Al Graham

From the Sea


Have you ever wondered if you’ve aided and abetted international terrorism? I have. Rewind to the spring of 2015. I’d graduated from the University of Oregon School of Law and passed the bar, but I’d had little luck finding a legal job. A solitary interview invite had gotten my hopes up, but a recruiter called the night before and canceled, saying the position had been filled. 

With paying work in short supply, I was doing odd jobs for friends and family around Portland and some pro bono legal work. An attorney with Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services mentioned a Syrian refugee who was flying into Seattle. The guy’s host family had backed out and he needed a place to stay for a few days.

I had a spare-ish room in my apartment and a humiliating amount of free time, so I agreed to host. A volunteer coordinator told me the refugee’s name was Adem and texted me a photo of a lean man about my age, with a forced smile plastered on a weary face.  

My mission to SeaTac started on a foul note. As I walked to the parking lot, I crossed paths with Mrs. Astor, my downstairs neighbor. Rumor had it she was related to John Jacob Astor. If there was any truth to this story, she hadn’t gotten a cut of the family fortune; our apartment complex was no Waldorf-Astoria. I’d caught Mrs. Astor on one of her many smoke breaks, and she shot me a look as dirty as her teeth. 

I got in my faded black VW Passat and hopped on I-5, reaching SeaTac around sunset. I’d printed out a little Syrian flag and a sign that read “Welcome Adem!” in Arabic (Google Translate is the low-key MVP of this story).

At SeaTac, I anxiously stood around the escalators leading from International Arrivals to baggage claim, watching the crowds drift by. Adem was flying in from Frankfurt, so I started waving my sign when I heard German accents. 

Adem and I quickly spotted each other. He was wearing a tan leather jacket with a worn JanSport backpack slung over one shoulder. We shared an awkward embrace. 

“Hello,” he said in a thick accent, “I am Adem.” 

It soon became clear that Adem had just burned through about 50 percent of his English vocab. I started to fiddle with Google Translate on my phone, and failed to register the fear that flickered across Adem’s face. He reached into his jacket, pulled out a thick manila envelope, and thrust it into my hands. 

“Papers,” he said.

I looked up from my phone and saw what had spooked Adem: a half-dozen US Customs and Border Patrol Agents, who clearly weren’t looking for German tourists.

The agents whisked into a back room with an X-ray machine and body-scanner. A CBP agent and Adem began speaking rapidly in Arabic. Another agent informed me that Adem hadn’t been properly screened in Germany.  

I probed Adem’s manila envelope with my fingertips. I felt a packet of papers, but also a distinct, oblong bulge, like a cigar. In the back room, with the agents clustered around Adem, I finally dared to crack the envelope open. I felt a bit of relief when I saw the words “US Refugee Admissions Program” and the State Department’s seal. 

But next came a flutter of unease—I glimpsed a plastic tube, and remembered how Adem had thrust the envelope into my hands at the sight of the agents. My mind went straight to high explosives, smuggled diamonds, and black tar heroin. I tried to reason with myself. Perhaps Adem had kept his documents in a waterproof tube as he journeyed to safety? Was thinking of bombs a skosh racist?

CBP agents tore into Adem’s backpack. I contemplated saying I was a lawyer and shouting something about unlawful search and seizure. But as my dad says, I “didn’t know giddy up from sic ’em” about what the CBP could do. 

Adem was now standing in the millimeter-wave body-scanner, his hands raised as if in surrender. A CBP agent gestured toward me and asked, “Should we search him too?”

My time to shine. I held up the manila envelope and my Oregon bar card and declared, “You may search me, but these are privileged and confidential documents pertaining to my client’s asylum case.” The CBP gave me a quick frisk and looked at my Bar Card, but didn’t touch the envelope. Adem hastily shoved his meager belongings back into his pack. 

Fifteen minutes and one insincere CBP apology later, Adem and I were sitting in my Passat in a parking garage. I snapped, “What the hell’s in that tube?” 

Adem understood my tone, but not my question. I typed a kinder version into Google Translate and held up my phone. 

He took the phone and typed away, then cracked open the tube. There was a faint rustling from within. Adem’s reply read, Dirt from my home. In his open palm were flecks of earth. 

A mocking inner voice whispered, Heroin or explosives. 

The language barrier made for a quiet car ride. Adem took in the sights as we drove past Tacoma, but as city lights disappeared, his eyes closed. 

After we hauled his bags up the stairs to my apartment, I typed out, Welcome to your new home. I wish you were here under happier circumstances. I hope all your dreams come true. 


The next morning, Adem and I went to a nearby café for breakfast and did our best to converse. I’m not sure what’s less politically correct: trying to capture Adem’s early attempts at English, or “erasing his ethnolinguistic culture” by editing for clarity. I’ve opted for clarity.  

