am at O’Hare, in one of the three cities I call home. It is just a few miles from my Chicago neighborhood, Portage Park, where my gregarious neighbor Gary lived and died, where there’s a swimming pool in the park, and where the Mexican restaurant with the soup that cured my colds is still open. O’Hare is a place I loved when I was mostly Midwest-America bound in my hometown of Peoria and later in Chicago. It meant reaching the rest of the world.
It’s a different place to me now. Each time I leave from or arrive there, I am away—from people I love, from other homes. I am reaching, always.
Leo is with Rami. He’s behind the wall somewhere. I am in the international arrivals lobby waiting for them, and I know that Leo’s food was confiscated in Amman, twenty-four hours ago. They seemed to be a threat to security, those small jars of smooth orange, yellow, and green vegetables. The security guy in Amman took one look at those jars and said no way they’re getting on the plane. Rami explained to him that the child is only eleven months old—he has four teeth. How would he feed him? He can eat the plane food, he was told. Rami reiterated that the boy in his arms has only four teeth, he cannot chew. But it didn’t make a difference.
It has been two hours since the plane landed, and Rami and Leo have not come out yet. I am pacing frantically from one end of the arrivals to the other. I finally go to the Homeland Security Office.
“Please, my son and my husband, where are they? My son needs to eat. He’s a US citizen.”
“Is your husband a US citizen?” he asks me.
“No, but he has a visa,” I say. As with all Lebanese citizens, Rami’s passport offered him no favors.
“Ma’am, a visa does not guarantee entry into the United States of America.”
I want to punch this fucker in the face. But I say “thank you” through clenched teeth and leave the office with a drip-drip-dripping anger. I imagined all those people behind the wall waiting in fear. A question rises: Will they be sent back to where they came from or begrudgingly let into the country?
I go back out into the lobby, quietly closing the door to Homeland Security behind me, but I want it to thunder, to shake the walls. I go back to the huddle of people staring at the arrivals door, and I ask all the dark men if their relatives are on the Royal Jordanian flight. Some hold out photos on their phones to other passengers who have just walked in, asking if they have seen them. The people stop, squint at the phones, and say “I saw him in there.” I quickly pull out my phone, scrolling to the cutest picture I can find of Rami and Leo, and hold it out too. Again, they confirm, but they don’t know anything else. Still, I am relieved that they have been sighted. I had been so worried that they sent them back, and Rami would never want to come back to this place, my home, where they make him feel criminal, make him wait and wait, every single time, to answer the same five questions. And what if they turned him away, with Leo, who hadn’t eaten in twenty-four hours?
It has been two and a half hours since the plane landed.
I finally see them.
They are walking toward me. Leo is in his carrier, his head on Rami’s chest. He isn’t crying like he does when he gets hungry, but I am. I am weak with relief. Leo is too tired and hungry to even lift his head when he sees me, but he offers me a smile from one side of his mouth.
Rami confirms that they asked him the same five questions ranging from What is the purpose of your visit? to Do you plan on living in the US? He tells me about the Mexican couple ridiculed in English by the customs officers. That many of the people waiting along with him couldn’t speak English and were just waiting, waiting, waiting to get past that border as the officers cracked jokes in English to their faces, while their family members waited for the doors to open to see their faces, wondering if Homeland Security sent them right back to where they came from, for reasons they could not predict or eventually understand.
I hold Leo close to me as he sucks down a squeeze pack of pureed vegetables.
He is like me. He was born in a country that is not his mother’s. He will be raised there and speak and read the local language better than his mother ever could. He will have two passports, two religions, two continents, and borders to constantly negotiate. Starting now. ■