The Young Adult Novelist And The Refugee Family : Rough Translation What can a young refugee who's survived a war teach a novelist about writing young adult adventure?
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Welcome To The New World

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Welcome To The New World

Welcome To The New World

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GREGORY WARNER, HOST:

This is ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. I'm Gregory Warner. My friend Jake Halpern wears a lot of hats. He's written investigative nonfiction for The New York Times and The New Yorker. He's a podcaster. And he writes young adult novels. He also teaches people how to write YA.

JAKE HALPERN: On the very first class, I make everyone sit on the floor. And I just had them, like, look around and see what underneath the table looks like. And it's because I - as a kid, I always remember, like, hiding under the dining room table and thinking that it was such an amazing world of all the people's legs and their feet and the carpet. And it was just a completely different way to see your house and to think about what an adventure could be.

WARNER: In the kind of adventures that Jake imagines in his novels, those table legs become the trunks of giant redwoods, with a canopy of leaves so thick you can't see the sky. The carpet becomes a mossy forest floor. And the grown-ups' legs under the table become monsters, lurking.

HALPERN: Yeah. The kind of veneer of childhood kind of falls away at this idea that life is good and society is there and parents are there. The kids are left to fend for themselves and figure it out for themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: In 2016, Jake started working on a new book about a kid left to fend for himself in a war zone, dodging bullets, scrapping for metal, all while trying to protect his younger siblings from being killed. Only, the kid in this story was a real boy named Naji, who had lived through a war in Syria before arriving to the U.S.

HALPERN: OK, Naji, tell me where we are right now.

NAJI ALDABAAN: Well, I mean, we're in West Hartford, Conn., and we're sitting outside in the nice weather.

WARNER: The interview you're hearing took place this year. Naji is 19 years old now. But when Jake first met him, Naji had just arrived to the States, and he was just a kid - skinny, quiet, didn't yet speak English. What struck Jake immediately was that when Naji's parents told these really violent stories of the war they'd fled in Syria, they sent the other kids out of the room, but not Naji. They let Naji stay.

HALPERN: They weren't concerned about sheltering Naji from the story, and his mom and dad seemed to treat him like he's one of the adults. And so I'm kind of thinking, what's the deal here? What's going on with Naji?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: And then he asked him.

HALPERN: I said, so why didn't you want to sit with the other kids when they were getting their lessons prepared for school? And he said, yeah, but the thing is, Jake, is that they wanted me to sit with the kids in the kitchen, but I'm not a kid, and I haven't been a kid since I was 10 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Ten years old on the streets of Homs, Syria.

N ALDABAAN: All what I cared about is, you know, oh, I'm going to go outside to my friends, play soccer. Oh, I hope my mom lets me go.

WARNER: That year, 2011, protests across Syria were met with government crackdowns and arrests.

HALPERN: And as the city descends into fighting, one day, the security forces come pound on the door, ask for his father by name and say, we need to take you in for questioning. We - you won't be long.

N ALDABAAN: And that night was the worst night in my life. You know, I asked my mom, where's Dad? She doesn't know. She said, he will be back, but I know she doesn't know.

HALPERN: Naji says that he's, like, in his bedroom. He's actually curled up in a ball because his mom had told him, if the soldiers come again and they think you're a kid, they won't take you.

WARNER: That's his mom's strategy - make him appear like an even littler kid. And then they go over to Naji's grandmother's house, and she takes Naji aside.

HALPERN: And she basically says to him, Naji, I know you're 10 years old, but you're the man of the house now.

N ALDABAAN: You're responsible. You're the man of the house. And you have to make sure you get food to those kids and those families in the house.

HALPERN: She says, I need you to go out to the local shop and see if you can find some bread and some milk.

N ALDABAAN: In an area where you know you can get killed at any time. I, myself, ran through the streets where I saw bodies on the ground, and I had to just walk away like it wasn't there. I tried to not even think about it. I tried to focus on the purpose that I was going to that shop and coming back with the food.

WARNER: Naji succeeds. He brings back the bread and the milk, and he goes out again on other days. One day, he tells the story of scrapping copper from a power line, selling the metal. That augments their spending money. Naji said during this whole period, he felt this constant pressure that he was the family's protector. It was all on him.

Weeks pass. Then a month. His father and uncles are still locked away. And he would have this recurring dream that troops stormed his house, and he'd have to grab a knife from the kitchen counter to defend his grandmother, his mom and his little siblings.

