by Audrey Assad
My name is Audrey Assad, and I am the proud daughter of a Syrian refugee who taught me to dream, believe, do, repeat.
I can still remember standing in the driveway of a studio in 2008, crying hot tears because I’d connected to my muse for the very first time. I’d been working for a week on my first real record. In those days, recording what felt like such faltering and fumbling attempts at songwriting, I was still able to recognize my own capacity for making great and beautiful things; and the weight of that made me weep.
When I look back on that moment I don’t see arrogance, but rather, gratitude — gratitude for the chance to try, for the chance to shoot for the moon. If my father gave me anything, he gave me that grateful aplomb. But what I received through osmosis and observation, he won for himself by way of hard-fought battles and plucky strides into American society. This quality of my father’s has shaped me irrevocably, despite the fact that it took me so long to appreciate it.
Considering my heritage, I suppose my reason for carrying a spiritual and emotional burden for Syria and her people is a little more personal than it might be for many Americans. Still, I don’t believe this is meant for me to carry alone. I’m not a politician, nor do I consider myself so much as a lay student of politics. That is to say, my only goal in sharing our story is to help put a more human perspective on the concept of Syrian refugees, for those who don’t have a direct connection with these individuals. With that, dear reader, I’d love to introduce you to my family.
My father is delicately featured except for his strident, sizable nose, which my own nose resembles. He’s fair-skinned, with an olive complexion, and his hair is wavy and dark. When I see photographs of him as a young man, I do a double take, because he and I truly look so much alike. While I can trace the lines of my own face and see his, there are many intangible signs of him in me, also.
He has an implacably sunny disposition; I think I’ve seen him cry once my whole life. The relentless optimism my father adopted as an immigrant and refugee has seeped deep into my own consciousness without my even realizing it. He possesses a resolute, unshakable belief in his ability to ‘make it work,’ and he does so as well or better than anyone else. This same long-suffering self-confidence has underscored my entire career and ministry, though I am just beginning to understand where I got it from. (Hi, Dad.)
My paternal grandmother, Helen, was an accomplished artist. Her paintings might not have hung in any museums, but they live on in my memory, as hallowed and lovely as a Rembrandt. She presided over all of our family gatherings with the self-assured presence of a politician and the tender love of a matriarch. She was quite short, but imposing, with dusky, wrinkled skin and large, clear glasses made popular in the late 1970s. Prim, mid-length floral dresses filled her closet, and she always wore her waist-long, wiry hair in a neat bun.
When our family went to her Jersey City apartment on the weekends, my younger brothers and I would call up to her from the building’s lobby. As soon as we’d burst out of the elevator and into the hallway, her head would pop out of the heavy green door to shout joyously in a melange of English and her native Arabic, “Nushkur Allah, you made it! Welcome, welcome! Ahlan wa sahlan!”
She would herd us in and fill our stomachs as if she thought us malnourished. Sometimes she pulled cream cheese packets from her freezer, while other days she served date cookies or another Syrian confection she’d spent long hours making. Her kitchen was tiny as a pillbox and hot as the oven over which she slaved in anticipation of our visits. While she cooked, we would play with G.I. Joes, or her ivory and wood backgammon set, or any of the other little toys and curios she stashed away for us.
My favorite place in her home was a small wooden chest in her bedroom where she stored copies of Ideals magazine, Kinfolk’s kitschy predecessor. I loved thumbing through that catalogue, its pages full of Rockwell-esque American idealism — firelight, adoring families, haloed candles, and gleaming turkey dinners on long narrow tables. Those magazines looked right at home in my grandmother’s diminutive hidey-hole somehow, because they perfectly reflected the obstinate optimism with which both she and my father navigated a foreign culture.
If I had to describe my father in one word, it would be idealistic. But looking back, I think he’s had to be. He and his twin brother were welcomed into the world in Damascus in 1955, with their younger sister coming along a little later. My grandmother left my grandfather (who suffered from alcoholism and a gambling addiction), and was awarded alimony by the Syrian small courts. Though my grandmother came from a well-off family, they did not support her decision to divorce my grandfather. As a result, she and her three children were on their own.
They lived very meagerly and were essentially homeless for several years, living in what amounted to a large janitorial closet at a local Christian Missionary Alliance church. My father slept on a door resting on two cinder blocks. There was no plumbing, so my grandmother would venture out to fetch a pail of hot water from their neighbors, in a simple attempt to bathe her children.