What I remember most about that first day together was the goddamn honey. We were grocery shopping at Fred Meyer. Though it wasn’t Adem’s first time in a big store, he didn’t seem particularly comfortable. I started checking off items on my grocery list and told Adem to get whatever he wanted. 

Midway through our visit, Adem typed out, “I need honey.” 

We headed over to the coffee and tea aisle, and soon found the honey selection. I left Adem to browse while I grabbed a bag of Peet’s coffee. When I turned around, he had a honey bear in one hand, cap off. His pinky finger was in his mouth, and his face bore a pensive expression. Adem withdrew his finger, then glowered at the bear and put it back on the shelf.

I watched in shock as Adem grabbed another honey bear and repeated the procedure, his face twisting in displeasure.   

I pulled the first bear off the shelf. Adem pointed to it and shook his head. I chucked the bear into the shopping cart anyway and typed out, Let’s not taste anything we’re not going to buy.

Adem was on to his third sample now, a quart with a hand-stamped label advertising, “raw organic honey.” Adem popped the lid and went in for another taste test. 

I winced. Adem nodded approvingly. 

At self-checkout, I learned the two honey bears he’d turned his nose up at were $8 each. The jar that met his exacting standards was $33. 

Worse still, this honey tab was just a preview of coming attractions. Adem burned through an outrageous amount of the stuff, mostly in his coffee and tea. But I soon learned that Adem was more than just an avid consumer of honey: he’d kept bees back in Syria. $33 for a taste of home was money well spent.


For the most part, Adem and I got along well. By the end of the first week, I’d agreed that he could stay with me long-term. Over the next month, he settled in. I got him new clothes, his own phone with Google Translate, and gave him my old laptop. Netflix plus Arabic subtitles was a game changer for Adem’s English. Though he’d only gone to school until he was twelve, I sensed he was like a human video camera: always recording. 

Adem was assigned an immigration attorney for his asylum case, and I did what I could to help. His paperwork told me he was twenty-five years old—one year younger than me. He had an appendectomy scar, and he took no medications. Adem’s parents still lived in Syria, and he was an only child. He informed me that he came from a long line of only children on his father’s side, all male.

One of the main problems was how to set up his asylum claim. It’s not enough to say, “Syria’s a horror show, please let me stay in America.” Instead, you must come up with a “credible fear” of persecution based on belonging to a particular ethnic, political, religious, or social group. 

I explained this to Adem as best I could, then asked, “Why are you afraid to go back to Syria?” 

Adem looked at me as if I were stupid. 

I reiterated that the U.S. government wanted a reason why Assad or ISIS would want to kill him in particular.

Adem nodded. “I tell you the story my family passed down for generations. Then you’ll know why everyone wants to kill me.” 

“My father’s father’s father”—he spun his hands in a circular motion—“lived in Turkey. Before it was Turkey, before Mohammed, before—”

I interjected, “So the Syrians hate you because of your Turkish ethnicity?” 

 “My friend,” Adem said, “please let me speak. My family lived in a village on an island in the Black Sea. One day, the sea began to rise. It kept rising. Higher and higher. The villagers sailed off with their livestock and belongings.” Adem paused for a gulp of water, then continued. “The birds flew away.” He flapped his hands. “But there were wild animals that no one would take to safety. The waters kept rising, higher every day. The island got smaller and smaller.”

“My father’s father’s father”—he spun his hands again—“sailed back to the island, one last time. It was almost gone, just a few hilltops sticking out of the Black Sea, covered with animals. He put them on his boat, then sailed to dry land, which was now far away. When the boat reached shore, most of the animals left. But some animals stayed. They served him, and their children served his children.”

Adem stared at me intensely. I was trying to maintain a poker face, but I think my doubt seeped through. A prehistoric flood? Rescuing squirrels and rats and having them pledge some sort of life-debt? Gimme a break. 

Then an even more cynical thought trickled in. What if Adem had made up this story to win sympathy? This fairy tale about saving creatures from disaster probably played well with the do-gooders who volunteer with refugees. I didn’t like feeling played.

“What does this have to do with you fleeing Syria?”

“Everything. My family believes in that story. No one in Syria likes it. Sunni, Alawite, all are against me. If I hadn’t left—” Adem slashed his finger across his throat.

I felt a twinge of guilt. I’d just assumed Adem was a Muslim. I’d even rehearsed a few phrases like “As-salamu alaykum” and congratulated myself on my cultural literacy. 

Then my law school issue-spotter training kicked in and I said, “This is great, Adem!” I regretted my word choice, but pressed on. “You’re being persecuted because you think your family made a deal with some animals. That makes you an animist. That’s a religious belief, which you’re being persecuted for. That’s your asylum claim!”  

The asylum attorney liked the idea, and it formed the basis for Adem’s credible fear affidavit. I heard the story one more time when we drafted the affidavit. Adem repeated it with reverence as I nodded along. 

