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Refuge and Fear in Trump’s America

Riyad Alkasem left Syria for America 26 years ago, fleeing tyranny and despair. He arrived expecting utopia, and he found it. He never expected American bigotry. But he found that too.

(Jordan Ritter Conn)
(Jordan Ritter Conn)

Riyad Alkasem likes to tell stories about this country. He tells them to American friends, feeding their desire to believe their country exceptional. He’s told them to Syrian friends, arguing that the nation he left them for is among the greatest in the world. He tells them to his children when they grow angry and afraid, and to himself when he feels alone and confused.

They are the same stories that America has always loved to tell itself: that this is a place where an independent-thinking immigrant like him can flourish, a country that has solved tyranny and delivered freedoms much of the world will never know.

He began telling these stories more than 26 years ago, as he sat in a college library in Syria, and he has told them time and again since he first set foot on American soil soon after that. Now 49, he tells them today, as he sits outside the restaurant he owns in the slice of deep red America where he has built his life: Hendersonville, Tennessee.

He talks in between bites of hummus and lamb. He wears a black chef’s coat and black curly hair, his stubble patched with gray. The sky is crisp, and the weight of this moment in history hangs in the cool air as he collects his thoughts. He is a Syrian American Muslim man, living in the South, married to a white woman, father to two college-aged biracial sons. Time and again over these 26 years, he has felt the full force of American fear and prejudice. Yet, he says, he lives the life so many immigrants believe that only America can promise. His restaurant, Café Rakka, serves Syrian dishes to suburban housewives and country music stars, and once hosted the Food Network’s Guy Fieri.

He worries, though. He follows the news from his home country, and he sees reports of endless massacres in Aleppo, where he attended college. He has watched as foreign jihadists have arrived in his hometown of Raqqa and built ISIS, the most brutal terror organization in the world. And in his new home country, he has watched friends and neighbors vote to elect a president who has vowed to strip Muslim immigrants of their rights. So he tells these stories, of what he fled in Syria, of what America promised and what it delivered, and of the spaces in between. But sometimes he stops. Sometimes he wonders.

"I ask myself," he says, "did I spend the last 26 years of my life living a dream?"

"Or did I spend the last 26 years of my life living a lie?"

It is Wednesday, November 9, 2016.

Riyad is devastated, but smiling. His eyes turn warm each time he describes his own pain. After so many years in a country that both welcomes and rejects him daily, he can communicate sorrow and joy with matching expressions, identical words.

He did not break down on election night when he realized that Donald Trump would win the presidency. He turned off CNN. He took a call from his youngest son, a student at East Tennessee State. A practicing Muslim, his son had grown nervous by the implications of Trump’s rise. Riyad told him not to worry. This country, he said, is far bigger than one man’s presidency. But Riyad did, he says, register the gravity of the moment. America had just elected a man who vowed to keep Muslims like Riyad from entering its borders; who said he’ll work to prevent admitting refugees from Riyad’s home country; who swore he’ll "bomb the hell out of ISIS" — bomb the hell out of Riyad’s hometown.

In the days following Trump’s victory, the news will grow even darker. The president-elect will appoint Stephen Bannon, an accused white nationalist, as chief strategist and senior counselor, and will reportedly offer a national security adviser position to Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who has called Islam a "cancer." Reports from around the country will depict a climate of emboldened bigotry: "Trump!" scrawled on the door of Muslims’ prayer room at NYU; multiple reports of men trying to tear off Muslim women’s head coverings. Just a few miles away in Nashville, the pastor of a progressive Christian church will report a swastika scratched into its doors and the theft of a banner, erected out front, that said "God Loves Everyone Unconditionally."

But on November 9, Riyad clings to signs of normalcy. He woke up this morning, and he put on a pair of pants, and he drove to his restaurant, just down the street from businesses like Guns & Leather Pro Shop and Dixie Door Inc. Here he cooks the same food that his mother made him when he was a boy in Syria, and serves it to the people of Sumner County, where Trump earned 70.5 percent of the vote. So even as he expresses sadness, he smiles. He remembers one of his favorite quotes, long attributed to Michael Jordan. "Republicans buy sneakers too."

Mostly, though, he spends the afternoon telling stories. They help him make sense of things. Of this day and of this country. Of himself.

His first story begins far from here, in the city of Raqqa in northern Syria. His ancestors constructed much of the town in the 18th century, and even today he likes to say, "Raqqa is my soul." He grew up in a comfortable home in the center of the city, with a courtyard that bursted with Damask roses in the spring. His daily life extended from the house down to the Euphrates River and back, and he spent it swimming and counting camels, playing soccer in the streets or sand. Whenever he heard mention of Syria’s president, Hafez al-Assad, he clapped and cheered, in keeping with the national custom. Raqqa belonged to Syria, and Syria belonged to Assad. Surely the caretaker of his soul was just and good.

