The sun showed no mercy, glaring down on all of us like tiny objects in a magnifying glass. “What kind of heat is this? I can barely breathe,” Maureen panted, forcing the last drop of Coca Cola out of the twelve ounce can. Sweat poured down her forward as she tried and failed to fan herself with a brochure she’d found on the bus. It was thin and useless, but she was determined to try to and make it work. “This is worse than Florida.” Breathless, she leaned up against the tour bus, her face as red as the Coca Cola can she held onto for dear life.
“Aha,” Fahyim said, spreading his hands out wide. “Welcome to the Middle East, where the history runs deeps and the heat,” he said, pausing, searching for the right words. “And the heat will knock you off your feet!” He was the best kind of tour guide--funny, unafraid, daring, knowledgeable and adventurous. “You’ve seen Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but now I will take you to my hometown. Yalla.” With both arms pointed to the north, he beckoned us onward. Hot, exhausted but ready for adventure, we followed him without question until we reached the checkpoint guarded by Israeli soldiers.
Hands outstretched, they stopped us and directed us to move to the other side of the gate. “Shalom.” They spoke in absolute unison, surveying our every move. “Where are you going?” The leader emerged from the group, eyeing us one by one. We had no clue what to do. Their forest green uniform and machine guns made it clear they were not to be toyed with. Tension grew as Fahyim walked up to the front of the group and introduced himself as our guide. We waited patiently. While one soldier verified the authenticity of our passports, the others pulled Fahyim over to the side and questioned him.
He told us this would happen, but his warning didn’t ease any of the tension. The man we just saw laughing and joking was pushed up against the wall, his hands up in the air. Forced surrender. Powerless, we watched, waiting for it end it all to end, unaware that for the hundreds of Palestinians behind us, it might never end. As they searched his pants, pockets, shoes and phone, his face grew cold. The echoing sound of his laughter disappeared into the heavy, humid air. He didn’t smile but he didn’t back down either. After about five minutes of intense questions and answers, the soldiers returned Fahyim to us, unharmed but visibly upset.
“Yalla.” He straightened his shirt, repositioned his badge around his neck and stared back at the solider who questioned him with defiance in his eyes. “As I said, I will take you to my hometown where the people,” he said loud enough for the soldiers to hear, “are friendly and kind.” With his arms outstretched once again, he guided us through the entrance of the 25 feet high separation wall. Though we had no clue where Fahyim was from, it was not Jerusalem and certainly not Tel Aviv.
A small sign that read Beit Sahor welcomed us in the subtlest and humble way. There was no grand entrance. No beautiful spot for tourists’ Instagram photos. I wondered how many other Palestinians called this place home. “But before we see my home, we will take another tour. An unexpected tour. One you did not ask to see, but one you must” and with that, the bus pulled up beside us and we climbed aboard.
Inside the separation wall felt claustrophobic.
The free flowing air along Tel Aviv’s boardwalk was gone. There was no Mediterranean Sea to calm my nerves. As the bus continued along the winding narrow road, I wondered where Fahyim was taking us. It was nothing like Jerusalem. This new city was dark, dingy and decorated with trash piled high on both sides of the road. The Muslim call to prayer sang its song declaring the sovereignty of God. Though I could not understand the words, I prayed too. I prayed to be an extrovert because I wanted nothing more than to curl up in ball and retreat to the safety of my own mind. But there was no turning back. I was in a foreign land far from home surrounded by strangers. Solitude was not an option.I had no clue what to expect but whatever it is was, I vowed to carpe diem.
The bus’s brakes squealed as we stopped. I looked up. A large key atop a black metal gate came into view. “Welcome to Aida Refugee Camp.” Fahyim stood up and tried to prepare us. “As I said before, this is no ordinary tour, but the world needs to know what it’s like. It’s not like what you see on the media.” We stared at each other with worried eyes, gathered our bags and moved toward the front of the vehicle.
We exited the tour bus like a herd of cows, wandering about in a land that wasn’t ours. Fahyim whistled, raised his voice, told us to follow him and began the tour. “As you can see things here are different from what you see back home.” Abandoned kittens made their homes in piles of trash. Parentless children ran across the yard looking for food. Graffiti painted walls displayed the work of unnamed artists. Nothing about the place evoked thoughts of refugees. Everything looked and felt war, not refuge, happened here. “This is Bethlehem,” Fahyim continued as we walked past the watch tower that guarded the entrance to the camp. But once again, Israeli Defense soldiers armed with machine guns stopped us. It was the third checkpoint we’d encountered. We had only traveled 20 miles.
Fahyim removed his badge from around his neck as the soldiers approached him. “What is the purpose of your visit?” His green colored ID card easily identified him as Palestinian. He could be stopped anywhere at any time for any reason. It was one of the many luxuries of living under occupation. The tension was tangible.
Fahyim pointed at us with a defiant smirk. “I am a tour guide. What else could I be doing?” His eyes meet their with quiet defiance. A small war waged between them as they stared each other down. But as much as he hated the occupation, he was here to do a job. “I am showing these lovely people around.” He turned his body toward us and winked. We watched in silence, our passports in hand. After whispering to each other in Hebrew and verifying our passports, the soldiers moved to the side as we stepped foot into the supposed safe haven.
The inside of the camp looked like a homeless shelter. Large building made out of cement occupied most of the space. Teenagers standing outside stared us down as we walked through their home, feeling bad yet taking pictures. As pure as our intentions were, we were intruders, voyeuristic Americans with enough heart to feel empathy but not enough wealth to make a difference. Older women washed clothes by hand. Washed clothes were hung up on jerry-rigged clotheslines to dry. The very heat we’d complained about earlier was the community’s dryer machine. Younger woman in their twenties, hid behind small windows that were practically nonexistent. I watched them watch us. One by one, they peeked out from behind their curtains made from bed sheets. Outside, kids played with balls made of paper.
“Most of these families,” Fahyim said, nodding towards the ragged buildings, “have been here for more than 20 years. These people left their homes with the hope and expectation that they would return one day but they never did. Now, they live here—generation after generation.”
A young man in his thirties tapped him on the shoulders as he led us to another part of the camp.“Salaam, my brother.” With bright eyes and a wide smile, he turned toward us. “One of the best tour guides in all of Israel!” Fahyim laughed, shook his head and bowed.
“This is my good friend Ahmed. He works in Jerusalem but his family lives here. His family has four generations of history living in this camp. And today, he has invited us into his home. Yalla.” We followed Ahmed to the backside of the camp and up a narrow flight of stone stairs to the family’s small, but inviting rooftop. Fahyim urged us to go on the rooftop and take a picture. “This roof has the best view of the camp. It’s a shame its covered in trash.”
“We used to be able to see the Old City from right over there.” Ahmed pointed in the direction we’d just came from. “But then they built that ugly thing.” His eyes moved toward the watch tower. “But enough of politics. Let’s eat. My grandmother has prepared some tea, coffee and kunafa for us,” he said, directing us back down the stairs.
The small room could barely fit our entire group but Ahmed and his family welcomed us warmly, greeting us with kisses on the cheek, silent nods and sincere blessings. The dark room smelled of fresh baked bread, strong Arabic coffee and cheese. Fahyim pointed to an elderly woman sitting on a ripped couch behind us, “Ahmed’s grandmother makes the BEST kunafa!” Clapping her hands together softly and slowly, the woman bowed her head gently, welcoming us into her home. Shrukran we whispered in response. Her black hijab covered the majority of her caramel skin. “Sit, sit. She will show you how to make it now.”
Like magic, the woman began rolling the dough with ease. Her wrinkled hands moved rhythmically and steadily, stretching, slapping and molding the dough as if she were putting on some kind of show. “You cannot leave Palestine without having kunafa,” Ahmed said, kissing the tips of his fingers as if he were in Italy. Though we had yet to find out exactly what kunafa was, the Palestinian dessert seduced us with ease as Ahmed’s younger sisters handed each of us a plate of the traditional treat. As we subjected our taste buds to the unknown, we bit into the thin pastry hoping it was as good as they promised. It was. No. It was better than they promised. In between light, fluffy fresh bites of soft baked bread that tasted like cake, was a nice smooth layer of melted cheese. On top was a light syrup that reinforced the sweet amidst the cheese’s salt. It was decadent. Perfect. Savory. Sweet. Salty. Before we could even attempt to make the last bite last forever, Ahmed’s sisters offered us another piece along with aromatic tea and Arabic coffee.
“This is wonderful,” I managed in between stuffing my face. The food was so good and Ahmed’s family so nice I almost forgot I was sitting behind the separation wall in a refugee camp guarded by soldiers. I almost forgot that just outside the tiny window that was the only source of light, children played with trash that the U.N. forgot to pick up. I almost forgot that the very people that made me feel welcome were homeless. I almost forgot to notice the roof leaking water and the hand washed clothes spread across the cement floor. I wanted to help, to do something but I didn’t have the time. This part of the tour was over.
“Yalla.” Fahyim beckoned us out the front door and thanked his friends in Arabic. I looked back at the family one last time. Ahmed’s grandmother continued stretching the dough. Ahmed’s sisters thanked us for coming as though we did them a favor. Their children laughed and played with rubble from the building.
The group left the house in silence not sure how to respond. Not sure whether to feel overcome with sadness or inspired by resilience. As if he were reading our minds, Fahyim broke the silence. “Refugees are not sad. The conditions in which they have lived and oftentimes survived are sad. They are neighbors, just like Handala who you’ll meet in a minute.” Once again, we followed him through the camp. But instead of taking pictures, we tried to understand what we were seeing.