After the second telling, I asked one more question: did Adem’s family go back to the island after the flood? 

“No.” He replied. “The water never went back down. The island is still under the sea.”


My apartment’s deck did more for Adem—and for me—than I ever could have imagined. Adem was a smoker, and to his credit I don’t think he ever lit a cigarette indoors. That meant he was out on the deck at least a dozen times a day. It was there, puffing away, that Adem made his diplomatic breakthrough. 

A voice from the deck below rasped, “Hey Hajji, got a spare?” It was Mrs. Astor, my nemesis from the unit below. 

Adem dropped flat on the deck, snaked his arm under the railing, and delivered a fresh pack of unfiltered Marlboros. 

“Thanks,” came the voice from below. A moment later, in an approving tone, Mrs. Astor added, “You’re smoking my brand! I think the filters are what’s really bad for you. My husband smoked filtered and he died.”

That spark of friendship between Mrs. Astor and Adem caught quickly. They had their similarities: both smokers, both bored and lonely, and both more comfortable reminiscing about the past than living in the present.  

Adem and Mrs. Astor also saw eye-to-eye on another issue, which I tried not to dwell on: refugees. Both of them agreed that the list of Syrians who should be granted asylum was pretty damn short.  

I’d naively assumed that Adem would be sympathetic to other people fleeing conflict. But when we were in the car together and an NPR story about Syrian refugees came on, Adem groused, “Now they can try to kill me in America.” 

Another time, Adem marched into the living room, carrying the old laptop I’d loaned him. He had a look of grim triumph on his face. He shoved the laptop toward me. It was a news story about a boat of migrants that had just landed in Italy. The Muslim migrants on board had thrown a dozen Christian migrants into the sea. None survived. Adem proclaimed, “This is what they do!” 

Overall, I was a happy beneficiary of this détente. Mrs. Astor stopped muttering curses at me, and I got a cut of the baked goods she made for Adem. The Cold War was over. 


One of my better ideas crystallized from Adem’s honey habit. Adem had made it clear that he wanted to support himself. But working is tricky for refugees. Your case needs to be under review by USCIS for a certain amount of time, and then you must get an Employment Authorization Document from Uncle Sam.

The attorney in me knew Adem shouldn’t work. The side of me that once had a fake ID and chronically-expired car tabs had other ideas. Something that looked like a hobby and brought in some cash could be ideal.

I started cold-calling local beekeepers. After a few duds and a lot of unanswered messages, I found Wendell. He was about eighty, but spry and vigorous. He lived nearby, and his hives pollinated crops all over the county. 

Wendell said another set of skilled hands would be welcome. I suggested that Adem could volunteer for Wendell, who in turn might decide to donate money to Adem. Wendell cut through my BS and said, “Hell, your food comes from guys who aren’t exactly square with the Federales. If this fellow’s worth his salt, we’ll figure something out.” 

I drove Adem out to Wendell’s apiary soon after. Wendell showed us around a big red barn filled with two forklifts, piles of bee hive boxes, fifty-pound bags of sugar, and other tools of the trade. Then it was on to the extracting room, where Wendell demonstrated cutting the honeycomb with a hot knife and using a centrifuge to spin out the honey. 

Wendell quizzed Adem about the traditional hives used in Syria: round clay cylinders with a hole in one end. The two beekeepers then zipped up into white bee suits and headed out to the hives while I ran some errands. 

When I returned in the afternoon to pick up Adem, the old beekeeper patted him on the shoulder and said, “This boy knows how to smoke!” 

“You smoke Marlboro too?” I asked. 

Adem and the beekeeper burst out laughing. Adem grabbed a tin can with a leather bellows strapped to its side. He gave the bellows a squeeze, and a jet of smoke shot out. I’d soon learn that smoke makes bee hives docile, like a joint in a freshman dorm room.

So there I stood, getting laughed at for my lack of worldliness by Wendell and a guy who’d once asked to go to “Burger Monarch” for dinner. 

Yuk it up, jackoffs.  


I look back on the summer of 2015 as some of the freest months of my life. There were endless sun-soaked days, no school, no kid, and, thanks to my chronic under-employment, not much work either. 

But they didn’t feel like halcyon days in the moment. There were sleepless nights staring at the ceiling, brooding over what I was doing with my life, wondering how I would get my career on track. I filled too many of those days with YouTube and Reddit, trying to distract myself from those terrifying questions and my shrinking bank account.

Adem was there too of course. We binged Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Rick and Morty. Adem, in turn, made me watch De’ah, Da’iah, a fluffy Syrian show about a small village and its residents. It was my turn to use subtitles, and Adem would frequently pause to describe how he’d known a real-life version of a character. 

