The day I heard about Trump's immigration ban, I spent most of the morning on Google Maps' satellite view, looking at Ibtisam Masto's new home in Cincinnati, Ohio. It's a long way from the one she left behind four years ago in war-torn Idlib, Syria. I haven't seen her since she resettled to the Midwest, and I wondered what things looked like from her bright, blue eyes. I wondered what she'd been up to in her new brick home with a red door on a tree-lined street.
In 2014, I had met Ibtisam thousands of miles away, in Beirut, not long after she had fled Idlib in a packed bus with her six children and husband. When shrapnel landed on her balcony one cold Syrian afternoon, just narrowly missing her three-year-old son, she knew it was time to leave.
So, they left. Everything. She left her beloved mazhar, an Arab tambourine-like instrument, back in Syria, along with her favorite gold-rimmed teacups and sepia-toned family portraits. She also left behind one of her favorite cooking pots, given to her by her aunt on her wedding day. "I feel like I've lost myself," she told me one sunny February morning in 2014. Before fleeing Idlib, she had not even been out of her own city, much less the country. And while Lebanon and Syria share similar cultures, fast-paced Beirut — with its noisy streets and, at times, cosmopolitanism that borders on snobbery — was a huge transition.
"I'm staying strong for my kids and my husband," she told me, tears streaming down her face at a Lebanese restaurant where she had found work — and a community — as a cook. Without proper access to medical care, her husband's diabetes had deteriorated, leaving her as the sole caregiver for their kids.
I've had the pleasure of getting to know Ibtisam, mostly as she waded through purgatorial hell in Lebanon, trying to find a way out for her family. Lebanon now has the most refugees in the world per capita, its resources severely strained.
In the face of the worst humanitarian crisis since WWII, Kamal Mouzawak, a well-known Lebanese restaurateur, helped Ibtisam and scores of other women gracefully navigate their new lives with dignity. In 2012, he created Atayab Zaman, "The Delicious Past," a culinary training program for female Syrian refugees in which they cook to remember just as much as they cook to survive. Before the war in Syria, cooking was the proud pinnacle of Ibtisam's day — a trip to the market as crucial and pivotal as sunrise and sunset. Now, steaming lentils and roasting chicken is bittersweet. She loves it because it reminds her of being back in her large, yellow Idlib kitchen; she dreads it because it reminds her of being back in her large, yellow Idlib kitchen.
In the summer of 2016, I wrote an update for Lenny on Ibtisam's journey. Since I had last seen her, in 2014, she had lost 35 pounds. She was so proud to show me her new waist — giggling and tapping on her hips like an excited schoolgirl. In addition to cooking, she had picked up a sales job at the LA-founded nutrition and direct-selling company Herbalife. She had also registered her family for asylum and relocation in America. In May 2016, she received news that her application had gone through to the next level.
"I'm nervous. I don't want to get my hopes up," she told me.
"Do you think they'll like me?" she hypothetically asked her fifteen-year-old daughter Asma, with a nervous laugh. Asma joined her at the market that Saturday to help sell her mom's delicious food to impeccably dressed Beirutis. Like most Syrian youth, she hadn't been to school for three years; there was simply no room for her in the local Lebanese high school. "I fear I have forgotten everything I learned in Syria," she told me. "I feel like I'm no longer myself."