After a short walk, we arrived in front of a large painting. “Too many people forget the major truth about refugees. This is why this mural is so important,” he said, inviting us to take a closer look. The cold cement wall painted with bright colors made us smile. It was a small village made up of many men, women and children. An endless road lay behind them. The smiles on their faces however were covered by another painting painted on top of the first. Right in the center of the village people holding hands was an isolated figure. He had no face, no eyes, no smile. There was nothing to identify him except the Palestinian flag in his hand. “This is Handala—the lost neighbor.”
“The lost neighbor. Handala is the symbol of the Palestinian refugee.” I pulled my phone out of my pocket and wrote the name down on a blank memo. “He’s a cartoon created by Naji Al-Ali back in the 1970s. There’s a reason you never see his face. His back is always turned. He has no shoes and his clothes are worn down. His clasped hands are always behind his back. He is forever lost but he is still a child of the neighborhood. The Palestinian neighborhood.” He waited for it all to sink in for a moment. Handala and the mural. The two of them together. Juxtaposed against each other. The village and the village-less child. The lost neighbor.
“What can we do to help?”
“Educate. Tell other people about everything and everyone you saw here. Find the refugees in your own neighborhood. Being a neighbor is free.” I took one last picture of the mural, zooming in this time on Handala. As we exited the gates of Aida refugee camp, a small mural painted on the side of a tiny schoolhouse caught my attention. Someone had painted a picture of a fairly large butterfly with orange, yellow and blue wings. The antennas were lifted up as if were about to fly off the wall. Right above it, the following words were painted on the wall in black letters: “Here, only butterflies and birds are free.” Though I was far from being a refugee, I craved freedom for them just as much as I craved another piece of kunafa. More than that, I wanted to know more about the neighbors in my own backyard.
As the bus drove farther and farther away from the camp, the mural I’d just taken a picture of stared back at me. From a distance, I could have sworn Handala was waving at me, waiting for me to react, to respond, but I didn’t. I had no clue how to start doing what needed to be done. How could I educate others when I preferred reading over talking? Where would I meet refugees when my favorite places consisted of coffee houses, bookstores, thrift stores and random boutiques?
I racked my brain for answers, searching for solutions, possibilities and opportunities but every activist that came to mind was outspoken, outgoing and socially charged. I sat in the back of the bus with headphones in my ear, pretending I was listening to music, overthinking and overanalyzing. As the image of Handala faded into oblivion, my mind, overwhelmed and exhausted, succumbed to thoughts of freshly baked pita, my hotel room and the Mediterranean Sea.
“Please,” Fahyim pleaded as the bus continued down the road, “share these stories when you get home.” The setting sun cast an eerie shadow upon his face. “There is a proverb that is very popular among the Palestinians. Wishing does not make a poor man rich.” The sun set as the Muslim call to prayer played loudly throughout the city center. I bowed my head in reverence, praying for the refugees, knowing very well that prayers were only the beginning.
I pulled out my journal and started writing. One word stuck out in my mind: neighbor. I jotted down all the things that came to mind as I pondered the question: What does it take to be a good neighbor? Kindness. Time. Understanding. Relationship. Friendship. Shared meals and conversations. Listening. Watching out for one another. Caring enough to make the occasional sacrifice. Simple tasks I hoped could make a difference. I closed the journal just as the bus pulled up to the hotel by the sea. A soft wind rustled the palm-like trees aligned near the front door. It was Shabbat, the Jewish’ holy day of rest. But everything inside me was wide awake with anticipation, fear and relentless hope. Ready to embrace the world in all its extroverted form, I removed the headphones from my ears and decided to give it my all. After two weeks of exploring life in a foreign land, I was ready to return home.
“This is so you,” she said crashing down into the seat next to me, showing me a photograph she’d taken on her phone.I closed the book I was reading and gave her my full attention.
“What is it?” Her eyes beamed. Though we had been friends for a year, I always underestimated her energy level.
“It’s perfect. That’s what it is!” She took two large gulps of coffee, fluffed her red hair and took another sip of coffee. I grabbed her phone hoping to find the answer she was too excited to provide. It was something like a vision board. “You need to sign up like today. What in the world are you waiting on?”
“I’m waiting on you to tell me what it is!” I snatched the phone from her hands, laughed at her impulsive personality and shook my head at the same time. I enlarged the photograph hoping it would provide clarification, but all I saw was a poster board listing summer activities.
“I already agreed to get out more,” I sighed, trying and failing to hide my frustration.
“No, silly!” She snatched the phone back. “This isn’t about that.” She scrolled down to the bottom of the image and zoomed in once more. “There.” She pointed to the words, Generation Salaam. “It’s perfect for what you’re trying to do. You’ve been talking about it ever since your trip.” Still skeptical, she had my attention.
“Let me see it again.” She handed me the phone and we surveyed the picture together. Love culture? Want to make new friends? Come on out for Generation Salaam. She was right. It felt like the perfect opportunity. According to the image, Generation Salaam was a chance to meet refugee families. “Is this for real?”
“Realer than my red hair!” I laughed and shook my head. “That was your decision. But anyway, how did you find this?”
“Hunting for coffee just now. I was grabbing a cup of coffee when I saw ole handsome over there.” She pointed to a guy with long hair pulled back into a ponytail, khaki shorts and a pencil behind his right ear. “He’s probably a writer, right?” Clearly distracted, she took her hair down, combed it through with her fingers a few times and smacked her lips.
“Right. Now back to this poster.” I nudged her as she grabbed mascara out of her purse.
“Oh yeah.” She smacked her lips one last time, finished her coffee and promised to pay attention. “Well, I had planned to randomly walk in his direction, but then this poster caught my eye and I saw this ad about refugees and kids and culture and snapped a pic of it.”
“How are you so awesome and so all over the place at the same time?”
“It’s a gift,” she said, losing focus again as she surveyed the people walking past our table. “I just love the summer. So many people. So many shoes. So much reasons for caffeine.”
“Don’t forget to text me that picture.”
“Just did.” My phone vibrated on the metal forest green table. “Let’s get outta here. All this sunshine is making me want to explore something. I’ll drive. I’m sure you’ll be too busy looking up everything you can about Clarkston.” She gave me the side eye, knowing she was right. “Don’t ever say I haven’t done anything for ya.” Laughing and rolling my eyes at the same time, I grabbed my cup of tea and walked to her car.
As she turned on the radio, I couldn’t help but catch the irony as her iPod played the most convenient song for the time--one, two three/my baby don’t mess around/cause she loves me so/this I know fo sho. Despite the fact that that I thought the song was three volumes too high, I had to admit, she was an amazing friend. Her discovery, though initiated by distraction and flirtation, was right on time. I was more than grateful for my red-haired friend, even if she was addicted to coffee, over-the-top impulsive and way too concerned about finding the right guy.
I drove up to the brick building expecting it to be everything I anticipated. Cultured. Artistic. Colorful. Vibrant. Nostalgic and full of life. But at first glance, it wasn’t too promising. It looked like any other old church building planted in the middle of the city--small, worn down and oddly placed. But I promised to give it a try. A small sheet of paper with poor handwriting on the back door directed me where to go.
“Here for Generation Salam?” He was a tall guy with curly black hair, sunglasses and khaki shorts. “We had to change the location at the last minute. Sorry ‘bout that.”
“No worries. It happens.”
“Yeah. Fingers crossed no one gets lost.” He shrugged his shoulders, laughed, opened the door and lead the way. Though I tried not to show it, I was still a bit unsure about the whole thing. The small brick building and lack of organization didn’t help. But unlike the outside, the inside of the building was comfortable and inviting. Soft natural light filtered through the industrial yet homey interior. A group of young high school girls lounged in a room to the right of the entrance. Directly opposite them was a kitchen where a group of artists painted together. The entire space felt like a dormitory for close knit friends and families.
Before heading downstairs, Michael stopped in the newly renovated kitchen. “Can I get you something to drink? We’ve got Cola, water, tea, lemonade and some mystery stuff some of the high school kids made up. I can only imagine what that might taste like, but it’s in here if you’re up for the risk. We’re so glad you’re here by the way. It’s always nice meeting other activists ready and willing to labor for justice’s sake. He turned from the refrigerator to shake my hand. Not sure how to respond to his “activist” comment, I decided to get something to drink.
“Lemonade sounds great.”
“Cool.” He grabbed a lemonade and a Gatorade and continued showing me the way.
“We’re just down these steps and to the right.” The church basement looked and felt more like a place where artists went for sabbatical. The smell of authentic Italian pizza greeted me before I entered into the room. “Hope you’re hungry!” He grabbed a couple plates and introduced me to the group of volunteers.
It didn’t take long for me to recognize I was the one of the least experienced volunteers. I was also one of the oldest. One by one, chatty high-schoolers told me their names and explained that they’d been volunteering since freshman year.
“Feels like I’ve been doing this forever. But it’s totally worth it.”
“It’s just like so amazing, you know. Playing with the kids and building relationships.” I nodded, more focused on the types of the pizza that lined the long wooden table.
“Some of my best memories have been with Generation Salaam.” I nodded some more, less interested in talking and more interested in reserving one of the last slices of pepperoni pizza.
“It’s literally the best volunteer work ever. What kind of volunteer work have you done?” They more they chimed in and tried to me feel accepted, the more isolated I felt. But just as the temptation to return to my car grew, a young woman started walking towards me. Attempting to escape her path, I tried and failed to divert my eyes.
“Hi!” She removed her sunglasses and held out her hand. “I’m Michael’s wife, Sara.” Her smile, full of sunshine and sincerity, brightened the room. She leaned towards me. “I have to tell you, it’s so nice to have another young adult around here. Every year, the high schoolers take over and well, you can imagine, things get a little crazy.” She chuckled and then gave me that, you know what I mean kind of look. I knew exactly what she meant.
