The Spirit of Dani

As his teacher, I tried to get him to write about his experiences in Syria, but Dani kept those deeper feelings close to his vest

Photograph by Getty Images

As part of an ongoing and seemingly unending de-cluttering initiative that I undertook some years back at the urging of my wife, I was recently sorting through a hefty pile of old greeting cards stuffed in a living room cabinet. I tossed out almost all of them, with the exception of a few sweet nothings from said wife and one holiday card from a young man named Dani, a former student in my creative writing class for adult immigrants seeking to learn English as their second language.

“Happy new year to my teacher,” wrote Dani. “May the spirit of Christmas, with its peace, always be with you.”

It read a lot like Dani’s essays—simple, short sentences, nothing fancy, perfect spelling. Dani was a physician in his native Syria, visiting America with the goal of studying to be a better doctor and taking back some new skills to his people, who needed them desperately. He was a terrific student, one of my favorites. He was enthusiastic about the creative process, brought his assigned work to class every week, and took the praise and the criticism with equal measure of appreciation and satisfaction.

Dani wrote mostly about his struggle to understand American medical practices, given his limited English. I tried to draw him out a bit, get him to write about his experiences in Syria, long a land of fear and desolation that was about to undergo a violent cataclysm that is still raging out of control. But Dani kept those deeper feelings close to his vest.

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And, then, just like that, Dani was gone. Solid gone. Things had gotten much worse in his country and his family summoned him back to his hometown of Aleppo. Dani said a quick goodbye to all his teachers and classmates, most of whom were Muslims from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Yemen and Egypt, and had a fair notion of what Dani was going home to. They all wished him and his family the best and continued about the difficult business of mastering the English language.

For a few months after returning to Syria, we heard from Dani a number of times via email. Everything was fine, he said. He and his family were safe and he was glad to be back where he ultimately belonged, ministering to the medical needs of the citizens of Aleppo. Still, he wrote, he missed his classes at the Adult Learning Center and the camaraderie of his fellow students and teachers. It was a time in his life, he said, that he would always treasure.

And, then, as the bad news from Aleppo and all across that part of the world began to arrive daily on CNN and in the New York Times, the emails from Dani ceased. Attempts by the center staff to reach him failed. He had been swallowed up in the great maw of history, as the promise of the Arab Spring turned into a medieval nightmare of sectarian and tribal warfare.

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My thoughts turned to a cousin of my mother’s, who was visiting America in the mid-1930s from Poland. He was thinking about emigrating here, my mother told me, but he didn’t like all the hustle and bustle of the Lower East Side, and he returned to the family home in Europe, only to disappear, like Dani, into a human holocaust.

And I thought of all the ways that the wide world of wretchedness, seemingly so far away, had touched my life: attending the funeral of the sister of a good friend, who had the misfortune of flying home from Europe on Pan Am Flight 103; the funeral of a courageous New York City Fire Department lieutenant—the brother-in-law of a journalist colleague—who died in the flames of the World Trade Center.

Or, just this past summer, riding a subway train standing next to an elderly Arab woman dressed in a heavy winter coat, wondering what she might be packing on a hot summer’s day underneath all that clothing, and whether I would emerge from that train alive.

It is all just as Arthur Miller wrote in “All My Sons,” a play that my 8th-grade English teacher forced me to read (for which I remain grateful). As much as we might want to shut out the world, noted Miller, it inevitably finds its way into our cozy living rooms. Dani, in truth, was more than my student. He was my son, and, as long as I keep his Christmas card somewhere where I can read it every now and again, and think about Dani and his sweet smile, he and his family, and all the wretched of the earth, will remain with me.