The adults in his life spoke rarely of their country’s corruption, at least not around Riyad and his brothers and sisters. They did not talk about the endless graft and bribes or the way political dissidents sometimes disappeared. Some things were best left unmentioned, and besides, there was good in his family’s life. Bellies were full. Homes were comfortable. When he asked even the most innocuous questions about the government — How did Assad become president? — he received the same answer as children across the country. Shhh. El-hitdan elha athan.

"Walls have ears."

Riyad grew. He explored. He found a world outside of Raqqa, in bigger cities like Aleppo and Homs. At age 14, in February 1982, he rode a bus with his mother seven hours for a weekend in Damascus, Syria’s capital. On the return trip home, their bus halted every few minutes as it rolled through the suburbs. Men with guns and uniforms boarded, walked down the aisle, checked the IDs of each passenger, and then left. The driver shrugged. ID checks were common, but never this rampant. The passengers sat in silence.

They approached Hama, a city about halfway between Damascus and Raqqa, and police sent them on a detour, a dirt road through the desert. The bus rattled up and over sandy hills. This path was meant for donkeys and camels — never for a bus. The driver began scanning the radio in search of news, hoping to find an explanation for the checkpoints and detour. Maybe, Riyad thought, Syria had gone to war with Israel. Perhaps there had been a natural disaster. He sat in silence, afraid and confused.

Out in the vast desert, the bus approached a group of women who had been hiding in a ditch. They ran to the bus in tears, as if fleeing some horror Riyad could not know. They carried children. The youngest ones, the toddlers, are the ones Riyad remembers most. The women tried to open the bus’s doors to throw their children inside. Please, they begged, just take them. They didn’t care where the bus was headed. They knew only that it was traveling away from here.

The bus driver refused them. This, Riyad could not understand. The women spoke with abject desperation. The bus was only half full. But Riyad assumed the driver knew something he didn’t when he said that if he took a single child, he’d risk the lives of each passenger onboard. The bus continued, and Riyad rode in silence, thinking the whole way home about the faces of the mothers they’d left behind.

Weeks passed. Rumors trickled out. There had been an uprising, fueled by the Muslim Brotherhood in an attempt to wrest the city from government control. The regime had squashed it, fighting back against the insurgents. But it didn’t stop there. Civilians were targeted, children slaughtered, entire neighborhoods destroyed. History would give this moment a name: the Massacre of Hama. The Syrian Human Rights Committee estimated that at least 25,000 people were killed. But back then, few people in Riyad’s life would acknowledge what had happened. He tried to talk to his mother and she told him, "Life is not always rosy." He tried to talk to his friends and they told him to forget what he’d seen. The government-controlled media reported only that regime forces had defeated "terrorists." They said nothing of the civilians. There was no apology, no repercussions of any kind.

After the massacre, Riyad says, president Hafez al-Assad traveled to Hama for a parade to celebrate the regime’s victory. "He’s a butcher," Riyad said to whomever would listen. Friends told him to keep quiet. Long before Syria fell into its present, endless civil war, before Assad’s son and successor, Bashar, carried out his own longer and more ruthless campaign to slaughter civilians, and before a vacuum opened for the Islamic State to fill, much of Syrian society came to grips with its government’s violence by settling in the space between denial and fear. Riyad, friends said, would be best served by minding his own business and moving on with his life.

It was right around then that Riyad made a decision. As soon as possible, he would leave his country behind.

Alkasem, in the white shirt, with a college friend in Syria (Photo courtesy Riyad Alkasem)
Alkasem, in the white shirt, with a college friend in Syria (Photo courtesy Riyad Alkasem)

As a law student at the University of Aleppo, he signed up for an elective course called "American Government," and he read a textbook of the same name. He worked his way through the book, a thin volume translated into Arabic, until he came across a paragraph that left him stunned. The United States, the book explained, allowed for a process called "impeachment." If a president violated the law, Congress had the ability to remove him from office. He read about the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and the resignation of Richard Nixon. In this faraway country, he learned, it was even possible to throw someone who had been president in jail.

He became obsessed. Did people know this? No one around him seemed to. Most Syrians who moved abroad fixated on Europe; Riyad had grown up hearing very little about the United States. He rushed to his professor and begged for more readings. He scoured the libraries in Aleppo and read every book about U.S. history and government that he could find. He studied the country’s system of checks and balances, the way it maintained strong institutions while keeping power diffuse. Surely, he thought, America could never subject itself to authoritarian rule. Despite its theft of land from natives and its legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, he believed that because America had built a system immune to dictatorship, over time it could become immune to other moral failures too.