HALPERN: And one day, as Naji tells it, he's getting ready to go out, and his sister, Ammal (ph), who's a year younger than him, says, hey, you always get to be the one that gets to go out. How come I don't get to go along? And he says, it's not for you. He kind of, like, tries to brush her off. But Ammal is very persistent. So Naji, Ammal and their older cousin set off, and they see this bread queue, which usually means, like, oh, there's a line; there must be bread.

N ALDABAAN: It was a pretty long line. Everyone looked nervous and afraid.

HALPERN: And all of a sudden, gunshots.

N ALDABAAN: That's when that lady in front of me got shot and fell on the ground, and everyone just started running and jumping over her. I was in shock. The first thing I was looking for was my sister. I was looking for Ammal.

HALPERN: And his only thought is his sister. Where's Ammal? Where's my sister?

WARNER: And as Ammal tells what happens next, a woman, a stranger, picks her up and holds her to her chest, as if, Ammal says, she was trying to block the bullets with the body of this 9-year-old girl.

HALPERN: Like a human shield or something like that, had kind of picked her up. And Ammal was flailing. And somehow, Ammal gets back to - onto her feet, and she reunites with Naji.

WARNER: They race back home having learned that adults in this world were not necessarily there to protect you. They could not be relied upon.

N ALDABAAN: Somehow, I stopped feeling my age. Those days changed me, changed my whole perspective of life, took away the childhood that wasn't me and, you know, put in a responsible person for kids and for my mom.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Jake had pictured situations very similar to this one. In his novels, there are many scenes where kids realize that their fate or the world's fate depends on them. And, of course, it's not just Jake's books. So many books written for young adults are stories of orphans or kids who battle off threat after threat without parental protection. And they learn independence and wisdom, and they realize just what they're capable of doing on their own.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: But Naji's dad - he comes back.

HALPERN: You know, like what happens if Harry Potter's mom and dad come back, you know? OK, so maybe if they come back for a scene or two at the end, you're like, oh, isn't that happy? What happens if they come back for a whole book? Yeah, well, you're going to have some issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: The graphic novel that Jake wrote about Naji's life is called "Welcome To The New World." The artist is Michael Sloan. A serialized version in The New York Times won a Pulitzer. And today on the show, we dig into Naji's story after his father's homecoming and what Jake learned about how writing fantasy novels could teach you something about surviving a real war. That's when ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner, picking up the story of Naji Aldabaan, who was 10 years old when his father, Ibrahim, was arrested by Syrian security forces. And not only was Ibrahim taken, but many of his brothers, Naji's uncles, were, too. And they were held in prison for 40 days, until Naji's mother, Adeebah, finally managed, through this very dangerous and complicated process, to get them released. And Naji remembers watching his dad come into the house.

N ALDABAAN: I looked at my dad, and he looked so different. I've never seen anything like this before. He had a long beard. I know his face was tired. His body was so different. Like, you know, he was thinner and, you know, I couldn't really look at him for too long. I just jumped right at him and I hugged him.

HALPERN: Why couldn't you look at him?

N ALDABAAN: I missed him so much. Like, I - like, you will need your father when you're in a situation. And I'd been through so much that when I saw my dad, I felt like, you know, I'm safe again. Like, you feel like you're in the middle of the ocean, and suddenly there's a boat. That's how it felt.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

N ALDABAAN: It was a great feeling. I never felt it again.

HALPERN: You never felt that way again?

N ALDABAAN: No, no, no.

HALPERN: In your whole life, you never felt that way again?

N ALDABAAN: Never before, never after. It was a different time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: That sense of safety that Naji felt in that moment, like he was being rescued - it did not last long because the return of his father, he would realize, had not relieved him of his role as the family's alternate protector.

IBRAHIM ALDABAAN: Yeah, yeah.

WARNER: Naji's father, Ibrahim, tells Jake about this bus ride they took from Syria to Jordan.

I ALDABAAN: When we just start to think to go out of Syria, we go into Jordan.

WARNER: But the bus keeps stopping at checkpoints.

I ALDABAAN: We stop at too many police stop or security or...

WARNER: And the dad leans over to Naji and says, I might be pulled off this bus. I might be arrested again.

I ALDABAAN: We kind of - guys, go ahead. Continue.

HALPERN: Without you.

I ALDABAAN: Yeah. Go to Jordan.