Adem spent four days with Wendell each week—working more hours and making more money than I was. Adem loved the bees, and never tired of talking about them (though I tired of hearing about them). I learned each bee produces only a spoonful of honey in its entire life. Thus, each jar of honey represents the life’s labor of hundreds of bees. 

There was only a single incident with Adem that warned me that he might not be as happy as he appeared. And even this stood out only in hindsight. 

One night, my parents sympathetically said that they understood that I hadn’t had much luck getting hired at law firms. My mother added, “Lots of companies need lawyers. Maybe you could just go work for Nike.”

“Mom, Nike only hires attorneys from the firms that are running my resume through the shredder.” I snapped. “I can’t make the cut at a minor league baseball team, and now you’re telling me to just go play for the Yankees instead.”

The conversation went downhill fast. Adem ate silently, picking at his plate, neutral as Switzerland.

As we drove home, I told Adem, “Sorry, my parents can get micro-managey.” 

My half-hearted apology detonated a bomb. Adem shouted, “You disrespect them like that? Your mother and father?” 

“Different cultures,” I muttered defensively.

Adem was just getting started. Switzerland was gone, the Panzers were rolling. “Do you know what I would give to have my parents here? Making me dinner?”

“I’m sorry. I wish they were here too.”

“They’d die for you, man! You know that? They’d die for you!”

Adem balled up his fist, his face contorted in rage.

I slammed on the brakes and braced for impact. Adem struck. I heard a thud and a crack, but felt nothing. Adem had reconsidered punching me mid-swing, instead striking the steel frame of my seat. Adem cradled his hand as I pulled over. We sat there, on the side of the moonlit highway. I could hear only the idling engine and Adem’s short, quick gasps. Tears rolled down his cheeks.

The car was fine, Adem’s hand was not. The next morning brought a badly swollen pinky, a trip to urgent care, a splint, and reams of paperwork. 

When I told my parents what had happened, my mother mused, “Adem did raise some good points.” 

My father chimed in, “Son, he isn’t the only one who’s thought about taking a swing at you.” 

My parents were so pleased by Adem’s spirited defense of their honor that they offered to pay his medical bills. I’d wondered if my parents saw Adem as my de facto sibling, now I realized he had become the favorite child. I soon began accusing Adem of staging the whole incident to curry favor.

Overall, I was grateful for Adem. He chipped in on rent, was easy to live with, and showed up at just the right time. Most of my friends were busy with work and family, and I’d grown isolated. I was beginning to have trouble imagining life without him around. 


Everything flew off the rails that autumn. One day, Adem stayed locked in his room all morning. When he finally emerged, his eyes were red and puffy, grief etched on his face. 

“What’s wrong?” I asked. 

“Nothing,” he lied.

“Bad news from home?” 

“A friend died.”

“I’m so sorry, Adem,” I murmured. I hugged him, and he stood there stiffly, unconsoled, until I let him go. 

Adem walked back toward his room. Just before he shut the door, he turned back toward me, paused, and said, “Thank you … for everything.”

Adem declined my offers of food that evening. I went to bed that night with schemes for cheering him up running through my head. 

The next morning, Adem’s door stayed shut. By early afternoon, I was worried. I knocked on his door. Silence. 


More silence.

“Adem, give me something here. You okay?”


An icy chill ran down my spine. I finally opened the door, visions of a hanging corpse running through my mind. Instead, I found the room barren. Adem had left my life as abruptly as he’d entered it.  

I made two major discoveries. First, I got a clue as to why Adem used so much honey: he’d been feeding sugar ants. In the back corner of his closet, I found a honey jar turned upside down on a plate, its lid carefully perforated to release a steady trickle of food. The ant equivalent of I-5 during rush hour was marching along.

The second discovery was that Adem was a thief. When I’d handed over my old laptop with Google Chrome, I’d given him my autofill passwords. That meant he had access to everything from Netflix and The New York Times to my bank account. My $3,000 savings account was now $2,000 lighter. Adem also had access to my email too, and he’d deleted the bank transfer alert. 

I felt so fucking stupid and betrayed and used. I wished Adem had died in al-Assad’s torture chambers. I thought about calling up USCIS and telling them to deport him. 

But I didn’t do any of that. I’d love to say it was for noble reasons—a realization that $2,000 didn’t justify sending someone back into harm’s way. But I think it was mostly out of shame. I was too embarrassed to pick up the phone and say, “I handed this refugee a laptop with all my financial info on it and he, uh, stole from me.” 

So instead, I got down on my hands and knees in Adem’s old bedroom and took out my anger on the last living reminder of him in my apartment. I ground the little ants into the floorboards with my bare hands, the odor of blue cheese rising from their mangled bodies. I screamed, “Die, you thieving little bastards! You come into my fucking house and fucking steal from me?” 

