“In 2011, I was going out with my friends, studying finance, going to work in a bank. But then, shit.” Abdullah laughs once, then is quiet. “It’s OK. It’s good experience. I know how to scramble to live, alhamdullilah (praise be to God), you know? Syrians are like that. Bashar hits us with chemical weapons and all the kids die and we’re like, ‘alhamdullilah.’”
I have nothing to say.
What makes an American a millennial? A 20-something from Generation Y, narcissistic and privileged, raised on a diet of Facebook and Instagram, ambitious, image-conscious, convinced that we can be whoever and do whatever we want to, and that anything less than that is some freak accident of circumstance or will.
What makes a Syrian a millennial? A 20-something caught up in his country’s sudden whirl into hell, victimized at the prime of his life, forced to live in a world that watches his people burn and leaves him powerless to do anything about it.
What happens when you put us together?
At a holiday party a few months after meeting Abdullah, I’m sipping eggnog and sangria with the millennials of Amman. We’re a motley crew of Fulbright grantees, Arabic students, NGO interns, and journalist wannabes, mixed with Syrian and Jordanian language partners, roommates, and friends.
The Americans banter about Ohio versus New York, making fun of each other’s accents and football teams. We talk about plans for next year, the uncertain job market, and why our internships are awful. Our millennial selves are quick to self-doubt; we want to prove ourselves and attain the next stamp of affirmation even as we name-drop degrees, Arabic programs, and thesis advisors.
A few minutes later, I’m sitting on the floor with Mohammad Rumman, also 22 years old and Syrian. He ran across the Syrian-Jordanian border last year, dropping to his stomach to crawl every few meters. “They shoot at you until you get into Jordan. Then you go to Zaatari,” Mohammad tells me, referring to what is now the world’s second-largest refugee camp. Syrians can’t leave the camp without a Jordanian sponsor submitting a legal guarantee to bail them out. So, after four days, Mohammad climbed a fence at the camp, asked for directions to Amman, and started walking the 45 miles to the Jordanian capital.
When he arrived in Amman, Mohammad knew no one. He spent months working at a bakery, sleeping on the floor of the shop, before getting a journalism job that allows him to scrape enough together for rent. His family is still in Damascus.
“I don’t Skype them every day. I don’t like hearing my mother cry,” Mohammad shrugs, adjusting his beanie and grinning through his mustache. “But I call, because I might not hear her again.” Then Macklemore starts pounding in the background. “‘Thrift Shop,’ shit, I love this song!” he shouts. Conversation stops. We get up, join the crowd, and dance.