“We’ll be leaving in a few, but I’m so glad you’re here. She winked, grabbed a bite to eat and headed over to her husband Michael. Though I had no further information about what I’d gotten into, I was more excited than nervous for the first time. The time moment I’d been talking and dreaming about for three months, was less than 30 minutes away. My phone vibrated as the crew prepared for departure.
Sooo, how’s it going? Saving the world yet? I could hear the sound of Molly’s voice as I read her text. Sarcastic but hopeful, mixed with a little I-hope-this-works sass.
Nope. But I think I’m ready. A little nervous, but excited.
Don’t even stress about it. They’re probably just like you. A little nervous, but excited. As we piled into a large brown van, I hoped Molly was right.
“So, how’d you find out about Generation Salaam,” Michael asked, confirming the number of volunteers. His curly black hair, youthful smile and Olympic swimmer sunglasses made him look more like a camp counselor than a soon-to-be father and divinity student. “We’re always looking for new faces, but never really know how best to get the message out there. So we’re always interested to know how people find us.” He kissed his wife goodbye after rubbing her tiny belly. “She’s going to sit this week out and get some rest. Besides, we’ve got finals to study for.” He helped her in the car, made sure she had everything she needed and hopped in the van’s driver seat. “Forgive me I can ramble on sometimes.” He pulled the visor down, told us all to hang on and started the engine. “So, how you find out about us?”
“A friend saw an advertisement and told me about it. Not wanting to appear as antisocial as I felt, I quickly added, “we attend SCAD together and she knows I’ve been looking for this kind of activity.”
“Man, that’s awesome!” He was much more excited than I anticipated. His sporadic, shoeless driving, carefree attitude and Southern California meets Georgia accent reminded me of a modern-day hippie. He was cool, calm and collected but he was also talkative, ready to share life stories, political thoughts and a number of other things I preferred not to discuss. But as the van moved further along the road and the high-schoolers retreated to their cellphones, we settled on a topic we were both willing to discuss, Clarkston.
“It’s just an amazing place! Time Magazine called it the most diverse square mile in the world and believe it or not but I’ve learned so much about the world in Clarkston, much more than I ever learned in world history, social studies or geography!”
“It sounds amazing, but how can I really get connected with the city? With the families?” Michael chuckled and looked over at me as if he held the world’s greatest secret.
He hesitated. “Honestly, it’s the kids. Get connected with them and you’re in.”
I laughed. “Makes perfect sense. I can totally see that happening” I remembered the refugee children in Palestine. I remembered the hopelessness that filled their eyes like it was yesterday. I remembered the lost neighbor.
“Well, here we are,” Michael said as we passed the old “Welcome to Clarkston” sign. The sun shined brightly on the small city, shedding intentional light on the city’s diversity. Women adorned in bright colored hijabs walked the street with their children while older men of all different shades and ethnicities biked along the city’s narrow, but bumpy streets. Older Nepali women carried bags of fresh produce home on their backs as if they’d never left the native land.
Next door, Burmese women and children entered a bustling market with spices from all over the world. Across the street, African women from Sudan braided each other’s hair, sipped coffee and modeled their colorfully vibrant gowns. Time Magazine described it perfectly. It really was the world in a square mile. The smells of East Asia, West Africa and the Middle East combined and lingered in the air.
The Muslim call to prayer played softly from a small white building boasting the best halal pizza
“There’s a little bit of everyone here.”
“It does feel that way, doesn’t it?”
A group of Sudanese children caught our attention as they played with a small dog, commanding him to catch the stick in Arabic and then again in English. “Feels like I’m traveling every time I come here.” I knew exactly how he felt. It was the kind of place where people watching led to cultural discoveries and eavesdropping resulted in language learning. Though I still had a lot to learn, something about the atmosphere reassured me that this was the kind of place Handala would love to call home. “Hope you love kids.” He making a sharp left turn. “Because there’s a bunch of them right around this corner.”
“I have my moments,” I said laughing, “but there’s nothing like a little bit of quiet time to soothe the soul.”
“Well ready or not, here they come.” He turned into a tiny yellow apartment complex off a wooded street, parked the van and cut off the engine.
“Wait for it. Five. Four. Three...” and before he could finish counting the last two seconds, a stampede of children crowded the van, banging on the door, asking us to come out and play.
“Let’s play hoop,” an older girl said as she knocked on the van’s window and waved. Right next to her, a young girl jumped up and down.
“Look at me, look at how high I can jump!” I smiled. Her brown skin, big black eyes and soft curly hair made her look a Somali Barbie doll.
“Ready?” Michael looked at the crew, full of anticipation and high-level energy. It was obvious this was a part of his routine. “I said, are you READY?” The volunteers screamed back in unison. The kids outside the van hooped and hollered. He placed his hands on the door knob and counted down from ten. Just as eager, the kids counted with him.
“TEN! NINE! EIGHT! SEVEN! SIX! FIVE! FOUR! THREE! TWO! ONE! ZERO!” They yelled and screamed with unbridled energy. Michael swung the door opened and the volunteers jumped out of the van and ran towards the make-shift playground, the kids running behind them ready for hours of fun.
“Let’s hula hoop!” The tiny Somali girl handed me a pink hoop that flashed red when as it spun around my hips. After greeting him with a hearty as-salamu alaykum and a bear hug, the boys led Michael toward the basketball court. “It’s on,” the you girl challenged her brother as he joined the group headed to play basketball. But after he raced off toward the court, she turned to me. “It’s a competition. Girls versus boys. We hula hoop and they shoot hoops.” She picked up her hoop and started spinning, her pink hijab never leaving her head as she stopped spinning and jumped up and down.
“But basketball lasts much longer than hula hooping, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah.” She narrowed her eyes and leaned over as if she was going to tell me a secret. “But the boys never notice that. So when we’re tired of hula hooping, we just become cheerleaders.” She threw her hands up in the air and began to cheer, the hula hoop still swirling around her tiny waist as she moved back and forth with just enough rhythm to keep it going.
“So what is it about hula hoops you like the most” I asked, trying to keep the conversation going as I struggled to keep the hula hoop from falling. But unlike me, she was a pro, keeping both the hula hoop and conversation going with ease.
“I like to balance. Did I tell you I can balance on one foot?” Surrounded by the playful chaos of the field, she lifted one foot up off the ground and stood there gracefully awaiting applause. “See?” She paid no attention to the soccer ball flying through the air that barely missed her face. The ball rolled right up to a small Nepali child who stared at it with uncertainty and suspicion. His mother, young and energetic, encouraged him to pick it up and play with it. But as soon as he reached for it, a group of teenage boys grabbed it before he had the chance. Abeela remained unfazed. “What about you, do you know how to balance?” My first instinct was to say yes. I hesitated instead. “Well, do you?”
“I’m not sure.” I was either too serious or too random, too thoughtful or too impulsive. There was no in between. As meticulous as I was, balance was never one of my character strengths. “No, I don’t think I know how to balance very well.” As if it were a confirmation of my honesty, the hula hoop fell to the ground.
“It’s easy,” Abeela said, showing off her skills. Her hula hoop hadn’t touched the ground since we began playing. “You just gotta live it.” I laughed. “Well, That’s what my mama says.”
“I guess so,” I said, thinking out loud. “Just live it.” I watched the young Nepali mother try to convince her son to play with the other kids. But as much as she pushed and prodded, he refused, only taking interest in a toy once it appeared to be abandoned or alone.
“He’s a little bit like my brother,” Abeela said watching me watch the young Nepali family.
“Brother? Is your family close to his family?”
“Like neighbors? No, he is like my brother. They don’t have many friends.”
“Oh. I see.” I continued watching the young mother from a distance while still trying to focus on Abeela. “Oh no, your hula hoop,” I said, noticing it dropped to the ground.
“It’s ok. You’ve got to try, try, again.” She smiled and picked it up. Her wisdom shocked and disturbed me. Her snaggletooth smile and small stature convinced me should was no more than seven years old, but she spoke with the knowledge and life experience of someone more than five times her age.
“Let’s go see what the boys are up to” and with that, she skipped off toward the basketball court.
Tension surrounded the court like a NBA finals game. Abeela’s brother zipped from one side of the court to the other, bouncing the ball in between his legs. His mother stood in front of their apartment door, watching him and sipping coffee with the other Somali moms. Despite the steady stream of cars coming in and out of the parking lot, the complex felt more like a sports arena than anything. “Be careful, Malik. Somalia won’t find peace in a day.”
“What did she say?” I knew the Somali Civil War had been on-going for more than 30 years. I’d read about it not too long after returning home from Israel. Displaced by the war and left starving, more than 3.5 million Somalis were forced to leave. Even the “peaceful” parts of the country were overrun by suicide bombers attempting to overthrow the government. To make matters worse, in 2008, the head of the UN Development program in Somalia was killed by a ruthless gunman. Had there been recent talks of peace?
“Peace doesn’t come in a day. It means sometimes good things take a long time to happen. But Malik don’t like to wait. And he don’t like to talk to people.” As if his mother’s words were prophetic, Malik shot the ball, missed and stormed off the court mad and disappointed.
“Calm down, baba. Everyone misses from time to time.” Her voice was soothing and encouraging. She seemed like she didn’t have a care in the world. “Come, come,” she said inviting me to join her for coffee. “The kids will play all day.” Her neighbor’s baby slept quietly in her arms.
The roof of the apartment provided shade we all welcomed. “Malik don’t like the criticism.” Her accent strong and bold. “He don’t like to talk to the other people. He just play and play and play and get mad when he lose. But life is not so. Peace don’t come in a day. It takes time.” Malik sat on the concrete alone.
“Has he always been this way?”