My father and uncle stood in a soup kitchen line for their lunch nearly every day, and they looked for ways to make money working odd jobs when they weren’t in school. At the time, my father was sponsored by an American man who sent around twenty-five dollars a month to a charity in his name. This donation was quite helpful in keeping the other kids fed and clothed, as well. They stayed together, and they found a way to make it work. Before long, though, my grandmother discovered my grandfather was seeking custody of the children, and he wanted to marry off my aunt (who was probably fourteen at the time). In response, my grandmother packed up what little belongings and money they had, and put them all in a taxi bound for Beirut.
In Lebanon, life was a bit better. My father and his brother found jobs at a tannery, full of odorous cowhides meant for leather. They would come home with their noses and ears full of dust from sweeping the factory, smelling of animal flesh and salt water. My grandmother taught French and picked up cleaning work when available, saving every penny she could. She repeatedly applied for refugee status, but was continually denied because she her little family weren’t refugees of war.
According to my father, however, she was persistent to the point of annoyance in her quest, which culminated in her knocking on the door of a U.S. ambassador’s home. He finally agreed to listen to her, and eventually granted them the refugee status she so desired. My grandmother prayed and she willed and she worked until they could all come to America — and that’s exactly what they did.
When the family of four landed at Newark airport, they found themselves awash in a sea of unintelligible English and foreign faces. They were met by a man who’d heard of their situation through the Christian Missionary Alliance church, and he graciously put them up at his house for a week. Over the course of those first seven days in the United States, my grandmother found a small furnished apartment, while my father and uncle found jobs operating sewing machines at a small handbag factory in Union City, New Jersey. When my father would get done with work, he’d sit at home watching Mork & Mindy or Gilligan’s Island to improve his English.
Within a year he’d tired of the work in the handbag factory and felt he was being mistreated by his employers, so he quit. He went to visit the man who’d sponsored him as a child in Syria and asked him for help. That man offered him an entry-level job at his State Farm Insurance agency, and my father agreed. He grew to like the business, and worked his way up through the ranks in the office to become their top salesperson within five years. After a decade, my father was State Farm Insurance’s top-selling agent in the nation. But despite all of his success, State Farm wouldn’t give my father his own agency because he didn’t have a college degree. So instead, my father rented an office in New York City and struck out on his own — and he operates that company to this day.
He moved to West Palm Beach, Florida in 2001, and immediately invested himself in the city and its people. He’s served as the chairman of downtown development there, as well as chairman of the Palm Beach County Convention and Visitors Bureau. He’s opened restaurants, worked as a life coach, and currently gives company-wide seminars on time-and-stress management systems. My father claims never to have made a cold call in all his years of entrepreneurship, and somehow I believe him.
(As an impressive and inspiring side note, my uncle stayed at the factory in Union City and become one of their star employees. From there, he found work with Donna Karan NY, and then went on to start his own handbag company, Kamarel. He eventually ended up at Coach, Inc. as their Head of Product Development — achieving all of this as my father had, without a formal college education.)
Dream, believe, do, repeat.
It wasn’t until my thirties that I understood why I’d experienced so little anxiety when I dropped out of college. This is why in the past I’ve lost large amounts of money due to bad business decisions, and yet I haven’t fallen to pieces. And is how, even on the brink of losing everything several years ago, I somehow muscled up the next day and thought determinedly, “I don’t know how, but I’ll make it happen.”
My father — my dear, confident, hard-working, self-sacrificing father — gave me a two-edged sword to wield. The choices he made because he needed to survive, I’ve found to be instinctive. I’m somehow endlessly sure of myself, even when I’m at my lowest. Just like my father, when the going gets tough, I can’t help but stare at myself in the mirror and whisper, “Do not wait to strike until the iron is hot, but make the iron hot by striking.” My father said things like this to me my entire childhood, and as much as I tried to pretend I didn’t care, I was listening. I was listening hard.
I began writing this piece about my father, but I ended up writing it about all of us — my father, my grandmother, and myself. We’re a people of ideals because we’ve had to be, but I believe this contributed to whatever it is that makes America truly great. I can say this much: I am who I am and I do what I do because my family decided to come here, and in doing so they were invited to make their own way in this wide country. I’m here and I’m still in this creative, financially unpredictable and high-stress business of making music, because my father taught me how to dream, believe, do, repeat. He is my perfectly imperfect hero. I’m so very proud and thankful to be the daughter of Roy Assad, Syrian refugee and citizen of the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave.’ Thank you, America, for welcoming us. We’re so happy to be here.
Audrey Assad is a worship leader and songwriter. She will be contributing to National Refugee Sunday on June 26, 2016 by cultivating music for participating church services. Register your church for more information here.