I lived abroad when my father died.
For two and a half years of college, I studied psychology in Istanbul. I learned Turkish. I met my husband. I made a new life for myself, there on the European banks of the Bosporus.
But back home in Connecticut, my mother and brothers were living alongside my father, whose life was slowly ending from Multiple Myeloma.
In my time in Turkey, I had the great privilege of coming to know twenty-four Syrian refugees, all about my own age—though some were the age of my father. I taught them English on Saturdays and Sundays.
Through a classmate, I had become involved with the vast Syrian community living in Istanbul. I volunteered with a small organization created by refugees, for refugees, teaching English and Turkish to anyone who wished to attend. I had the privilege of lending a hand. I created their intermediate English curriculum. I organized the recruitment and training of new English teachers from within my university. I even got my husband and housemate to join in our efforts. They taught beginner’s Turkish.
My father was so proud of the work I was doing. He never complained that I was gone, but encouraged my absence. He was sure he’d be waiting whenever I got back.
In the meantime, he relished our long distance calls. After catching up about the goings on back home, I’d tell him the details of my work…
We had upwards of 200 students regularly attending our school. Many came from the outskirts of Istanbul, two hours away by a long chain of bus rides. Usually, they were coming on their only day off. Between the grammar sessions of our day-long lessons, we discussed their lives. They told me how they escaped Syria. Whether they wanted to settle in Turkey or move on to Europe or America. Many knew through the grapevine how they might do this. Once they crossed the border to Greece, they would join a Whatsapp message group, a modern-day Underground railroad of sorts. Other refugees would message them when they arrived, telling them where to go next and who to turn to for shelter. But even if they could escape, there was no guarantee of a life beyond Bayrampasha, Istanbul.
One student, named Mahfooz, was trying to find a way to complete his engineering degree—but couldn’t until he learned enough English to pass the TOEFL exam. Another student, Maryam, was happily engaged—but didn’t want to marry her fiancé until her imprisoned father was released and could be with them at the ceremony. And nearly every one of my twenty-four students had lost a family member to the war.
In our daily discussions, I only began to understand the suffering they had faced—and were still facing. They were safe now in Turkey, but their families were not all here with them. They were safe now in Turkey, but Turkey wasn’t their final destination. They had plans to move on, but had no connection or propulsion left from the trajectories they had once been on. Everything had ended, right in the middle of their lives.
College semesters were left behind mid-exams, and degreeless, my students worked night jobs below minimum wage. Mothers who died left them with siblings to raise. Fathers in jail could no longer provide for them.
No matter what they had had while back home in Syria, it was all gone in an instant. No refunds. No guarantees. No assurance of any life to come. They had no clear path forward, nothing left from their past to help them on their way. In comparison, I saw how rich, how stable my life was. How I could rely on the continuity of my school and my home and my family.
But then, this January, I had my own abrupt loss. My father passed away from a sudden infection. We thought he had another year. I was one week away from coming home to see him.
I made it home for the funeral. This time, I stayed.
My family was $60,000 in debt from my father’s treatment. We had a $300,000 mortgage on our house. My brother and I were in the middle of college. My husband and I had hopes for a wedding. What would we do?
Because of my father’s love and careful planning, we had a way out, and a way forward—something that my Syrian students never had the privilege of relying on. Shortly before he was diagnosed, he had purchased a life insurance policy.
The money that we received after his death allowed my mother to pay his medical bills, to cover the mortgage, to throw us a beautiful wedding. I’m continuing my degree in Connecticut now, keeping my mom company. My husband is going back to school with me, studying biology like he always dreamed. We are saving up to start out on our own.
Like my Syrian student Maryam, I had to celebrate my marriage without my dad. But unlike Maryam’s, my dad was able to provide for us, even when he was gone. He gave us the gift of insurance, a lifeline from the past with which we can move forward.
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