“Oh yes. His teacher say he is intro-something.” She lowered her voice to just above a whisper. “He like to be by himself. But you have to talk. I tell him but he don’t like to do the listening.” She shook her head and threw her hands up in surrender.
“An introvert, mama” Abeela interjected. I smiled as she said the word. It was all too familiar. I lived it my entire life. “Him and that boy over there.” She pointed to the small Nepali boy. “They just different and it’s okay to be different.” I nodded and challenged her to another round of hula hoop. Malik paced the playground back and forth, the missed shot still on his mind.
“It can be hard sometimes. It’s not always as easy as it seems.” Malik’s and Abeela’s mother clearly disagreed.
“But it is so easy to do. All you have to do is get up in the morning and do it. Just get up and do it, you know? You have to tell your mind to do the thing and then your body will follow.”
As much as I didn’t want to admit it, she was right. Trying to put action to her words, I walked over, grabbed the ball and made the shot I knew I would miss. The children laughed. Malik looked up and shook his head. I tried and missed again. Entertained, the kids crowded the court once again, each attempting to show me the secret to making a “clean” shot.
“Like this,” one boy said, flexing his arm and wrist back and forth in a rhythmic motion.
“Jump a little when you shoot,” another suggested. Abeela cheered as I tried and tried again, eventually making a few “granny” shots. Right as I was leaving the court, Malik walked over.
“Try it like this.” He flexed his wrist forward as he mimicked the motion of making a shot, showing me how to hold, throw and release the ball. There was a science to it. I followed his instructions step by step. Like magic, the basketball met the net, hit the rim and went into the basket. The playground erupted in cheers and hearty laughter. Abeela and her friends cheered loudly. They spelled out Malik’s name letter by letter, clapping and jumping up and down. He stood frozen and yet proud, hiding his face behind his hands. I couldn’t help but join them.
“We love that M-A-L-I-K. We love that M-A-L-I-K,” they sang in unison until Malik’s skin turned a pinkish color. Girls hula hooped and boys surrounded him as the cheer grew louder and louder. Malik’s mother smiled from across the field. I was so busy watching her that I barely noticed when the cheer changed from Malik’s name to mine. I covered my face in my hands. This time, Malik joined the children as they chanted my name, clapping, jumping and hula hooping.
I leaned over and whispered in Malik’s ear. “Why didn’t you warn me? I hate these kinds of things.”
“Me too,” he said joining me in the center of the court. “But this happens every time someone hoops. It’s like a tradition around here.” We stood there together, introverts in an extroverted world—united by the game.
Michael gathered the volunteers as he told the children we were about to leave. “Told you it’s just about getting your hand dirty.”
“I guess so.” I thought back on everything that had happened. It was nothing like I expected, but everything I hoped for.
“You gonna come back next time right?” Abeela gave me puppy eyes as she stretched out her arms for a hug. “Next time we can have a bigger hula hoop competition. I can even make a scoreboard to keep track of the winner.” I could hear the excitement in her voice.
“Of course. I can’t wait.” Michael gathered the last of the items as Abeela gave me one more hug.
“Ready, when you are.” He dangled the keys, but assured me to take my time. “But no rush.” He waved goodbye to the boys and walked toward the van.
“Excuse me,” a quiet voice said as Abeela and I helped clean up the hula hoops. Shocked, I turned around. It was the young Nepali mother.
“You don’t know, but I live here.” She pointed at her front door. “My name is Muna. This is my son. He don’t like to play with the other kids like his sister. But I see you today on the field and the kids, they like you. So next time, maybe, when you come, you can play with my son too. Teach him to be play with the other kids and talk. The kids need to play together.” I remembered Abeela’s mom’s advice. Just get up and do. So despite my fear of failure, I smiled and answered her before my mind had time to over-analyze.
“Of course. I’d love to.” She smiled. Her son, shy and quiet, peeked from around his mother’s leg and smiled. I returned the favor, promising to return next week. As the van pulled out of the complex, my phone vibrated. It was Molly.
How’d it go?
Great. Can’t wait to tell you about it.
Awesome. And the kids? Like the ones you meet overseas?
Somewhat. But as crazy as it sounds, they were just like me.
The setting sun cast a beautiful shadow over the small town as the van slowly made its way back to the city. As the van chugged past the railroad tracks, the city disappeared underneath the shadow of the clouds like a hidden gem. Somewhere between exhaustion and excitement, my tired eyes caught a glimpse of what looked like Mother Nature embracing a group of children.
The smell of caramelized onions, sautéed vegetables and freshly picked chili peppers led me straight to her door.
“Come, come,” she said, pushing the door open with her elbows. “I make Nepali food for you to try. You eat hot or no? Nepali people love to eat hot. Even my babies. They eat the chili pepper all the time.” She handed her three-year-old son a pepper from her garden. He ate it without flinching, offering me the stem as if it were it edible too.
“Shuda,” he said, referring to the nickname he’d given me, “I share with you.” He was tall and quiet like his father, but determined to have his way like his mother. “Shuda, take.” He waved the stem in front of me. His mother, young and vivacious, laughed as she watched the impromptu show-down.
“He like you so much. He never like to play with anyone, but every day he ask me Shuda come today?” She pulled her long red hair into a ponytail. Her brown skin, minimal makeup, ripped jeans and gold hoop nose ring reminded me that, despite our cultural differences and lifestyles, we were the same age. She left Nepal for the same reasons most refugees do: war, famine and poverty. Deemed a single mother with two young children, she arrived in the United States an entire year before her husband.
Despite excelling in school back home, she was only qualified to find work as a maid or factory worker, but there in the midst of her tiny kitchen, she flourished, moving gracefully from stove to table to refrigerator to the makeshift home garden she grew in front of her apartment. “You like momo?” She held the plate high above her shoulder with one hand. I complimented her skills.
“Look at you, holding that plate like a genie!” She laughed.
“You so silly. In Nepal, we hold the plates like this” She grabbed the plate with both hands and gently placed it on the crown of her head. “I used to carry water like this from the well to my mother all the time when I was a little girl.” Her red, green and gold colored harem pants, flip flops, and sari-like top made her look more Indian than she would ever admit. “It’s really good. Just try it.” She placed the plate on the table and pulled out a chair for me.
“What does it taste like?” I stared at the light brown dumpling. Pale and rubbery, it wasn’t the most appetizing thing I’d seen on a plate, but Muna insisted I try it.
“Nepali food is very good,” she said, her accent thick and heavy. “I steam it, but I can fry it if you want.” She pulled out an old frying pan and some oil, wiping sweat from her forehead. “The fried food is not good for you, but it tastes so good. Want something to drink while you wait?” She moved quickly, never taking a moment to slow down. “I will bring you some water just in case.” It was obvious she was accustomed to keeping the people in her house happy, even at her own expense. “My husband like it fried and steamed. I will cook both kind for you.” She raced the kitchen like a madman, attending everyone, but herself. Despite my apprehension, I felt obligated to stay and eat. She worked so hard to host me. The least I could do was return the favor and try her food.
“Ok, ok, I will try it,” I said picking up the dumpling. The entire family watched closely, waiting until I took the very first bite. It was warm and soothing.
“Good? You like?” Muna waited with her hands on her hip. I took another bite. I nodded, letting the assortment of flavors seduce my taste buds. It tasted like stir fry wrapped in a thin steamed wonton. “I put veg-e-ta-bowls in it because my babies.” She pointed to her two kids, sitting at the table with their father. They waited patiently as she cooked, shuffling around the kitchen with magical grace. “I make it all from my garden. My husband brother brought the chicken over this morning,” she said, showing me the feathers in her sink. “The kids always want to see when I have to cut the head off.”
“Wow.” It was the only word I could manage in between my taste testing and poultry viewing. But with my mouth half-full I managed to ask for more food. “More momo?” The family laughed as I grabbed another dumpling from the shared plate in the center of the table. But I felt no shame. My taste buds demanded another momo. A bit braver this time around, I decided to indulge myself fully and tried the yellow-orange dipping sauce Muna placed next to the plate of momo. I regretted it the second after the sauce made contact with my tongue. It was like sriracha and wasabi combined.
Muna noticed my reaction right away. “Oooooh. It’s too hot!” She grabbed a glass of water for me while her son laughed uncontrollably.
“Pani, pani,” he sang. His sister chimed in too, reciting the Nepali song like I recited the alphabet when I was her age. The water provided temporary relief as Muna explained the kid’s outburst in song.
“In Nepal, pani is the water,” she said pointing to the glass on the table. I took another sip. Already familiar with American technology, the kids rushed to the living room and found the song on YouTube. As the music played in the background, the old wooden front door squealed and an older woman entered the hallway, removed her sandals and walked toward the kitchen as though she lived there.
“Namaste.” Muna bowed, clasping her hands together as though she were praying. After hugging and exchanging a few Nepali words, the elderly woman sat down at the table and enjoyed some momo. I’d never seen her before, but she acted as though she were a part of the family, hugging the children and making herself at home, moving from the kitchen to the table to the couch without hesitation.
Proud to introduce me, Muna walked me over to where the woman sat and explained my presence to the woman in Nepali. I assumed she said I was a family friend, but the woman’s response made me wonder about the exact words Muna used to describe me.
“You Christian?” Shocked and unprepared, I pretended not to have heard her question properly.
“You Christian” she asked again, clearly and slowly, emphasizing the word.I hesitated, unsure if I should offer explanation or remain quiet.
“Yes, but...” The word was so loaded with political incorrectness, self-righteousness and judgement. I hesitated categorizing myself with such a label. But I did believe. Uncomfortable, I stood there, unveiled and vulnerable. I had not come to discuss to religion or politics, I only came to learn, play with the kids and get to know Muna on a deeper level, but this woman, unknown and seemingly uninvited, unraveled the entire visit with two words. But right as I started over analyzing the situation, she nodded her head and smiled.