WARNER: At every checkpoint, Naji felt it - the hot air entering the open bus door. Soldiers board, and Naji steels himself for his father to be taken away. And though his father is never arrested, the whole family does make it to Jordan, Naji still felt this burden, as if it were still on him to keep the family safe.

N ALDABAAN: I just - suddenly, my brain got to be like, whatever my family wants to pick a decision, I have to interfere. I have to say what I think is right. So, like, in Jordan, picking a house, same thing, you know, and then thinking of where we're going to make money from.

WARNER: Naji tried to go to school in Jordan, but he was so badly bullied there - there's so much anti-refugee sentiment - that his father had to pull him out. His little sister, Ammal, went to school. Naji was spending every day at home, idle.

And then one day, a wounded pigeon falls into their backyard. Naji carefully builds it a house with rocks and feeds it. And his father, watching this, remembers when he was a boy in Kuwait raising pigeons. It was a kind of sport where you'd raise the pigeons and then release them. They'd fly off, hopefully to return with more pigeons to add to your nest, which gives Ibrahim an idea.

N ALDABAAN: So we got the scraps from the outside - you know, a piece of wood there, a piece of wood there. And, you know, he made it up to a pigeon house.

WARNER: Naji's pigeon was too sick to fly, but he loved taking care of it.

N ALDABAAN: And that's when I really felt like, you know, there are some good stuff in life that you can live for. They made me feel like I can wake up every day, have something to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: While Naji took care of his pigeons, he dreamed himself of flying away to the United States. The family had applied to come to the U.S. as refugees.

N ALDABAAN: We were hoping for it every day. You know, it became something that I pray every day for, I wake up every day thinking about.

HALPERN: Did you think, oh, when I get to America, I'm going to be a kid again?

N ALDABAAN: Oh, yeah. That was, like, my goal to go to America, you know, do the things that I missed when I was younger - play outside, have toys, you know, think like a kid again.

HALPERN: I mean, I've heard him describe it in a few different ways. Some of it is more like kind of classic kid stuff, like, I want a Batman poster, and the room's going to be painted blue, and, you know, I'm going to have my own room with a bed. But I also heard him describe it as modestly as there'll be a room with a window.

N ALDABAAN: Yeah, with a window that looks - you know, that you can open it and look at things.

HALPERN: And what was out the window in your mind, in your imagination?

N ALDABAAN: In my imagination, you know, I always thought about the grass, the trees, the animals and the streets. It was like heaven.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Naji gets a step closer to his goal in early fall of 2016, when his family's cleared to enter the U.S. There's a problem, though. Some of Naji's uncles and cousins who are there with them in Jordan - their applications are still under review.

HALPERN: And the mom, the grandmother, Ibrahim's mother, who's the kind of matriarch of the family, makes it be known, I'm not going to go if everyone isn't given the green light.

WARNER: And everyone is not given the green light.

HALPERN: Which puts Ibrahim in a really difficult situation - right? - because on the one hand, he's got Naji asking him two or three times a day, Dad, we got to go to America. Dad, we got to go to America.

N ALDABAAN: What do you think? Like, you're going to leave me here for the rest of life just for you to stay with your family?

I ALDABAAN: Naji - he said, no, I cannot. I don't have school here. I don't - I have no future here. Please, please, Dad. Please, Dad.

WARNER: I deserve this, Dad.

N ALDABAAN: Especially after all what I did. That would definitely mean something to me.

I ALDABAAN: It was hard for me.

WARNER: Ibrahim, the dad, says there were times he even scolded his son.

I ALDABAAN: I tell him, you're not thinking about me, about my family, your grandma, your uncle. You just want to do what you need to.

HALPERN: Like he was being selfish.

I ALDABAAN: Yeah, selfish.

N ALDABAAN: He got to a point where he said, you know, you're just a kid. You don't know what you're talking about.

I ALDABAAN: I tell him, it's my responsibility. I will do that. You don't worry. I will take care of it.

HALPERN: Like, kind of butt out. Like, let me deal with this.

WARNER: Like, you're not the dad here.

HALPERN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Like that. I got to make this call. This is my mother.

And meanwhile, just to put you in kind of context of time here, it's the fall of 2016. Trump is making a campaign, publicly talking about cutting back on immigration, not letting refugees in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.

WARNER: It's only at the very last possible moment that the grandmother finally gives her blessing. And Naji's family arrives in the U.S. by plane on November 8, 2016, Election Day.

