From Syria to Savannah

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Meet the Mahmouds. Written by Jessica Lynn Curtis. Photos and video by Molly Hayden. 

It was a peephole introduction. On an early evening in late January, there was a knock on my door, and, from what I could glimpse through the hole, the top of a little head.

I opened it to find a tiny butterfly of a girl with big brown eyes and a long dark braid. Shoulders scrunched up around her ears, she shyly held out an elementary school worksheet. “I have help, please?”

Around her, I spied her mother from a doorway down the hall, a similar beauty peeking out from a traditional Muslim hijab with a wave and a flash of a smile.

I was on deadline for an article. I had a meeting in an hour. But I followed the girl down the hall and, at the behest of a sign printed in both English and Arabic, left my shoes at her door.

Elisar Mahmoud, 7 years old. Photo by Molly Hayden.


Her name is Elisar Mahmoud* and she is 7 years old.

On a sofa in the Mahmouds’ immaculately kept living room, I helped Elisar identify the nickels, dimes and quarters on her paper, while her mother, Fatimah*, disappeared into a back bedroom.

When Fatimah emerged—wearing a T-shirt and leggings, hijab removed—she offered me beverages in broken English. Café? Juice? Only in public, or in the presence of men who are not her immediate family or grandfather, is the hijab worn. In her home, surrounded by her children, she was relaxed, at ease.

Mourad*, Elisar’s 13-year-old brother, chimed into our conversation, both he and his mother quizzing me, with the help of a smartphone, on various objects around the house and their English translations. They repeated, “light switch,” “washer,” “hair tie,” until their pronunciation was clear. I repeated these same words in Arabic.

When I rose to leave, Fatimah walked me to the door. “Come back in the morning? I make café. We are [pointing back and forth between us] friends.”

Now, Elisar, who we discovered shares my birthday, knocks on my door two or three times a week. Sometimes, she’s wearing a sheepish grin and carrying her homework. Other times, she proffers a tray of stunningly laid out Syrian food and tells me, “Go ahead!”

I eventually met Fatimah’s husband, Ghassan*—the final member of this family of four—when he noticed a year-old dent in my car. He is a talented auto body technician and a jokester—a foil to Fatimah’s warmly quiet persona and the source of Elisar’s vivacious personality. Even when Ghassan’s jokes come in Arabic, I laugh [understanding not a word] because his own laugh is so contagious.

With the language barrier comes a serious divide—no story can be understood entirely through computer software. Language is far too human for that. So when the Mahmouds met Rihab Kassatly Bagnole, an art history professor at Savannah College of Art and Design who moved from Syria more than 30 years ago, a new layer of friendship with the family was presented: translator.

Mourad Mahmoud, 13. Photo by Molly Hayden.

Gathering all six of us—the Mahmouds, Bagnole and me—into their living room, a deeper story unfolds. Fatimah and Ghassan spoke about their old home with a new friend in their shared language. They reminisced at length about food—especially a dish I love so much, little pockets of bulgur wheat and finely ground beef called kibbeh—but the conversation, as stories of displacement often do, took a different turn.  

“You know there are people who think we’re all terrorists,” Fatimah said sadly.  

“That’s why I want to write about you,” I said. “I want people to know you like I do.”

“That’s because they haven’t tasted your kibbeh!” Bagnole chimed in.

With Elisar curled into her mother’s side like a kitten and Mourad sitting glassy-eyed and playing with a silver chain, Ghassan continued.

To find such suffering down the hall from my own home is a humbling thing. These are my friends, my neighbors. And this is their story. 


Join us next month for the next installments of the Mahmoud’s journey.

* The Mahmouds names have been changed to respect their privacy and to take the deepest care with their safety.