Mohamad Douba doesn’t want to offend, but the young Syrian figures that when responding to word the U.S. President may implement a ban on refugees from several Muslim countries, including Syria, being blunt is best.
“Can I say stupid? ‘Cause I find it stupid,” Douba says. “If I saw a human that needs my help being killed, tortured or whatever, I will help them.”
It would be easy to say he’s just 18, idealistic and naive, but Douba is dead serious and has lived more than most adults. “That kind of stuff makes you grow up faster. It doesn’t make you stay a teen and interested in what normally teens are interested in.”
Douba was on a 10-day trip to Turkey with his family about five years ago when they got a call that their city, Aleppo, was no longer safe. They became refugees overnight, and Istanbul has been home ever since. He’s now studying for his SATs, hoping to study psychology at university.
“It really breaks my heart when we look at history,” Douba said. “America was built by people who came from around the world. Trump knows it and everyone knows it.”
He was responding to reports from the New York Times and The Associated Press that Trump plans to use an executive order as early as today to block Syrian refugees from entering the U.S.
Gulnar Hajo shakes her head, eyes wide and bright. “Everything Trump says, I’m not surprised.”
She knows, though, his words have power. “It is dangerous,” she said. “What he says is dangerous.”
In an interview, she seemed immune to hatred, however, and she smiled as she said Syrians have already hit “the maximum” of the worst the world has to offer. They are now focused on life and living well.
Life for Hajo and her husband Samir, who left Damascus three years ago, is found in art and the written word. They are publishers. She is an illustrator and her husband, an artist.
The couple has opened Pages Bookstore Cafe, a four-story sanctuary of sorts in Istanbul’s Fatih neighbourhood. It seems the antithesis of Trump’s rhetoric. George Orwell’s 1984 is a popular title.
“We offer the world another view of Syria,” she said. “Through Pages, we try to tell the world we are Syrian people, we are normal people. We have artists, authors, literature. We also offer world music and art.”
Every floor is welcoming and warm, open to everyone. Refugees can read books for free and borrow them for a small sum. There is free art therapy for Syrian children every week. The strumming of ouds on the top floor is the cafe’s soundtrack on this chilly Istanbul evening, coming from the music lessons — also free.
The young Syrian students have learned a mournful, philosophical Turkish folk song: “I’m on a long and narrow road. I’m going day and night. I don’t know what state I’m in, I’m going day and night. Day and night.”
The music seems meaningful to everyone here.
“You can’t actually define where you’re going to live for the next 10 years,” said Homam Rashid, 17, when asked about his future. “You can’t even define where you’re going to live for the next three days.”
But he isn’t slighted by Trump’s plans. “He is shaming himself, he’s shaming his country,” Rashid said with a shrug.
Still, no one here had plans to go to the U.S., and the fact Mohamad Douba’s grandmother is a U.S. citizen, makes the country no more welcoming.
“They’re afraid,” Douba said. “Everyone’s afraid.”
But here, in Istanbul, in the tall green building called Pages, they don’t have to be.