“It is good to for us to come together. You like the momo?” She pushed the plate toward me, exchanging a few Nepali words with Muna. “It is good to eat and talk.”
“It is, isn’t it? And yes, the momo is very good.” I sat back down at the table for a third helping of Nepali dumplings. Still not quite sure to say, I decided to be brave.
“And you?” I assumed she was but questioned my assumption at the same time. She smiled but did not answer. She chewed rhythmically and slowly, the crunch of the cabbage and the seasoning of the chicken to consume her. Wiping the juice from around her mouth, she turned toward Muna.
“Very, very, good Muna.” She dipped her second momo in the spicy sauce. “The dumping,” she said looking my way, “is like people. We are the same but come with different seasonings and sauces. Some are fried, hard and crispy and some are steamed, soft and flexible,but it is all still momo.”
“But yes,” she said, returning to my question, “I am a believer in many things.” She took a bite out of another momo. The lines in her thin neck stretched and contracted as she chewed. She was fragile and yet strong, quiet and mysterious. Her grey hair and tired eyes revealed her age, but sharp and alert.
“And it’s okay,” Muna chimed in. “It is okay for the Buddhist people and the Hindu people and the Christian people to be together. It is okay for the black people and the brown people and white people to live together.” I nodded, agreeing with their wisdom while laughing at their grammar. “When the people don’t live together or like each other, the war happen. That’s why so many refugees are here.”
“Yes, I know.” I was fully aware of all the wars caused by labels, categories and other areas of distinction. “But we are all human.”She closed her eyes and smiled as if the words were a sweet scent. “We are all worthy of,” I began as the woman opened her eyes and did the unexpected. Fragile and delicate, the woman eased out of the chair and turned toward me like a mother would a young child, smiling. Despite her shallow breaths, her crooked teeth, wrinkled skin and tired eyes embodied the warmth of the sun as she took my hands into hers, squeezing them as tightly as she could. Not sure of the appropriate cultural response, I sat there, amazed, intrigued and uncomfortable. As she let my hands go, she clasped hers together and lowered her head. With her head uplifted, she took another step toward me, looked me in the eye and whispered a quiet, calm and prayerful “namaste.” Before I had time to orchestrate a response, I followed her example and said the same.
“Namaste.” We stood there, honoring each other, despite our differences, smiling like life-long friends. She glanced over at the table. There was one momo left. She grabbed it, ripped it in half and handed the other half to me, lifting her half of the dumpling up in the air and started laughing.
“Everybody like the momo.” She made her way to the door, slipped on her sandals with ease and with a sudden burst of energy turned toward me. “Nice to meet you,” she hesitated, waiting for me to say my name.
“Shuda,” Muna’s son shouted, running from the living room to the door. She kissed him on the forehead and disappeared into the sunlight. I followed Muna into the kitchen.
“Is she a part of your family?”
“All the Nepali people are family. You my family too. You come to my house and play with my babies. Eat food. That is what the Nepali people do. That is what make it a family.” Her high-pitched voice emphasizing her accent. At a loss for words, but encouraged by their blatant acceptance of me, I grabbed the remote and typed in the infamous song from earlier in the evening.
As the Nepali dancers partied along the beach shore singing, pani, pani, pani, pani, I thought about the blessing of resources. I never lacked water, food, shelter or clothing, but I’d lived my entire life lacking community. But they didn’t mind my lack of words, fear of momo, or cultural ignorance. They accepted me as their own, sharing their food, embracing my beliefs and teaching me the principle of namaste. Offbeat and lacking rhythm, I danced with Muna and her children, grateful for the family I never knew I had.
The parking lot of Muna’s apartment complex looked like a Moroccan bazaar. A group of Nepali women exchanged fruits and vegetables they’d grown in their make-shift gardens. Middle Eastern women huddled together, their colored hijabs forming an unintentional rainbow as they chatted in Arabic. Sudanese women sat outside braiding hair and sharing a large plate of rice and beans. Their coffee, strong and sweet awakened my senses as I walked up to Muna’s door.
Joyce, Muna’s Sudanese neighbor, watched me as she braided a young girl’s hair. “You look for Muna, my sista? She not here.” She gripped the girl’s hair tightly. “I see when you come to her house, but she not home today. Her baby sick.” She dipped her index finger in a jar of cream and rubbed the braid together in the palm of her hand. Finishing the braid, she took a sip of coffee.
“What? Hospital?” I checked my phone for a text message or missed phone call. I had just talked to Muna the day before.
“I don’t know. But her smallest baby,” she said, looking up over her small cup of coffee, “is always sick.” Her accent was as thick and robust as the coffee she drank. “I was washing the clothes this morning and then they just rushed out. The whole family. Muna was holding the baby. He was shaking a lot in her arms. Then they left. Been gone all morning.” I was speechless. I grabbed my phone and did the only thing I could think to do.
“Ello?” Muna’s voice was much calmer than expected.
“Hello. Joyce told me that Rewash was sick. Is everything ok?”
“Oh yes. He have seizure all the time. Are you at my home?” Her question caught me off guard.
“Are you at my home. We are at the hospital but doctor say he is ok. We will be home soon. I will make you food and you can see him.”
“Umm...yeah...ok.” I wasn’t sure whether to feel excited, nervous or concerned.
“Okay. I see you soon.” The Sudanese women watched me closely, waiting for an update. “He’s ok. They are on the way home.” I imagined the playful boy in his mother’s arms, shaking uncontrollably. I had just talked to him the night before. He asked to play kickball at the park while his sister demanded a picnic instead. They were supposed to help me make momo and. Rewash and his father were going to play kickball while the women cooked. But as the severity of the situation captured my thoughts, the conversation seemed ages ago.
“Sit down and have some coffee, my sister” Joyce said, filling the empty space with kindness. “It might be a while. When the babies get sick, it’s like the moon don’t shine and the earth don’t spin.” She watched her four children play across the field, finishing another braid. “Here,” she said, handing me a small cup of black coffee.
“Eat whatever you like.” She pushed a large plate toward me. The other woman shook their heads yes, inviting me to join them their communal meal. But Joyce recognized my hesitation. “You don’t like African food my sister? Lost for words once again, I provided the best explanation I could think of.
“I just don’t know what anything is.” Everything on the plate was brown. There were brown beans, brown rice and some kind of brown meat, chopped up in rectangular shapes. But the center of the plate frightened me most. What seemed to brown, lumpy mush in a white bowl was very popular among the women. A fresh loaf of warm bread was they only thing I recognized.
Joyce laughed at my reasoning. “Oh my sister just say that. I will tell you what it is.” She kept on braiding with focus and determination, twisting, dipping her fingers in cream and twisting some more.
Her fingers moved like a spider’s leg, weaving one thread in, another out and wrapping the last one around the other two. She had a rhythm and the ladies marveled as the final style started to take shape.
“It’s just beans and rice and meat, you know, like the beef meat from the cow.” I nodded, still unsure frightened by the lumpy mush in the middle of the plate. The more the women dipped their bread and meat in it, the more unappealing it seemed. It looked like a mix of gravy gone wrong and baby food. “Ohhhhhhhh,” Joyce said after watching me watching the women eat for a few minutes, “the mash is more of the beans. A different kind of bean. It is seasoned and mashed and made like a sauce to dip the bread in. It is good for you my sister. Try it.” She ripped off a piece of bread and handed it to me.
“If you insist.” Embracing Clarkston meant embracing food. She nodded.
“I insist.” I had no choice but to surrender, the women watching me in quiet anticipation. Joyce stopped braiding and wiped her hands on her skirt. “Good, good. You want the spoon or you want to eat Sudanese style?” One by one, the women ripped off a piece of bread, dipped it the mashed beans and grabbed a piece of meat. It was beautiful and terrifying, communal and somewhat unsanitary. I had never shared a meal in such a way.
“Sudanese style,” I said, hoping I wouldn’t regret my choice later on. Joyce smiled as she finished the last of the braids. I took the bread she gave me and dipped it in the mashed beans. It was warm and heavy but seasoned well.
“You like?” She watched my face for any sudden reactions.
“It’s ok. I just don’t like the texture of it.” I took a sip of coffee, hoping it would wash the mashed beans down.
“Okay. No problem,” she said elongating the words with a smile. “I will make you some American food.” She stood up from her chair and headed toward her front door.
“Oh, no, no. That’s ok. I am fine. The meat is good and I love the rice and this coffee.”
I held the cup up with gratitude. Without hesitation, she poured me some more. It was sweet, tangy and strong enough to leave a light brown film on my teeth.
“Oh yes. The Sudanese coffee is the best,” she said, finishing the last braid of the young girl that sat in between her legs on a stack of pillows. “We like it very strong and very sweet.”
“I see.” The last sip slide down my throat like melted dark chocolate, rich, creamy and a little bitter.
“You natural?” She looked at my hair as she dipped the end of the young girl’s braids in hot water. Taken aback, I reached for my messy bun, remembering how little care I put into it that morning. It was dry, coarse and in need of some serious tender love and care. She observed it from all sides. “It’s thick and beautiful and long. And you have so much of it.”
Her careful observation made me nervous. I was still learning all the rules to the natural hair care world. It was part science, part artistry, lots of creativity, time consuming and somewhat exhausting. I had no clue whether I was doing a great job or not. My entire ritual included YouTube tutorials, product recommendations from friends and trial and error. I was more than grateful for any kind of compliment.
“Thank you. It’s a lot of work. I used to wear it straight every day.”
“Oh no sister. The heat is not good for our hair. Straight hair is not good. Curly and kinky is best. That’s how it should be.” Though not entirely convinced, I smiled.