The fact that all my friends and family liked Adem made the situation even worse. I wanted to melt into the ground each time I had to mutter my cheerful lie: “Adem moved to the East Coast to live with a cousin. I’ll tell him you said hi.” Eventually the questions subsided, and I began to move on.

But what I did to the ants—that frenzied taking of lives, no matter how primitive—still fills me with shame. I caught whiffs of blue cheese on my hands long after. Guilt washes off slowly. 


After Adem left, I kept doing odd jobs and bits of legal work. Even when I won, I lost. I charged a friend $1,000 to take a case to trial. Opposing counsel charged $28,000. I won, but after expenses I’d made less than minimum wage. A few more wins like that and I’d be broke. 

I started applying for paralegal work and even minimum wage jobs that said “high school degree preferred.” My law degree started to feel like a Catch-22: I couldn’t get hired as a lawyer, but no one would hire me for non-law jobs because they assumed I’d leave for a better offer. By the summer of 2016, I could’ve wallpapered my apartment with rejection letters. I hadn’t paid rent in two months (an extra $2,000 would’ve helped). Something had to give, I hoped it wouldn’t be my credit score.

So I applied for the one job that I knew I’d get a call back from: document review. To the uninitiated, being a document review attorney sounds like any other legal job. But those in the profession know better. If the bar association didn’t require lawyers to handle doc review, firms would outsource it to high school students. Review attorneys get paid $25/hour to read through reams of documents, marking anything that looks interesting enough for the attorneys billing $500/hour to look at. A mentor gently advised, “You may want to leave this off your resume. Tell recruiters you were backpacking in Europe.”

The first firm to call me back was Prescott Sidles, LLP, a major Portland law firm. The work itself was mostly what I’d expected: skim a document, add some tags to categorize it, and move on. My coworkers were kind and showed me the ropes. Their legal careers weren’t going as planned either; the only time most of them had been in court was the day they were sworn in as attorneys.  

When we clocked in for the day, we had to put our phones in cubbies, the lockers from preschool. This was ostensibly for information security, but really to prevent slacking. Most of my coworkers put burner phones in their cubbies, then brought their real phones to their desks.  

$25 per hour is nothing to sneeze at. But that was only when there was work, which dried up in winter time. No work meant no benefits. I was horrified to hear a coworker casually mention in November, “I hope this project runs a little longer, otherwise I won’t have insurance again until March.” My coworkers occasionally asked me to slow down a project, so other attorneys could maintain healthcare coverage for their families. I’m not ashamed to say that I did. 

So there I was, a couple years out of law school, earning $30,000 per year. At least I wasn’t alone. Attorneys’ salaries form a “bimodal distribution,” like the back of a camel with two humps. There are attorneys making big money, and attorneys like me, with few in between. 


The years slipped by, faster and faster. I was still at Prescott Sidles, still getting humped by that bimodal distribution camel. Many of my law school classmates had left their high-pay, high-pressure jobs for cushy in-house gigs. That stung: the bastards weren’t just rich; they were now happy too. 

Other big changes came my way. Bumble introduced me to Sarah, a nurse practitioner with mesmerizing green eyes, a sprinkling of freckles, and a dazzling smile. When Mrs. Astor met Sarah, the old bat curtly informed me that she “liked my Syrian friend better.”  

A year later, Sarah and I were married and living in a modest house outside of Portland. A Golden Retriever puppy named Shasta served as our test-run at keeping a small mammal alive. A year after that we welcomed Kayla, who had my dimples and her mom’s eyes.  

I thought about Adem whenever I heard the word “Syria” and occasionally tried to track him down. Meanwhile, al-Assad’s plan had worked: he’d first killed the moderates who might’ve gained Western support, then killed off the rest of his enemies. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians were dead and millions displaced, but al-Assad ruled the ashes.  

It was only years after Adem’s departure that I finally bothered to read up on the Black Sea. I’d assumed the region had been the same for millions of years, that Adem’s family legend might as well have involved a T-Rex. But I found a Wikipedia page titled “Black Sea Deluge Hypothesis.” I learned the Ice Age probably cut off the Black Sea from the Mediterranean, reducing it to a freshwater lake. Around 6000 B.C., the rising Mediterranean rushed back in with a vengeance; hundreds of Niagara Falls, pouring in all at once. I thought back to what Adem said. “The flood never ended. The island is still under the sea.” 

But I had better things to worry about. It was around this time I started to feel the real weight of that camel hump. I didn’t want a fast car or a yacht. But I wanted more money. Not for me, but for Sarah. Because she was a rockstar mom who put up with my moods. Because she never complained that she made more than I did. Because she hadn’t left me for one of the doctors who hit on her.

Most of all, I wanted the best for Kayla. I could talk myself out of buying Gucci onesies (these are real, they’re $500, and Kayla would’ve outgrown one in a week). But I dreaded the idea that my crummy job would prevent Kayla from fully developing her talents. I could say no to Gucci, but how could I say no to ski lift tickets or space camp? 