He graduated with a law degree, and was appointed by the government to train to become a judge. If he wanted, he would have a nice office and a large salary, a personal assistant, his own chauffeur. But taking the job meant staying in Syria and working for an irredeemably corrupt government. The thought repulsed him. This was the government that sent those women screaming to his bus’s windows, the government he’d studied in the years since, finding rampant corruption and a regime propped up by misinformation and fear. Instead, he thought, he would leave Syria, work to save money, and attend law school in the states. Perhaps he could become an expert on the American system of government. Perhaps, years later, he could bring those principles back home.

He traveled to Damascus and applied for a visa at the American Embassy. They approved him almost immediately. His parents asked him to stay but understood when he told them he must go. He knew only one person in the states: a former neighbor who lived in Glendale, near Los Angeles. Three days later, on October 1, 1990, with a single suitcase not quite full, he boarded a plane for LAX.

He settled into a life in Los Angeles. One afternoon, a neighbor knocked on his door and asked for a favor. He needed to pick up a friend from the airport but was too busy. Could Riyad pick her up instead? Her name was Linda Bailey. She was feisty and pretty and kind. She told him about her home state, and it sounded much like Raqqa: a simple place with kind and welcoming people. It was called Tennessee.

For their first date, he went with Linda and her son to Chuck E. Cheese’s. Soon they fell in love, and they married in 1993. Together, they had two sons. They built a family that exchanged gifts for Christmas and fasted during Ramadan, that spoke in divergent but equally thick accents: his Arabic, and hers straight-up Middle Tennessean. He never attended law school, but here in America, he found a deep sense of peace.

And yet, from soon after the moment he arrived stateside, he found himself nagged by questions of what America promised and what it delivered. He arrived expecting utopia. He’d told himself a story of American goodness. He found it. He never told himself a story of American bigotry. But he found that too.

In the ’90s, he applied for a job delivering packages and was told straight-faced by the manager that he would never hire someone from the Middle East. Once, he overheard people using the term "sand nigger" and he went back home, confused. He asked Linda: Who were they talking about? What does that mean? Her eyes ignited. "Riyad," she said. "They were talking about you!"

As he tells these stories, Riyad stops. He thinks back on what he envisioned when he was still in Syria. "I threw away everything to come here," he says. "Everything. And so much of the time I feel really good about it. I have this life, this family. I have so much. But when I think back on that dream, does that dream include bigotry and racism? No. I didn’t see that in my dream." He didn’t see the apartment leasing agents who would refuse to rent to him and Linda together but would approve her on her own. Nor did he envision the neighbor who would eye Riyad while polishing his guns and once chase their then-3-year-old son with a hunting knife after the boy wandered into the man’s yard. "The only thing I could ever imagine," he says, "was that a country free enough to question the most powerful person in society could never be a country that holds so much bigotry and racism."

He keeps going. "When I saw the United States, I saw the end of tyranny. And when I saw the end of tyranny, I saw the end of bigotry and racism too. Because racism is a tyranny. Bigotry is a tyranny too."

And yet, he says, "Every time I really start to question this country, I have a moment that brings me back." When he first arrived in California in 1990, he rented a room in Long Beach for $300 per month, the cheapest he could find. He walked into the room and dropped his half-filled suitcase, stunning the old woman who would be his landlord. She asked: "Is that all you have?" That evening she returned with an electric blanket, sheets and pillows, and an alarm clock. Riyad told the story to another Syrian immigrant days later. "Is this customary?" he asked, and the friend laughed. "No," he told him. "That lady just wants to make sure you’re OK."

After he and Linda married, they started paying regular visits to Tennessee. He doesn’t know for sure if he was the first Syrian ever to visit Sumner County, but he’d be willing to take that bet. Some of her family, Linda says, "would have voted for George Wallace if they could." But whenever Riyad showed up, they always welcomed him into their home, and as they cooked their Southern feasts, they avoided one staple: pork.

He officially became an American one afternoon in 1997, when he drove to the convention center in Los Angeles and took the oath, received the flag pin, and listened to a government official declare him a citizen of the United States. "The whole world," he says, "was not big enough to hold my ego that day." By now he’d climbed from dishwasher to cook to co-owning a wine shop with a fellow Syrian immigrant. He drove a BMW and lived in a half-million-dollar home.