N ALDABAAN: I - at that time, I was hoping they don't stop the plane. I was thinking about it.

HALPERN: You thought that they might actually stop the plane?

N ALDABAAN: That's how bad I want to go to the - I want to go to the U.S. that I was hoping they don't stop the plane. Just fly (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: So they arrive, and they're taken to a house in Manchester, Conn., that's been set up for them by volunteers.

HALPERN: And it's that night early the next morning that Trump wins. And, of course, they all know what that means.

WARNER: They get a text from Naji's grandma, who has stayed behind in Jordan with her other children.

N ALDABAAN: She said, I hope I see you in heaven because I'm not sure if we going to be together again, especially after Trump won.

WARNER: I hope I see you in heaven because I'm not sure we're ever going to be together again.

N ALDABAAN: It was very scary that it took my happiness of coming to the U.S.

WARNER: And, sure enough, when Trump takes office, he bans entry to the U.S. for citizens from Syria and six other Muslim countries. And yet, Naji's family discovers that despite these messages coming from the president, or maybe because of them, there are more volunteers than ever trying to help the refugees that are here jump-start their American life. Naji's family is inundated with assistance.

HALPERN: It's like they have - people are constantly coming in and out the door nonstop - driver's license, Social Security card, immunization shots, dental work, blood work, allergies, registration for school, lesson on how to use everything in the house, English lessons. It's - I mean, it's around-the-clock.

WARNER: Their co-sponsor even coaches Naji and a sister what to wear on their first day of school, which they join midsemester. And they're trying their best to blend in, so they've got new winter coats and backpacks. And then they arrive at school, and they find the kids in the hallway wearing fluffy animal slippers and bathrobes. Their first day, it turns out, had coincided with that odd American tradition known as Pajama Day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: This was likely not the return to childhood that Naji had pictured for himself when he was back in Jordan dreaming of the U.S. And Naji says that while he liked his new school, he did not yet fit in. He barely spoke English, and he mostly kept to himself.

N ALDABAAN: We went to school, we had homework, we came home, we ate. And, you know, we sit - every night, we sit together, you know, we talk, and then we drink tea and then we go to sleep.

WARNER: Months pass in this way. And then one winter evening, Naji is in his room finishing his homework, and he senses something's wrong.

N ALDABAAN: By 6 p.m., you know, I felt the house was quiet, unusual. So I went and I saw my sister Ammal and my other sister Hala (ph) standing outside of my mom and dad's room. And I got scared. I thought, you know, something big happened. I knock at the door of my parents' room and I say, what's going on? And then my dad - my mom said, oh, nothing. It's all OK. But I knew, like, from their faces, I know something's going on.

HALPERN: And then finally, his dad said, I got a message on my voicemail. And he plays the message for him. And the message is a death threat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: You have seven saved messages. Saved message...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hey, you [expletive] Muslim, what the [expletive] you doing in the United States of America?

N ALDABAAN: It said, hey, you're Muslim with the, you know, the F word, you're Muslim. I'm going to come to your house and this is your address. He said our address. He said my dad's name.

HALPERN: I know you live at this address. He has the exact house number. America is only for white people. We're going to kill you. We're going to chop your head off.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Just get the hell out of - America is for white people and not for you Black and brownies, OK, you [expletive] Muslim.

N ALDABAAN: And he said, you're from Syria. You have 24 hours to leave the United States or I'm going to come and kill you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm giving you 24 hours to leave America, OK? You hear that? You understand me? You understand me?

WARNER: They don't know anything about this caller. He's spouting white nationalist threats, but they don't even know if he's white. The family calls their sponsoring agency, and their sponsor calls the police. The police call in the FBI. They're taking it very seriously. And there's this moment when Ammal, Naji's little sister, turns to Naji and she says, are you happy?

N ALDABAAN: She says, so is this what you were talking about, this is the future, the United States, the good dream they were talking about? And I really didn't have anything to tell her.

HALPERN: I said, what do you mean nothing? You said nothing back to her? And he said, she was right; there was nothing for me to say.

N ALDABAAN: Yeah, yeah. She was blaming me. She was, you know - made me feel like I was responsible for it. And I actually did feel responsible for it.

WARNER: His father even told us if Naji had not pushed so hard to come to the U.S., they might still be in Jordan.

N ALDABAAN: I felt like my parents were feeling that way, you know, but they didn't say anything.