So there I was in the fall of 2018, with an awesome wife and kid, a crappy job, and all my usual anxieties and insecurities. At work, I was parsing an executive’s emails for antitrust violations but finding only a sad string of lewd messages to a coworker (“I can’t even wear condoms, they’re like choke chains.”). I’d joined the burner phone gang, and when a text came in, I snuck a peek at a message from an unknown number. It read: Hello my brother. I want to make things right. Please call me. 

I got the broad strokes that night. Adem was living in the boonies in Nevada. He had a green card. He made me promise I’d visit him ASAP, but wouldn’t say why. 

Sarah was pissed. She was working that weekend and I was supposed to look after Kayla. I wasn’t earning my “World’s Best Dad” coffee cup, but Sarah also understood this was important to me. My parents agreed to take Kayla and Shasta, and I booked a flight to Reno International. 

I got my rental car and started driving. The highway became a snaky mountain road, which became packed dirt that my GPS claimed was a road. Finally, I came to a weathered house and barn. As I walked up to the front porch, a familiar voice called out, “Hello my friend!” 

The fellow who greeted me looked a bit older and heavier than the man I’d met at SeaTac, but it was Adem. We embraced, and he helped me carry my bags inside. The house was modest and a bit cluttered, but it smelled heavenly, like the artisanal spice shop Sarah occasionally drags me into. 

Adem and I talked for an hour or so. We started with small stuff—how my flight went, the Nevada weather. Then we moved on to some more substantive topics, like my family. He said he’d been living in Nevada since he left Oregon. 

Adem thanked me profusely for taking him in, but whenever I tried to steer the conversation to why he left, or what the hell he was doing out in the desert, he deflected. “I’ll tell you tomorrow,” he repeated over and over. I finally gave up, and Adem showed me to a guest bedroom. I flopped down on the bed—now the stranger in Adem’s strange land—then the world faded to black. 


I woke to Adem rapping on my bedroom door. The first hints of sunlight glowed on the horizon as I staggered into the kitchen, hoping for breakfast. Adem had other plans. Four orange Home Depot buckets sat on the kitchen floor. As I watched in a stupor, Adem sliced into the corner of a fifty-pound bag of sugar, then poured a white waterfall into each bucket. Steaming hot water was added, creating a thick syrup. I wondered if I was still dreaming. Adam pried the lid off another plastic bucket. Then he hoisted it up to his hip with a grunt and dumped its golden contents into the orange buckets. Adem had outgrown Fred Meyer: his honey now came in bulk.  

Adem had produced roughly twenty gallons of honey, hot water, and sugar. He grabbed two of the orange buckets, nodded toward the other two, and started for the back door of the house. 

We stepped into the Nevada morning. I saw a rocky ridge with a barbed wire fence and the rusted remains of a Ford Model A pickup. Off in the distance, I spotted a half-dozen beehives. I braced myself for a long trek to the hives, but Adem instead headed toward the weathered barn. I kept up as best I could, my arms burning. 

Adem opened the barn doors, and we shuffled in with our buckets. A gleaming stainless-steel trough stood at the center of the building, contrasting sharply with the assortment of rusty tools and the heaps of dung scattered around the rest of the floor.   

As I massaged my forearms, Adem tipped the buckets into the trough. The syrup slowly oozed down the length of the trough, looking for a level.

“Outside!” Adem commanded, waving me toward the doors.

I obeyed, feeling the hair on my arms and the back of my neck rise.  

A moment later, Adem pointed toward the ground. 

It looked as if the shadows at the edges of the barn were alive, closing in on the trough. There was a rustling noise, like leaves in a breeze. I realized with horror that this was no trick of the light; the mounds of manure I’d seen were in fact nests, and the swirling shadows were legions of black ants.  

These were the largest ants I’d ever seen in person, about the size of the last joint on my thumb. They had a sense of heft and robustness to them, the sort of ant that could skeletonize a cow in an hour.

The swarm converged on the trough, gorging on the syrup. Adem stood at the center of the spectacle, surrounded by ants. He turned to me, flashed a big smile, and called out, “Honey is everything. Sugar alone and they die!”

“Is this safe?” I hissed.

“Don’t worry,” Adem replied. “You’re my brother. No harm will come to you.”

Adem watched the ants like a proud parent, then walked toward me, across the living carpet. Maybe it was how he stepped, nothing more than a well-practiced nudge with his feet, but I could’ve sworn the sea of ants parted around him.

We retreated to Adem’s house, where he fried eggs and laid out plates of cheeses, olives, and fruit. Adem confirmed what I’d suspected: his ancestor had rescued the ants from the Black Sea. 

