague in their answers. Each time the phone rings our bodies stiffen and we stop what we’re doing. Maybe this is the call. The one we’ve been waiting for.

How long more?

There’s the suffocating pressure coming from all sides, knowing he cannot go back, knowing this present country is growing tired of the strain of the millions here just like him. And the country he dreams of going to is so quick to turn its back, put up a wall, and slap a derogative label over people with his shade of skin.

How long more?

With the buzz of post-church conversation all around us, it’s exhausting to try to craft my thoughts before the attention quickly shifts to something else. So, like the precious fruit, I put it back on the stand and instead deliver a blithe reply.

I see the question resurface in his eyes as he stares out at the river. I help my mother-in-law unpack the steaming lunch she brought. We set out the fresh village bread and a tea thermos — a staple at any Persian picnic — and bow our heads in prayer. She prays in Farsi for God to have mercy on us, to hear us, to help us to trust him. I look up at the two heads bent.

God, how long more?

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