Among the ‘calm and noise,’ one Syrian refugee family’s offering

Bahij Dahdal fled Syria in 2012 after being caught between armed rebels and reckless government forces in the suburbs of Damascus.
Bahij Dahdal fled Syria in 2012 after being caught between armed rebels and reckless government forces in the suburbs of Damascus. Courtesy of the Daily Tar Heel at UNC-Chapel Hill

I had lunch last month with a new student, a transfer from Wake Tech. He’s studying for a computer science degree at UNC-Chapel Hill, hoping to build off his previous career selling medical equipment for an international company.

He has a wife, three kids and an hour-long commute to Chapel Hill early each morning. That makes for some very long days.

Like a lot of adult students, my lunch companion had more than the usual share of worries.

His wife is also in school, so they trade household chores and take turns looking after the kids. He has to study for his own classes while making sure his children are bringing home solid grades. Money is tight, and he doesn’t have the luxury of free time that many of his college classmates enjoy.

Despite all of that, Bahij Dahdal counts himself lucky. That’s because no one is threatening to kill him.

On the day we had lunch, Dahdal didn’t talk much of Syria, which he fled in 2012 after being caught between armed rebels and reckless government forces in the suburbs of Damascus. He wasn’t interested in conflict then, and he isn’t interested in it now.

He is interested in mortgage payments and job prospects, in report cards and teacher quality, in traffic problems and grocery lists. His eldest son is just entering adolescence – “the turbulence years,” as Dahdal calls them – and he frets about that. He wants his kids to be happy and well-adjusted, to study hard and feel secure in their new home. He enrolled them in Catholic school because he thinks the discipline is better.

Dahdal relishes life here and has high hopes for his future as a North Carolinian. There is ample opportunity for those who work hard, he explained to me, “no excuses if you really want to succeed.”

He told the Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s campus newspaper, that the rules and customs of university life make for a productive culture. “You can see the harmony,” he said. “It’s calm and noise at the same time.”

I love that phrase: calm and noise at the same time. It captures something wondrous not just about campus, but about our broader national life. For centuries, we have found ways to fight and argue and sort out differences without tearing ourselves apart.

We have welcomed waves of newcomers seeking that same promise, the calm and the noise and the harmony all at once. Dahdal is glad to be a part of it, and North Carolina will be the better for his voice and his ambitions.

We can try to seal our borders against a dangerous world, as some are urging. But that fearful and futile effort will have dire consequences for families like Dahdal’s. It promises dark consequences for us, too, for the character of a republic built by generations of “the homeless, tempest-tossed,” yearning to breathe free.

At the start of our lunch, in a gesture that would make any Southerner proud, Dadhdal handed me a carefully packed baking tin bearing kanafeh. It was his wife’s recipe, prepared at home the night before, and he insisted I take it.

I had friends over for dinner the next day, and I set the beautiful Syrian pastry on my kitchen table. People spooned it onto their plates, right alongside the macaroni, hushpuppies and baked beans. They savored the rich, sweetened cheese with a crispy topping, a dessert that looks a little like banana pudding and tastes a lot like cheesecake.

“This goes great with the barbecue,” a friend mumbled between bites.

It certainly does.

Eric Johnson is a writer in Chapel Hill. He works for UNC and serves on the N&O’s Reader Panel, but the views expressed here are his own.