HALPERN: I never got the sense that they actually blamed you. I wonder if it - part of it is also just, like, you feeling guilty, maybe.

N ALDABAAN: I think it was guilty. And, you know, I don't know if that's what they were thinking, but I can imagine it, and I don't blame them for it.

WARNER: The one thing that Naji felt sure of - it was, again, up to him to protect the family when ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. In the days after the Aldabaan family received a threat to kill them in their home in Manchester, Conn., Naji found himself thinking back to Syria and those 40 days when his father and his uncles were locked up and he used to imagine troops coming into their house and having to grab a knife from the kitchen to defend his family. Now a similar survival instinct kicks in.

N ALDABAAN: I started thinking, what am I going to do if they come into the house? Our knife wouldn't help. I'm not that strong. Then, at that moment, I asked my dad, how old do you have to be to get a licensed gun in the United States? And I tried to convince him to get one.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: His dad tries to reassure him.

HALPERN: He's saying, you know, well, we've informed the police and the FBI. And Naji says to him, well, you know how the old saying goes.

N ALDABAAN: By the time the police come, the killers would've - would kill us and leave.

HALPERN: And what did your dad say to that?

N ALDABAAN: He - you know, he would always try to not respond to me, like, acting like he didn't hear me.

HALPERN: It's kind of like they're back to square one. Naji's talking about getting a gun to protect the family. You know, from a psychological standpoint, he was still in that war zone mentality of we can't rely on anyone. Things are going to fall apart. Danger is knocking on our door.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HALPERN: And Ibrahim says, no. We're not getting a gun.

N ALDABAAN: I was mad. I was mad because I wasn't feeling good. I wanted to be protected. I wanted to be ready.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: In the genre of novel that Jake writes, the genre sometimes known as young adult fantasy or young adult horror, there's this general rule about the role that parents are allowed to play. Jake learned this when he and his writing partner, Peter Kujawinski, were finishing "Nightfall," their book about three kids that get abandoned on an island.

HALPERN: At the end of the book, there's this really cool scene where the ocean has receded because there's this 500-mile tide. But there's still a river that runs from the island. And it runs along the bottom of the dried-out ocean floor. And the kids are sailing in this boat on this river. And they're slowly making their way south to meet up with the parents. And in the - one of the versions of the book that was near final, the last image was they look up, and they see this lone figure making their way along the shore of the river. And as he comes into view, they realize it's the dad. And he's come back for them. And our editor said to us - our very smart editor, Ari Lewen (ph), said to us, no.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HALPERN: (Laughter) She said, I know why you guys put that in there. You're dads. And you like the idea that you come back for your kids, but no.

WARNER: She said that they were breaking a major rule.

HALPERN: So the rule that we broke was that the parent, to some extent, came back and helped them achieve the last part of their escape from this island, and therefore deprive the kids of succeeding entirely on their own power and by their own agency. The fantasy is the story of extreme empowerment of a kid who is thrust into the role of a hero adult and must do the superhuman adult task. And so we cut the dad at the end of the book.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: I wonder if there is a psychological truth here that if you're a kid and you realize the world is unsafe, that you're on your own, you can't unrealize that. You can't have a dad show up and think, oh, great, things are back to normal, because there is no going back. And so in a novel, you have to take that truth to its psychological conclusion. You have to have the kid, the hero of the story, make it through to the other side on their own. But in the real-life story of Naji and his family, Naji is trying to find safety with his family by his side. From Syria to Jordan and then from Jordan to America, he's trying his hardest to find a place where they can feel safe and then he can feel like a kid again. But the death threat changes that.

N ALDABAAN: I felt like we'll never be safe again. There is no place on this Earth that is safe for us or we will ever feel like we belong again, like how we were in Syria. I just - you know, I just felt, whatever we're going to do, wherever we're going to go, we're never safe again.

WARNER: When Naji asked his dad to buy a gun to protect them, Naji's dad gives him this speech.

I ALDABAAN: (Speaking Arabic).

WARNER: Ibrahim says, in Arabic, that he explained to Naji there are a hundred ways to be safe, and a gun does not need to be one of them. You're not going to shoot somebody. That's not who we are. It's not what we do.