“Yeah but it takes so much time. I have work and school,” I said gearing up to list the thousand and one reasons why being natural was too much work. But Joyce wasn’t having it.
“Let me braid for you my sister. They last a long time.” Her accent was just as I expected, part Arabic and part French. “So you won’t have to worry about your hair.” She threw her arms up in the air. “What you say? You let me braid your hair or no? All the other ladies nodded. I hesitated, intrigued by the offer, but without a single point of reference. I had never worn extensions and had no idea how to take care of braids.
“I don’t even know what kind of hair to buy.”
“Oh. Don’t worry sister. I got some hair upstairs. I keep it because all the Sudanese women come to me for the braids. We can start while you wait for Muna. When she come, I tell her you at my house and she can come to see you here.” She motioned for her oldest daughter to get the hair and removed the hair tie that held my bun together. “You going to be so beautiful. You will like I promise.” She finished the young girl’s braids, grabbed the twisting cream and invited me into her home.
Her apartment was much different than I expected. The animal print rugs combined with the lush purple pillows decorating her couch looked like a New York fashion designer’s quirky collaboration. Something like Safari 2.0 or Jungle Wealth. But Joyce was a traditional as could be. Despite being driven out of her country as a result of the war for South Sudan, she loved and maintained her culture as best as she could.
Tall and thin, she resembled a model as she glided across the kitchen floor, her brightly colored shimmering dress wrapped tightly around her body, the tail end tossed over her right shoulder. Despite being a single mother of five, she never rushed while walking. Her stride was slow and steady, controlled and meticulous, no matter how crazy her life had been. Her husband, less than a year after arriving on US soil, decided he no longer wanted to be with her and moved to Decatur. “I try to divorce him but he refused to sign the papers,” she said as she made another round of coffee and prepared to braid my hair.
Her youngest daughter, Leah, less than a year old, crawled over to her mother, her big brown eyes smiling, fighting for her mom’s attention. She hit her mother playful with a small toy, laughing as drool dripped from both sides of her mouth. Despite the exhaustion in her eyes, Joyce smiled, pick up her baby girl, poured us both another cup of coffee and lead the way toward her living room. “Come, come. I start on your hair now and the other ladies will come help after they feed their husbands and family.”
“It’s ok. Don’t worry about it.” I felt bad for her. She was a woman scorned, a drained mother and an exhausted factory worker. The last thing I wanted was to waste her time. Besides, I was scared. I’d never worn braids before and I certainly didn’t want an overly exhausting woman gripping the ends of my hair. “I don’t want you to be too tired.”
“I’m ok,” she said smiling, her pale yellow eyes telling a different story. “I want to do it for you my sister. In Sudan it is a time for women to get together.” She sat Leah down gently and put some clothes in the dryer. “I’ll be right there,” she said, stirring dinner and making sure her three boys were doing their homework. I wondered how different her life was in Sudan.
“What did you like to do in Sudan? Like, for work?”
“I work many jobs. Whatever is available I take it.” She checked over her son’s homework and ran Leah’s bath at the same time. “Can you help my son to read? He is very smart but don’t study so his reading is not good.” She peeked out from the bathroom, waiting for my response.
“Thank you my sister. The men are so different from the women. They want this and that but they don’t listen. He is so much like his father,” she said, moving from the bathroom to the kitchen.
She carried a large tray of fruit into the living room. “This is for you. The other ladies will be here soon and then we can start your hair.” I’d never seen someone so tired be so giving.
The calluses on her hands said all the things she didn’t as she delicately placed the tray on the small wooden coffee table in the center of the small, dark room. “I am so glad you are here,” she whispered, more to herself than me.
“Me too.” With no more to say, we let our sips of coffee lessen the silence.
The knocks on the front door sounded more like the police than a group of friends, but Joyce walked over to the door confidently, greeting each of the ladies with a soft but raspy wa alaikum salaam. Whether we were ready for it or not, the party had begun.
“Why you don’t play no music,” Ruth, the only Nigerian of the bunch, said, moving her wide hips to an invisible beat. “You can’t braid no hair without good music. The two go...” she hesitated, looking at me to fill in the blank.
“Hand in hand.”
“That’s right. Thank ya sister. I can never remember the way you Americans say it. The people at my job always laughing at me but I tell them baby, I am from Nigeria.” She emphasized the word as she said it. Less than a minute later, she found one of Joyce’s old radios, put in a cd and turned the radio up. “You know P. Square?” She looked down at me as Joyce started braiding my hair.
“P Square? I don’t think so,” I said, holding my head as still as possible.
“Whaaaaaaaaaat? He is the best Nigerian R&B singer around.” She swayed her hips across Joyce’s dark living room, moving to the beat.
The other women in the room laughed as Ruth continued dancing. There was no doubt her personality was larger than life.
“She do this every single time,” one of the women said.
“You know the Nigerians just love all the attention” another said as Ruth gyrated back and forth. Her large stature, brightly colored African print traditional dress made her look like a fashion icon. The way she moved across the floor twisting, turning and two-stepping over Leah made her look like one of Hollywood’s biggest music stars on stage. She was part Lupita Nyong’o and part Beyoncé all at the same time. If she hadn’t said so, I would have never guessed she was the mother of two teenage boys.
“You betta not let Abayomi see you dancing like that,” the women teased.
“Oh he already know how I do,” she said, not skipping a beat. “How you think we got the two boys we have now?”
“You keep moving like that you gonna have a third.”
“I betta not. They eat me outta of a house and home now. I cook all day long they eat so much. Mama, I want this. Mama I want that,” she said with her hands on her hip. “I never say it, but sometimes I want to tell them, boy shut up and eat what I cook you.” The women laughed and nodded.
“The men never stop needing. They need food. They need sex. They need clean clothes.” “And they want us pretty too,” Ruth said.
“Oh yeah. We got to be beautiful. All the time. Ain’t that right sister? Don’t matter whether you American or African, all the men want the women to be beautiful.”
“Oh yeah,” the young nursing mother chimed in. “I tell my husband I want to go natural and he look at me like I was a crazy person. But I did it anyway and now he love it. They don’t know.”
“They don’t know,” the women repeated at the same time, their accents bold and beautiful. They took turns braiding my hair and talking, relishing each other’s presence.
“Listen,” Ruth said, “I marry my husband 12 years ago. It was so long ago and I didn’t think we was gonna make it, but the secret is to love him when he stupid like you love him when he smart. And he love me when I’m stupid too.” Besides,” she said, stopping dancing for a moment, if he don’t, he gonna starve!” She slapped her thighs and threw her head back as she laughed. “Yall know I’m crazy, but I meant it though.”
“I think,” Joyce said, “it’s about not giving up. Every day is different. But no matter what happen, you got to say, I won’t give up.” The weight of her words brought a somberness to the room. With the threat of divorce looming over her and her family, the words were heavy, powerful and full of truth.
Ruth spoke seriously this time. “But sometimes, you’ve got to let it go. Anger and madness are brothers and you cannot build a house for last year’s summer.” Silence embraced the room. We all knew Ruth thought of Joyce’s marriage as over. We also knew Joyce prayed for her husband to come home. It was the kind of situation that invited division and uncertainty.
A knock on the door interrupted our thoughts and granted relief from the tension in the room. It was Muna.
I jumped up from the stack of pillows I was sitting on. “Is he okay?”
“He have a seizure. Doctors say he okay, but he have to take medicine and we have to go back. He sleeping now.” The dark lines underneath her eyes said it all. It was a side of her I had not yet seen. Panicked. Frightened. And uncertain. “You come to my house?”
“Of course,” I said attempting to stand up and go next door, but Joyce’s strong grip reminded about the braids I had completely forget about.
“How long it take to finish your hair?” Muna was usually patient, but exhaustion made her moody. “My baby want to see you now,” she said, emphasizing the word.
“Not long,” Joyce remarked. “But you can stay here until I am finished. Bring your kids too. I have milk and cookies and fruit for you to eat and the kids can play with each other.”
“No, no, it’s okay.”
“Just stay.” Joyce grabbed a chair for Muna and her kids. “You like coffee,” she asked, ignoring Muna’s shaking head. “I will make you some tea then. Bring your babies too. They can lay down on my couch and rest. In Sudan, when you live close to someone, they are family.”
“Okay, but I can’t stay long. My husband will be looking for me and I have to cook for him before he goes to work.”
“That is no problem,” Joyce laid out a small blanket for Muna’s son. “You can put him here,” she said, pointing to the makeshift bed.
“Thank you.” Muna nudged her children toward Joyce’s tiny apartment. The Sudanese women nodded as Muna and her children walked through the door. “I never come to an African house before.”
“It’s just like any other house,” Ruth said. “The people are what make it a home.” I watched as Joyce, Muna and Ruth shared life stories, traumatic memories and their hopes and dreams. They talked about their children, their fears, their favorite native and American foods. They shared how hard it was to get and keep a job and the secret to keeping their husbands happy.
“I tell you one thang,” Ruth continued, “it’s as hard being a woman as it is a refugee.”
“Aint that the truth,” Joyce said.
“It’s true. The women people got to keep moving. We don’t stop.” Ruth waved her hand in the air as a testament to Muna’s statement. Muna nudged me as Joyce finished the last braid.
“Why you so quiet?” “Huh?”
“Why you so quiet? The three of us talking so much and you just sit there so quiet.”
“I’m just listening and thinking?”
“Thinking about what,” Ruth asked.
“The three of you. Laughing. Sharing stories and memories. It’s good to see. It’s beautiful.
“Just like your hair,” Muna said.
“Yes.” Just like my hair I thought to myself. It hadn’t thought of it before, but she was right. Just like the braids, the lives of these three women had come together and formed something beautiful.