“You implied they wouldn’t hurt me, Adem. But it also sounded like they might hurt other people.”

“That’s why my family had to leave Turkey,” Adem said nonchalantly. “A thief tried to rob my great-grandfather. Not just any thief, but the son of a local governor. The ants killed him, and my great-grandfather fled to Syria.” 

After breakfast, Adem ushered me back out to the barn. The only sign of the horde was a handful of ant corpses near the trough, which were being slowly dragged away by their sisters. 

The syrup had all but vanished, with just a thin layer of yellow residue left behind. I touched the trough; the ants were so thorough that it didn’t even feel sticky. When I raised my hand, the morning light reflected and danced on my fingertips. 

“Adem,” I stammered, “is this—”

“Yes. Now please stop touching it.” 

With quick, practiced strokes, Adem swept down the inside of the trough. I stared, transfixed, at the resulting mound of black and yellow flecks. I could make out a few ant legs and antennae, but there was no denying what the metallic sparkle in the dustpan was: gold.  

“That’s fucking amazing!” I exclaimed. “Little ant miners! Gold-sucking Roombas!” 

Adem carefully brushed the glimmering mound into a glass jar. 

I grilled Adem for details as we walked back to the house. He let me hold the jar, which felt impossibly heavy.  

Adem intoned, “My father taught me that the gold was not to make us rich. It was to keep us all safe when trouble came. That’s what I was told, over and over. And I believed it.”

We entered the kitchen.

“But there’s little gold in Syria. Not like here.” Adem gestured toward the barn. “When war came, there was only enough gold to keep one of us safe. My parents stayed. I went.”

Adem’s voice became flat, as if reciting a script. “My father gave me most of our queens. My parents said they would kill themselves and the queens if Daesh came for them. Daesh came, and they did.”

“I’m so sorry, Adem. I wish you’d told me.”

“I only learned last year.”


“It took all the gold we’d mined in three generations to buy my way through the frontlines in Syria, into Turkey, across the Mediterranean, and into Europe. I spent the very last gold the day I met you. I crossed a world full of jackals who took whatever they could from me. And then, when I had nothing, you took me in and didn’t ask for anything.” 

“I’m glad you made it,” I said.

“And what did I do next?” Adem’s voice trembled. “I stole from you. And I ran off. And I never even told you why.” 

“It’s okay, Adem. It’s forgiven.” 

“As soon as I left home, the queens started to die. I had a dozen when I reached Turkey, five when I reached Europe. When I met you, only three. Wendell’s honey helped, but one died the day before I left. I knew the others would die soon. I gathered my things, stole from you, and came here. The first year was very hard. I had to move twice, had to adjust my family’s techniques. The government was mad at me too. I managed to gather a bit of gold and things got better.”

After breakfast, we walked into Adem’s bedroom. He dropped to his knees and, with considerable effort, dragged a chipped green toolbox out from underneath the bed. Adem unlatched the lid, revealing a thick layer of gold dust. 

I could barely contain myself. “Jesus fuck! How much is in there?”

“About eighteen kilos, forty pounds.”

“What, $1,000 a pound? $40,000!”

Adem looked back at me as if I were a child. “$1,200 per troy ounce. 14.5 troy ounces per pound. $700,000.” 

“Holy shit!!” 

“I want you to take it, sell it in Oregon, and tell no one where it came from. You keep half, I keep half.”

“Adem, I’ll sell it for you, but half? No. It was $2,000.”  

 “My friend, please do this thing that I ask.”


When I was a teenager, I worked as a porter on a boat doing tours around Yaquina Bay. When Dave Chappelle was a teenager, he was doing stand-up gigs for drug dealers who needed to launder their money. Chappelle told the story of how he nailed his routine one night and got paid $25,000 in cash. He was terrified on the subway ride home because, for the first time in his life, he had “something that somebody else would want.” 

Chapelle realized that if the people on the train knew what he had in his backpack, “they’d KILL me for it.”

Then another epiphany struck Chapelle, “Holy shit, what if I had a pussy on me all the time? …That’s what women are dealing with.” 

Chappelle’s bit ran through my mind for the next 750 miles and fourteen hours. If Chappelle had a pussy on him that night on the subway, I had about thirty packed in that faded green toolbox. I understood his terror. Every time I stopped for gas, I felt like a gazelle at a watering hole in a Nat Geo special on lions. I lived off of drive-through fast food and relieved myself on country roads so I wouldn’t have to leave my car. I vigilantly scanned my rearview mirror for the bandits from Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

When I got home, Sarah was working a night shift, and Kayla and Shasta were still with my parents. I threw the green toolbox on the bed and flopped down beside it.  

The next day, I explained everything to Sarah, swore her to secrecy, and then got to work selling gold. I’d hoped to sell to many different stores, so no one buyer would realize how much I had. But I quickly learned that most gold merchants won’t touch gold dust. 