HALPERN: And what's interesting about this situation is this time, Naji backs down. He doesn't try to fight his dad on this like he did about coming to America. He says OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: In the subsequent years that Jake followed Naji and his family, he never saw him quite get the return to childhood that he'd imagined for himself in America. Naji was always watchful, ready to leap in in an emergency, and emergencies kept happening. There was one time when the house caught fire, and Naji made two trips into the smoke to wake an upstairs neighbor, lead her outside and maybe save her life. There was another time when Naji turned down the chance at a scholarship to a summer program at Wesleyan to spend the summer working. He helped his family buy their first house.

HALPERN: And his income and his employment history, I think, is part of what got them the mortgage. So, yes, he is still very much a kind of partial provider for the family.

WARNER: But Naji has found time to be a teenager. After the death threat, the sponsoring agency moved them to a motel for a few months. And Naji remembers loving the continental buffet and the downstairs gym.

N ALDABAAN: The breakfast in the morning was nice, and that was the first time I see a gym downstairs. I really liked it. I started working out the first day, and then I started showing my dad my muscles (laughter). I said, look; I have muscles now.

WARNER: In school, Naji joined a weightlifting club. He now looks nothing like the skinny kid that Jake first met. And Naji got a job at Dunkin' Donuts, which was about making money, but he also really loved it. It was like a masterclass in dating from his favorite co-worker.

N ALDABAAN: Rusty (ph) was my favorite friend. We both were shy talking to girls, so we'd always stay away.

HALPERN: And Rusty is like Naji's Gandalf, like, you know...

WARNER: That's from "Lord Of The Rings," right?

HALPERN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. The wise sage, the old wise sage who speaks only truth and who knows all secrets of the mystic realm, who also tells him, like, you're not going to see so many beautiful girls working at Dunkin' Donuts, but Starbucks - now that's a different - like, Starbucks was, like, the promised land.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HALPERN: Naji, how are you? Salaam alaikum (ph). Oh, look; you cut your hair.

N ALDABAAN: Yeah, yeah.

HALPERN: I actually really like it.

So the last time that I was visiting the Aldabaans, they had the American flag flying up front, which is something that Ibrahim said is the first thing he was going to do when they finally owned a home.

Just going back here. Hey, Naji. Whoa, look at your - oh, my gosh.

N ALDABAAN: I built this.

HALPERN: You built this?

N ALDABAAN: Yeah.

WARNER: While the dad's first action as a homeowner was to put up an American flag, the first thing that Naji decided to do in their home was build himself a pigeon coop.

N ALDABAAN: I had the little house for them that was closed. But then, you know, I thought they were walking around the grass, and so I decided to make a cage outside.

HALPERN: It's more than a cage. It's like a whole screened-in porch for - I mean, it's big. It's got a roof.

N ALDABAAN: Yeah.

WARNER: It's not only way bigger than the one his dad built for him in Jordan. He's built this and stocked it himself.

N ALDABAAN: So I just got those couple fancy pigeons. Yeah.

HALPERN: They're beautiful.

N ALDABAAN: Yeah. I never had those back home. They were so expensive.

WARNER: Just like back in Jordan, Naji does not let his pigeons fly. He did try it, but two birds got eaten by hawks. He learned it's better to keep them in their birdhouse, where they'll be safe.

HALPERN: Look at that. He's just sitting on your arm.

N ALDABAAN: It's my favorite pigeon. I don't have names for them 'cause, you know, it makes me sad when they die. And I don't want to feel sad. But, you know, I still kind of feel sad when they die, but it feels a little bit better if they don't have names.

WARNER: He's protecting the birds, but he's also doing his best to protect himself.

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WARNER: Jake Halpern's book with artist Michael Sloan is called "Welcome To The New World." We'll have a link to it in our show notes.

Today's show was produced by Tina Antolini. Lu Olkowski is our editor. The ROUGH TRANSLATION team includes Jess Jiang, Derek Arthur and Justine Yan. Robert Krulwich and Sana Krasikov listened to this piece and made it so much better. Fact-checking and Arabic interpretation help from Mohammed Kadalah. The ROUGH TRANSLATION executive team is Neal Carruth, Didi Schanche, Chris Turpin and Anya Grundmann. Nicole Beemsterboer is our supervising producer. Mastering by Isaac Rodrigues. John Ellis (ph) composed music for our show, other scoring from Blue Dot Sessions.

If you'd like more stories like this in your podcast feed, you know what to do. Give us a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts or tell a friend about the show. Drop us your thoughts and your stories at roughtranslation@npr.org or on Twitter at @Roughly. I'm Gregory Warner. Back in two weeks with more ROUGH TRANSLATION.

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