Like for so many, the morning of September 11 remains seared in Riyad’s memory. He went to work at his shop that morning, and within hours of the towers falling, a man barged in to tell Riyad that in retribution for the attack, he was going to come back and blow up the whole store. That night Riyad went home, aware that in some fundamental way, his world had changed.

On September 12, he got in his car and drove back to the store. As he went to open up, he saw an old pickup truck sitting in the parking lot. He walked up and saw two of his regulars, a father and son, sleeping inside. Riyad knew these men a little, but they were customers, not friends. Right in between them, he saw a shotgun.

He tapped on the window. The older man woke up. "What’s going on?" Riyad asked. The man looked back at him and took a moment to get his bearings. "Oh," he said. "We heard about what happened."

"OK," Riyad said. He looked back at the man as if to ask, And?

"Well," the man said. "We came here to protect you."

Riyad walked into the store and he cried.

Even as he embraced life in America, Riyad remained a Syrian too. He traveled back home in 2006 to bury his father, and he arrived to hear Syrians telling themselves a new story. Hafez al-Assad, the butcher of Hama, was dead. His son, Bashar al-Assad, had risen to power promising a more open government and wide-ranging reforms. He’d flirted with the notion of a free press and open dissent, and while that talk proved short-lived, Riyad’s friends insisted that the younger Assad was trying. Life was improving. Riyad just needed to let go of his old resentments, to forget about what he’d seen on that bus as a boy.

Then in 2011, his home country cracked open and fell apart. The Arab Spring had begun in 2010, and protests spread through the Middle East. Al-Assad met dissent with ruthless violence. It was a terribly familiar story: civilians slaughtered, peaceful resistance turning to war.

In 2013, Raqqa went silent. Phones were cut off. Internet access was restricted. Rumors floated among the diaspora that the Syrian government was losing control of the town. After a month of silence from his family, Riyad bought a plane ticket. He crossed the border legally from Turkey into Syria, then paid a smuggler to transport him through the war zone to Raqqa. Buildings lay in ruins. The sky filled with black smoke. He knocked on his mother’s front door. She opened, stunned to see him. Almost immediately, she told him to leave.

Raqqa was changing. Ruthless men were pouring in from around the world, jihadists joining an Al Qaeda offshoot. They cared nothing for the city or its people, only for consolidating land and power. They plotted death to Western civilization. They flew black flags. They called themselves the Islamic State.

So, no, Riyad’s family told him, he could not remain in Raqqa, not even another day. They loved him, of course, and that’s why they needed him to go. If ISIS fighters knew who Riyad was, if they knew the emblem on his passport, they would kidnap him immediately. They might even kill his whole family. Identity is defined by acceptance, yes, but it’s defined by rejection too. Riyad had to leave Syria. He was an American now.

Over time, ISIS took full control of Raqqa and declared the city the capital of its caliphate, a theocratic kingdom it planned to build. Riyad returned to the United States, registering the devastation he’d seen. From a distance, Syria’s horrors can seem abstract. Four hundred seventy-thousand dead. Four point eight million refugees. Six point six million internally displaced. Even to Riyad, those figures could be numbing. Up close, though, the images wrecked him. The clouds of smoke across the sky. Buildings made rubble. The abject fear on his mother’s face. The desperation in the voice of a girl, perhaps 10 years old, whom he met in a refugee camp he visited after leaving Raqqa. When she learned that he was American, she begged him to return home and tell the world what he’d seen. Surely, she thought, if the world knew how Syrians had suffered, they would do something. Surely they wouldn’t sit by while her country’s people were massacred, day after day.

The Obama administration did very little. This, Riyad believes, will be the president’s greatest foreign policy legacy: the way he stood by while Syria’s people were slaughtered by both terror organizations and their own regime.

As the 2016 presidential campaign began, other politicians floated other ideas for how to handle Syria’s civil war and the rise of ISIS. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton had reportedly advocated for arming Syria’s democratic rebels. On the Republican side, some, including Senator Rand Paul, advocated remaining uninvolved. Others, such as Ohio Governor John Kasich, pushed for the deployment of American forces on the ground. Then there was Donald Trump. His plan, voiced again and again, to "bomb the hell out of ISIS," would inevitably lead to more civilian deaths in Riyad’s hometown.

Trump had other proposals. No Syrian refugees, he insisted at rallies across the country, should ever be given asylum in the United States. More than that, Trump proposed, no Muslims, regardless of nationality, should be allowed to enter our country.

Riyad watched as Trump’s campaign marched through the primary, collecting delegates across the country. This unnerved him. Trump’s rise seemed fueled, at least in large part, by desires to preserve a power structure that excluded people like Riyad. He’d always told himself that the American system bent over time away from bigotry and racism. The more Trump won, the less Riyad could be so sure of that belief.