I finally set up a deal with Portland Precious Metals Co., which worked with refineries. I showed up with five pounds of gold dust, and immediately realized Adem was right to worry about privacy. The manager’s eyes popped, and other employees flocked over. They were used to buying gold in fractions of an ounce, not pounds. My bar card came in handy; I was an attorney representing an anonymous mining company.

The manager cautioned me that most gold dust contains lots of impurities. After a few days of negotiations and testing, the purity was assessed at eighty-nine percent. I got cashed out at eighty-four percent and left with a check for $75,000 in my pocket. 

I rinsed and repeated a few days later, and kept going until I ran out of gold. I’d netted about $600,000 and managed to get my bank account frozen for suspicious activity. I got things squared away and wired off Adem’s half. 

Adem had a couple of special requests. First, he wanted $10,000 delivered to Mrs. Astor. I’d fallen out of touch with my downstairs frenemy, but I dutifully tracked her down in a nursing home that reeked of ammonia. Mrs. Astor remembered me and her eyes lit up when I mentioned Adem, but she was in the last year of a difficult life, and it showed.  

Mrs. Astor was technically bankrupt, and the state was grabbing every dime she had to cover her medical bills. So we decided that I’d just spend the money for her. Mrs. Astor came up with a shopping list: premium compression stockings, a better AC unit for the summer, a new TV, and other little luxuries. The bastards at Medicare don’t cover cigarettes either. 

The second request was to deliver $10,000 to Wendell, the old beekeeper. I found him in his barn, still hard at work in his early nineties. 

I asked Wendell if he remembered Adem, and he did. 

“Well, Adem remembers you,” I said, handing Wendell the envelope of cash.

Adem told me to take the gifts out of his share, but I split them fifty-fifty. Easy to be generous when $300,000 falls out of the sky. I was popular at home, too: a new porch for Sarah, toys for Kayla, a custom harness for Shasta, and a generous dollop into the college and retirement accounts. This was big money, space camp with real astronauts money, but not “fuck you money.” I was still at Prescott Sidles, still unsure of my future.


Six months later, Adem asked me to do it all over again. It had taken the growing nests a year to mine forty pounds, but they’d just mined sixty pounds in half that time. Another flight down, another visit with Adem, another marathon drive with Dave Chappelle on my mind, and another huge payday. I set up a corporation (“Black Sea Enterprises, LLC”) and hired a CPA. 

Six months after that, the ants had mined only twenty-three pounds. The gold was running out and the wheels were coming off my gravy train. But Adem had a plan: he’d found a huge ranch, with three dry creek beds that had paid out bigtime in gold rush days. Black Sea Enterprises made its first real estate acquisition, a six-legged ace up its sleeve. 

I returned to Nevada to help with the move. In the middle of the night, Adem dissected the nests, peeling back layer after layer of dried earth. I held a lantern that cast a red light, which ants can’t see. Adem carefully scooped up guard ants with gloved hands, placing them in large glass jars. With no guards raising the alarm, the rest of the ants meekly let us shove them aside. We painstakingly burrowed into each nest until we hit the queen’s chambers, then sequestered each queen in a mesh box. 

The imprisoned queens were moved to large bins. When daylight arrived, the ants went out and foraged and mined. But that night, instead of returning to their hives, they went to their queens. Adem and I loaded the ants into a U-Haul, drove them to their new home, and distributed generous rations of syrup as a housewarming gift. 

Once the ants got settled in at the ranch, we had more gold than we knew what to do with. I offered to lower my percentage, but Adem adamantly refused, saying my offer was a dishonor (I’m not sure if he actually subscribes to the whole “honor culture” thing or if he just knows the schtick works on me). I soon had “fuck you money” and then some. 

Adem had ratholed his money at first, investing mainly in emergency supplies and a top-of-the-line security system. But even he started to splurge, buying a swimming pool and a Ford Raptor. He recently met a farm girl who went to Stanford before coming home to the Sagebrush State. They’re expecting a kid, and Adem’s sure it will be a boy.  

The money changed me. I quit Prescott Sidles, and I now pump so much gold through Portland Precious Metals that they send an armored car to pick me up. As I typed this, Kayla strolled through my office casually lugging an ingot worth $10,000 that she’d pilfered from my nightstand. I’m glad I’m able to pull my weight financially, but Sarah reminds me that only she saves lives every day.

I’ll have a lot of free time on my hands once Kayla starts school. Perhaps I’ll host some other sorry sap from some other far-off place. But for now, I’m thinking back with awe and gratitude to that day at SeaTac, when I picked up a down and out refugee and a little tube packed with large ants.  


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Al Graham grew up on an apiary, became an attorney, and has done pro bono work for people fleeing conflict zones. Al lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and their cats, Lennie and George.