“I haven’t talked this much since my husband left,” Joyce said bluntly. The weight of her comment hit home. Though I had seen her nearly every day I visited Muna, I never knew her story. I had never experienced the depth of her exhaustion or heard the pitch of her laughter. It was all new to me. But her need for company was all too familiar. She sought the same things Muna, Ruth and I sought. Companionship. Understanding. Support. I’d heard the expression “a three strand cord is not easily broken” a million times, but the weight of the braids made it real. “This will seal the ends so they don’t unravel,” Joyce explained as she dipped the ends of my hair in hot water.
“Is that how it works? Sealing the ends?”
“Oh yes,” Ruth chimed in. “Hot water will let you know if they braids are done right. If so, the three strands of hair will bind tightly to each and hold perfectly. If not, it will all come apart.”
“Yes,” Joyce said, “but tonight was done right. These will hold.” She looked each of us in the eye. As we all packed up to go our separate ways, I hugged each of them tightly.
“You are beautiful.”
“You too. Namaste,” Muna said, picking up her son and walking her daughter to her apartment next door. Ruth was next, dancing and laughing, sipping the last of her third cup of coffee.
“You too sister. Be sure to tell my husband that when I take out this hair,” she laughed loudly. Joyce just shook her head. Out of all of us, Ruth was the most animated.
“Need some help cleaning up?” Joyce stood at the door and waved goodbye to Ruth who strutted down the street, whistling.
“No, no. I got it. You have a long ride home, yes?”
“Yes, but I...” Joyce interrupted me.
“I am ok,” she said trying to convince me it was true by emphasizing the word.
“You’re beautiful and strong,” I hugged her once more.
“Just like those braids my sister.”
“Yes, just like these braids,” I said getting in my car, the weight of the wet braids dripping with the night’s memories.
Sweat trickled down my forehead, onto my nose and cheeks and past my chin. My eyes, tightly closed, replayed the scene over and over like an old cinema reel. Pop. Pop. Pop. The sound was as clear as the night it really happened. Pop. Pop. Pop. Tiny balls of light illuminated the night sky. But there was no wishing upon a star. Just whispered prayers for safety and survival instead.
As the reality of the night’s events replayed in my mind, my body froze with fear as I grabbed my sheets, praying for it stop. I could almost taste the smell of gunpowder that polluted the air that night. A suffocating mix of sulfur and fireworks gone wrong. No one saw it coming, but then again, we had no clue what had been going on. We were just tourists in a land far from home, ignorant of our surroundings and culturally unaware. Bum-rushed by memories, my eyes opened without permission. Surrounded by darkness, my bedroom felt less like home and more like the place I was two years ago. I stared at the ceiling deep in thought. It reminded me of the pitch black sky that covered the Middle Eastern border that night. The silence reminded me of the fear. It was a beautiful day gone wrong, a nightmare come true.
We had just left Golan Heights near the Syrian border where the doctor at the medical clinic told us about the water issues.
“There are so many problems in Yisrael,” he began. “We can’t even provide basic healthcare,” he said, explaining the way Israelis controlled the amount of water Palestinians receive weekly. Despite the despair in his voice, he was a humanitarian at heart, dreaming, wishing and praying for peace. “Sometimes we don’t even have enough water to wash our patients or clean our supplies. But we are all human. We bleed the same. And we can heal the same.” He tried and failed to hide the burden of unfulfilled promises. Our visit with him was sobering and yet promising.
Despite the overwhelming obstacles he faced, the passion in his voice gave us hope. “It does not have to be like this. There is a better way. But you have to remember that we are more of the same than we are different.” I’d never heard a doctor speak so poetically. Wishing us life and peace, he gave us apples from his mother’s garden. “I hope the rest of your trip is fruitful like the apple. I hope what you have seen here can grow into something beautiful.” We thanked him and promised to share his story.
We returned to the bus somber but hopeful. I found my seat, grabbed my phone, put my earbuds in my ear and pressed play on the playlist I had just finished compiling. I titled it “Change.” Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” started to play.
As the sun set, we stopped on the side of the road to eat our apples under a lavender and burnt orange sky. But by the time we arrived at our destination, the sun had already set and something was going terribly wrong. Rhythmic popping sounds interrupted the silence as we took the first bites of our apples. Caution and motherly, Maureen was the first to notice. “What is that?” And where is it coming from?”
“Over there!” David, a war vet pointed north-east toward the Syrian-Israeli border. “It sounds like gunfire.” He listened closely. “Yeah, that’s gunfire alright. I could recognize that sound anywhere.” Though we were miles away from danger, most of us had never been so close to death, never heard the sound of bullets being fired into the air or scud missiles searching for a target. It was terrifying, nerve-wracking and mesmerizing at the same time. The men, women and children rushing from their homes in the middle of the night didn’t cross my mind. It was too sudden, too real and too devastating. We stood there with half-eaten apples in our hands, unaware that we were watching the Syrian civil war take place. The pseudo-laser show continued lighting up the night sky, like fireworks gone mad.
With one ear bud firmly placed in my left ear, Michael Jackson’s song reminded me of the doctor’s call to action. I’m starting with the man in the mirror. I’m asking him to change his ways. But what could a 25-year-old black woman do in the face of a Syrian civil war? I still had trouble grasping the weight of my own country’s civil war. My breathing slowed as I laid in bed, trying to regain my bearings. I was home, safe in the comfort of my own bed. My heart raced.
I grabbed my phone to look at the time but the blinking blue LED light caught my attention first. I had one missed call from Muna. She left a voicemail. My heart still pounding, I sat up as best as I could, grabbed the phone and hit the “call voicemail” button. Her message was only 15 seconds long.
Ello? Sarita? It’s Muna. My baby in hospital. Can you come? The sound of her frightened voice echoed in my mind, the word hospital lingering the longest and terrifying me the most. Her son had seemed to be recovering from his seizures, but the sound of Muna’s voice suggested worse. Worried and exhausted, I returned her phone call.
“Muna? I got your message. What is going on? Is he ok?” I felt around the end table for my glasses.
“I don’t know. They tell me something but I don’t know. The lady talk so fast so I don’t know what she tell me.” The worry in her voice made me even more nervous.
“Where are you?” I found my glasses and managed to the turn a lamp on.
“The hospital for babies.”
“Which one?” I hopped out of bed, trading my pajamas pants for sweatpants.
“The one near you,” she said though she had never been to my house. I hesitated. There weren’t any children’s hospitals near my house. The closest one was on Johnson Ferry, more than 30 minutes away. She noticed my hesitation. “I take picture and send to you. Can you come?”
“On my way,” I said, sliding my bare feet into a pair of ballet flats conveniently placed near the door to my bedroom. “I will call you when I get there.”
“Okay. I send you photo. Please call when you are close.”
“I will.” My phone vibrated as soon as I hung up the phone. I opened her text message. It was the hospital on Johnson Ferry road.
Somewhere in between exhaustion and distress, I grabbed my keys, started the engine and made my way down the quiet streets.
I arrived at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite more than 30 minutes later.
The somewhat full parking lot made me wonder how many sleep deprived parents had been rushed out of bed with a sick child. Not sure if it was better to text or call, I sent Muna a short text letting her know I had arrived at the hospital.
Come to room, she texted back immediately, sending me the room number in another message. As I walked toward the hospital’s revolving doors, I felt just as hopeless as I did the night I watched the Syrian civil war. I had no clue how to help, what to say or even what to do when I arrived. But the memories of that night continued to remind of the simplicity of the Michael Jackson’s wisdom. Start with the man in the mirror. Change your ways. There was only one thing I could change—making the night about me. So, as I pushed the doors opened, I vowed to make the night about Muna and her family. Whatever they needed, I would do my best to provide. Still unsure, I said a quick prayer for wisdom, advice, peace and strength. Though I didn’t think of it at the time, I should have prayed for patience as well.
The woman sitting behind the desk looked up from her magazine.
“Hi, I’m here to see Muna Rai.”
“What’s the date of birth?” Muna and I had never talked about her birthday. It was always the kids’ birthday she talked about. I tried to explain the situation.
“I’m not exactly sure but...” The woman stopped me.
“I need the first and last name of the person you’re here to see and their date of birth.” “Right. But I’m not sure who’s name the room is under. Her son is sick, but she doesn’t speak a lot of English.”
“Ma’am, I need the first and last name and the date of birth. When you have that information, let me know and I’ll be happy to help.” She grabbed her magazine and kept reading. Short on patience, I called Muna.
“Hello? It’s me. I’m at the front desk but I need the first and last name and the birthday.” “It’s okay I will come get you? My baby is sleeping so I come down to get you.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I am sure.”
“Okay, I will see you then.” I hung up the phone. “She’s on her way down.” The woman looked up from her magazine, raised her eyebrows and gave me the most nonchalant response.
“Right.” The combination of her harsh tone and rolling eyes made it evident she didn’t believe me, but less than five minutes later, Muna came rushing down the hall. She hugged me tightly, gripping me harder than ever before.
“I so glad you can come. My baby is sick and the doctor don’t know what is wrong with him. He got a lot of infection and need some kind of therapy.”
“Therapy? That doesn’t make any sense. Why would he need therapy?”
“I don’t know, but that is what his doctor said. They have to go in his body to find out what is wrong with him. They even give him some medicine that make him sleep so they can do the therapy.” I finally understood what she meant.
“Surgery?” He has to have surgery?”
“Yes, that is what they told me. That is what I just said.” She had no clue about the drastic differences between the two words. It wasn’t the first time her Nepali accent left me confused. The woman behind the desk seemed annoyed at our banter so late in the night. I tried by best to woo her.
“Ma’am,” I said gently, slowly approaching the desk. “Her son is sick and she doesn’t speak that much English. I’m a friend of the...” She refused to let me finish.