He felt a creeping anxiety as he watched Trump secure the nomination, earning validation for positions that stood in opposition to Riyad’s people and his faith. He watched as Trump insulted the Gold Star family of Humayun Khan, a Muslim American killed in the Iraq War. He watched as Trump approached the general election, never looking like the favorite but always looking like he had a chance.

And then, on Election Day, he watched Trump win Florida and Ohio, watched him take leads in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and Michigan too. The next morning he turned on the TV and saw that it was now official. Donald Trump would be president.

(Jordan Ritter Conn)
(Jordan Ritter Conn)

Now here he sits, on Wednesday, November 9, 2016, on the patio of his restaurant. Café Rakka, named after his terror-ravaged hometown, is thriving. He arrived from California and couldn’t find a decent paying job. He’d spent much of his American life working in kitchens, and for years he’d relieved stress by cooking his favorite dishes from back home. When a friend in Nashville’s Islamic community offered to loan Riyad money to start his own restaurant, he said yes right away.

At first, he found himself practically begging locals to try his cooking. Some did and loved it. Others walked in and then immediately back out. One told him he was leaving because he’d been expecting "Christian food." But soon members of Hendersonville’s professional class started trickling in, and later food critics from Nashville followed. Riyad has cooked for legendary guitarist Peter Frampton and for San Francisco 49ers co-chairman John York. The Oak Ridge Boys are regulars. So are John Carter Cash and Wesley Orbison. His Syrian food has delivered him the most American of experiences: a shout-out from Ricky Skaggs at the Grand Ole Opry, a visit from the Food Network’s Guy Fieri, who filmed a segment here for the show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

Riyad knows why he’s been asked to talk today. The timing is no coincidence. Yet he speaks for hours before he ever mentions Donald Trump’s name. "If you are in my situation," he says, "I don’t think I should be too upset either way about the results of an election. So much of what Trump has talked about are things I’ve already experienced."

Trump has proposed a Muslim travel ban, but in Riyad’s view, such a ban already exists, as the U.S. tightened visa restrictions after 9/11. Already, even under Obama, potential visitors from many Muslim-majority countries are turned away. Trump surrogates have speculated about a Muslim registry. George W. Bush already imposed something similar: a "special registration" program for Muslim and Arab immigrant men. Riyad remembers being interviewed shortly after 9/11. An officer asked, "Why did you come here?" Riyad was a citizen. In that moment, he felt like an intruder.

Yet he recognizes the unique danger of giving power to outward bigotry. "Before," he says, "I think people were a little bit ashamed of some of these policies. But now I worry that people are just going to say that discrimination is OK."

Already, he’s telling a familiar story, the same one he has told since before he ever set foot on American soil. "I still believe," he says, "that this is a great nation. I believe that even though bigotry and racism can exist in this country, bigotry and racism cannot rule this country."

When asked why, he points back to that single paragraph in his old textbook, the one about impeachment and prosecution of power, about the checks and balances that he believes have long made America great. "That," he says, "is the only thing that made me want to come here. And right now that is the only thing that gives me hope." He says he’s willing to give Trump "a chance." But that willingness is rooted in the belief that in this system of governance he loves so deeply, gross abuses of presidential power will not stand.

He looks around: at the customers pouring into his restaurant, at all of the physical manifestations of contentment and wonder he’s found in this new home. His wife, Linda, wanders outside and she can barely contain herself from gushing. "Oh," she says. "My husband is just the most wonderful man." She grins, giddy. "He’s just the most amazing person you’ll ever meet." She speaks with sadness about the election but with hope about the community she and Riyad and their children have found. She tells stories about Riyad’s family escaping from Raqqa and scattering around the world — Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Sweden. "Around here," she says, motioning to Hendersonville, "we’ve had all kinds of people coming together to pray for my family." That phrase sits there, just for a moment. My family. Minutes later she excuses herself and heads back inside.

As he continues talking, Riyad shrugs. "I am still the same man. This is still the same country." His sense of the two are bound up together, inextricable. Questioning the foundation of this country means questioning what he felt when he read that textbook, questioning the entire process that was set in motion when he was a child on the bus outside Hama. "I believe in this country because I have to," he says. "Without that belief, I don’t even know who I am."

Days later he calls, excited. He remembers something. The book. He threw it into his suitcase all those years ago, along with a few clothes and his copy of the Treaty of Versailles. He knows he has it somewhere, that it followed him from Raqqa to Los Angeles to Tennessee, but he’s not sure where it is. Give him time. He needs to keep looking, and he’s sure he’ll find it. It’s just that right now, the book called American Government is lost.

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