August 10, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Aisha Al Ramadan first noticed the subtle shift of the checkpoint guard’s face. She knew whatever happened next would change the lives of her family—possibly forever.

“What? You don’t want to be Syrian?” The guard shouted.

Shaken, scared, and silent, Aisha stared at the broken ID in the guard’s rough hand.

“If that was my intention, why would I drive through a checkpoint?” her husband Hamed asked. “That’d be stupid.”

The guard pulled the family from the car. Hamed explained his ID shattered when he put it in the pocket of his pants. Ignoring him, two of the guards pointed machine guns at them while another inspected and searched the car.

Aisha worried they’d take him, her husband, like so many of her missing loved ones and friends.

The Assad regime never needed a reason, she says. Blindfolded with hands tied behind their backs, people often disappeared at checkpoints, never to be seen again. Just like her brothers and uncles.

“I don’t know if they are alive or dead,” she says, sobbing. “The ones who are gone, are gone.”

Disappearances, usually fighting-age men, became common after the Syrian uprising in 2011. It spreads panic and hopelessness among the opposition. Roughly 85,000 people have been held, tortured, or possibly killed by the regime or ISIS according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

In her mind, Aisha was down on her knees, begging and hoping her husband wouldn’t be next.

Although still early in the war, Aisha lived in constant fear. Each explosion crushed the city she loved, stone by stone. The fighting intensified. The flickering and booming at night drew closer to her village where her family lived, outside the city of Homs. Food became scarce. Flour to bake bread became a luxury.

No gas. No electricity. No water.

The family collected wood to cook on a homemade fire pit. When wood wasn’t readily available, old clothes and shoes burned instead to keep them all warm and fed. The family watched the flames eat the city at night as they gathered together around the pit for a meal of bulgur, the only available grain.

“We’d tease ourselves. If we get hit, we will die all together at least,” Aisha says.

Even these constant threats were not enough to drive the family away.

But at the checkpoint—on the road for the festive occasion of her daughter’s marriage—the horror of seeing machine guns pointed at her children was too much. It was “the end of it,” Aisha says.

“Oh, leave the old man alone. Show mercy,” one guard said. Hamed appeared 20 years older than his age of 46, a lucky occurrence on this fateful trip. The guard ordered Hamed to get a new ID and sent them on their way.

“Pack everything and go,” Hamed said when they returned home. Aisha left behind her friends, family, and the life she had known for 33 years. The United Nations reported more than 5 million have fled their Syrian homeland, and the Al Ramadan family was no exception.

“They are homesick for a year or two years. Most move out of necessity,” says translator* Afra Albassam, a student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

The Al Ramadans moved to Jordan in November 2011, but the hardships continued. Simple freedoms, unfair discrimination, and abuse of workers made life difficult for the migrant family. The decision to move to America was never an easy one, but during June 2016, the family arrived in Omaha.

Nebraska is known as a welcoming state for those fleeing war-torn countries, taking in a reported 1,441 refugees between October 2015 and September 2016 according to Pew Research from the United States Department’s Refugee Processing Center.

Scott Larsen, formerly with Lutheran Family Services and the Refugee Empowerment Center, noticed the Al Ramadan apartment was not up to standards. He, along with girlfriend Paige Reitz, invited the family to stay temporarily in the basement of their house until something more suitable became available.

Since it was during Ramadan, Aisha made amazing family meals and included Larsen and Reitz. They would all sit on pillows, drinking lots and lots of coffee and eating. Communication via Google Translate consisted of iPhones passed back and forth.

Aisha, a mother of seven children, finds pleasure in cooking.

“But what I really enjoy is making meals I really like to eat,” she says, laughing.

Aisha’s hope is to open a restaurant called the Syrian Dish someday, so she could share her culture’s food with others. Reitz started a dinner series called Second Story to turn her dreams into a reality.

Although the family stayed with Larsen and Reitz for only 10 days, all of them feel like family now. The kids leap into Reitz’s lap and hugs are swapped.

Second Story welcomes guests to sample Aisha’s specialties for $25. All proceeds not only help Aisha, but also her sisters who still live in Syria. The men in the family have been captured or killed, so the women struggle with no support.

Aisha, dressed in a blue flowery hijab, is thoughtful about the upcoming meal. She is making maqluba, a moist and sweet chicken. Eggplant, tomato, rice, spices, chicken stock, and chicken are placed on the bottom of a huge pot. After cooking, it is flipped using a plate on top. Maqluba means “upside down” and appears as one large mold, almost looking like a cake, with the rice on bottom and chicken on top. She plans to pair that with a Middle Eastern potato pie. The real star is her baklava.

“It’s the best ever. It is so good,” Albassam says.

She explains it is sweet, but not too sweet. Aisha’s secret is lots of butter, pistachios, cinnamon, and rose water.

While guests enjoy one of Aisha’s dinners for Second Story in late April, each learns about culture and connections. Reitz says initiatives like these and others around Omaha are how barriers get broken.

It wasn’t always easy when the Al Ramadans first came to Omaha. Roukaya, 11, felt isolated at school. The other students feared she was a terrorist. The teacher noticed and brought in the ESL teacher who explained the culture, even playing the song “Rock my Hijab.” Roukaya cried when she talked about her experience, so the other students wrote her letters.

“I’m sorry I was scared of you. I’m sorry about your country,” one wrote.

“I now hang out with everyone,” Roukaya explains. Unlike the adults, the children all speak fluent English now.

Roukaya has aspirations to be a doctor someday to help others, something that would have been unattainable back home since it is hard for the poor to send their kids to school.

Aisha still hears horrifying stories from neighbors and family back home, as conditions rapidly deteriorate in Syria. Cooking here is something Aisha can do to make life better.

“A lot of people don’t realize the simple things matter the most,” Reitz says.

A cup of spicy Turkish coffee and a delicious meal may not seem like much, but the pot stirs together a community.

*Interview translated by Afra Albassam.

Visit secondstoryomaha.com for more information.

This article appears in the July/August edition of Omaha Magazine.