“Are you family?” She caught me off guard.
“Visiting hours are over. Only family members are allowed back in the rooms this time of night.” She pointed to a sign on her desk that listed visiting hours. I didn’t need to look at the clock to know visiting hours were over.
“But she doesn’t even understand a lot of what the doctors are saying.”
“I understand that ma’am, but policy is policy.” She gave me a sad face, shrugged her shoulders and reached for the same magazine she was reading when I first walked through the doors. “I wish there was something I could do,” she explained. “But,” she hesitated, leaned toward the front of the desk and whispered, “I don’t want to lose my job, you know?” I nodded, backing away from the desk.
The entire interaction confused Muna. “She no let you come back to see my baby?” “Well, no.” I was frustrated and defeated. “Visiting hours are over. Only family can visit.”
“But you are my family.” She enunciated every word. “Come I will tell her you are family to my baby. You see him every week and he knows you. He ask for you every day. I will tell her.” She grabbed my arm and headed toward the reception area as if it really were that simple. I stopped her.
“Muna, it’s ok. I’ll just wait right here and you can call me if you need something. It will be okay. I don’t want that lady to get in trouble. The hospital said no. Do you need me to get something from the store or some food for you, Rasheekah and your husband?” Muna refused to give up.
“But my baby wants to see you. Before he go to sleep, he ask if Shuda come. I tell him yes, she is coming.” I hesitated before trying to explain the hospital’s policies once again.
“Right, but the hospital doesn’t...” The lady behind the desk interrupted me and asked a question neither of us were expecting.
“So, what are yall anyway? Sisters?” She put her book down.
“No, just friends.”
“But close friends, right?” She raised her eyebrows. “Like sisters?” But just as I started to explain our relationship once again, Muna started to speak.
“Yes, she is my sister. I only know her for a short time, but she is family. The color don’t matter. She is brown and I am brown and we do all the things Nepali families do. We eat and play together and celebrate Hindu festivals. My husband know her and my kids always want to see her. She is my family, a sister, just like you say.”
She gripped my arm tightly, pulling our bodies close together, as if we were conjoined twins.
“Well, since you put it that way, let me see what I can do.” As soon as she walked away from the desk, I tried once again to explain to Muna that it was okay.
“You don’t have to lie. It’s okay. I don’t want you to get in trouble.”
“I don’t lie.” She released her grip on my arm and stood in front of me. “What I say is true. You are family. In Nepali, the word for family and friend is almost like the same word. That’s what I tell her and she understand now. She will let you come to the room to see my baby.” Less than two minutes later, the woman hobbled back to the desk with two blue paper bracelets in her hands that said family of patient on them.
“Here,” she said, placing them on our wrists, “take these, make two rights, go down the long hall, and his room will be on the right.” I mouthed the words thank you as Muna guided me down the bright colored hall. You’re welcome she mouthed in return, half-smiling and half- nodding. Muna led the way to Rewash’s room with determination. She was cool, calm and certain.
“His room right there.” She pointed a tiny door with Rewash’s name on it. I peeked inside. “See. I told you he sleeping.” With shaking hands and cold, sweaty palms, I opened the door. The sight of his tiny body brought tears to my eyes. Stripped down to his underwear, he lay on the operating table with his eyes closed. Exposed, his pale chest, rose and fell leisurely, as if the quality of his breathing didn’t determine our own. His hands, shaped like tiny fists, gripped a small teddy bear. The more his body lay exposed, the more I wanted to cover up and hide.
“Rewash,” his mom said softly, “Shuda is here.” His sister, tired but vigilant, heard the news first.
“S-arita is here?” She looked around the room. When her heavy eyes saw me across the room, she leaped for joy with a surge of energy that left us amazed.
“Hey girl,” I said, lifting her up and swinging her in a circular motion. “What they put in your medicine? Caffeine?”
“No, but daddy had a beer before Rewash got sick.” I laughed and shook my head,greeting her father with a slight head nod and a whispered namaste.
“She tells everything,” Muna said, pulling her freshly dyed shoulder length red hair into a bun, laughing at her daughter’s unexpected outburst. Her high pitched chuckles decorated the room with light-hearted joy and warmth. And for a moment, we forgot why we were there as we surrendered our worries to the magic of childhood innocence. But it wasn’t long before reality snatched us back into its depths, reminding us of the weight of adulthood.
“Shuda,” Rewash murmured. His eyes flickered back and forth as he gained victory over the anesthesia. His voice, weak and tired, carried enough power to command the attention of the room.
“Yes?” I turned toward him, grabbing the hand that was not connected to the IV. Not only had he had several seizures that night, but an infection spread throughout his body, weakening his immune system. Even after removing the infection, the doctors had to remove his entire top row of teeth. The infection had reached his gums.
“I want ice cream.” He said it so clearly, we couldn’t help, but laugh again. Despite the pain, uncertainty and stress his parents had endured, his mind was focused on the sweet. Literally.
The nurse walked in on our laughter. “Uh-oh, I hear laughter,” She tip-toed across the room over to Rewash’s hospital bed. “Somebody must have woken up from their sleep.” She checked his vitals, blood pressure and heart rate. She made eye contact with the adults in the room. “Everything looks good, but we’d like to keep him here for the night, just to make sure the infection is gone and to monitor those seizures.”
“Thank you so very much.
The nurse turned the television to cartoon and handed Rewash the remote control “My pleasure.” Grateful for answered prayers and well wishes, Muna and I settled down in the tiny room while her husband went to smoke a cigarette. The room’s bright orange walls kept us awake.
“I’m so glad you could come.”
“But why did you?” The directness of her question shocked me. “Why do you come to my house and play with my kids and help us? Why do you treat us like that?” What started off a nice compliment seemed to morph into something larger.
“I don’t know.” I had never really thought it. “I guess I just want to help.” “But how did you find out about people like us?”
“What do you mean?”
“Refugees. Why do you help people like me? Refugee people.”
“I help because I didn’t do anything the first time,” I said, remembering the memories that taunted me earlier that night. Her eyes widened with curiosity.
“What first time? The first time you met me?”
“No, the first time I saw refugees. Well, maybe not the first, but I didn’t do anything about it. I couldn’t.”
“Do anything about what? I don’t understand.” Her innocence helped alleviate my stress as the memory replayed itself once again.
“I was traveling overseas in Israel and we had just come back from Golan Heights, a city in the mountains when we heard gunshots. The bus I was riding on pulled over because we were driving on a very small road that went down a mountain. Then we saw them.” I hesitated. “They looked like falling stars, but the air smelled bad. The bus driver pointed to where the shots were coming from.”
“Where? Where did they come from?”
“Oh no!” A resident of Clarkston, Georgia for more than 5 years, she knew all about the influx of Syrian refugees. “What did you do?”
“Nothing, I didn’t do anything. I just stood there, watching the air light up with little balls of fire. I knew people needed help, but there was nothing I could do. Nothing. So I got back on the tour bus and went home.”
“Is that why you help refugee people now?” She looked me straight in the eye.
“Well, yeah. We just drove away and left the people there. We drove away from the war because it didn’t affect me. It didn’t cause me any pain. It wasn’t our country and there was nothing we could do. But I always remember it. The song keeps playing over and over and over again in my head.”
“‘Man in the Mirror’ by Michael Jackson.”
“Oh. I don’t know that song. Is it good? Is Michael a good singer?” I couldn’t help but chuckle at her questions. It had never dawned on me how subjective culture was.
“Well, yes, according to a lot of people. He used to make a lot of really good music,” I said, grappling with the irony of have to explain the value of one of the world’s greatest icons to a woman born the same year I was.
“He died. A few years back.”
“Oh. Why did you keep thinking about his song?”
“I was listening to it when we stopped the bus. The lyrics made me think.”
“Why?” She coddled her seven-year-old daughter.
“Because,” I said, searching for the words to describe the weight of what I felt. “They ask me to do something. Well, not really but they ask me to think about myself, to ask myself what I do in the hard situations.”
“Oh. I get it. The song make you think about the war and what you should do?”
“Kind of. Something like that. Mostly, the song makes me think about what kind of person I want to be. Want to hear it?” I had no idea if she would be able to understand Michael’s message, but I played it for her anyway, hoping somehow music would translate what I could not.
She listened to the song, rocking her daughter back and forth. “Is he the man in front of the mirror?”
“Yes, but the way I see it, we are all the man in the mirror. We are all little people looking at ourselves and how we live and what we do asking ourselves and making ourselves do better day by day. You know?” She nodded.
“I want to go to school and do better for my family. I don’t want Rewash and Resheekah to have to work hard like we do. I want them to have an easier life. With no war like home in Nepal. I don’t want them to be controlled by the government. I don’t want them to die. Is that like the man in the mirror?”
“Yes, that is exactly what he’s talking about. Doing whatever you can to make yourself a better person. If we all do that, maybe the world will be a better place.”
“Maybe.” I could tell she had a lot on her mind as her breathing sped up, but her words slowed down. “So, is that why you help people like me? So there will be less of people like me? People who had to leave their home.” I had never imagined it being explained it such a way.
I tried to reconcile the irony of her statement. “Kind of. I’m just trying to change my ways. Do something different.”
“Yes. Different is good,” she said, scrolling down her YouTube feed to find more Michael Jackson videos.
I saw them in the light of day. Dark and mysterious. Covered in long black gowns, their colorful, painted eyes the only sign of life. They moved briskly, hurried and occupied, part Barbie and part robot.
I saw them in the grocery store. Up and down the aisles. Moving in droves, their baskets full of foreign spices, wild fruits and awkward looking vegetables. They shopped with their senses, touching, feeling and smelling everything that went in their carts.
I watched them visit the mosque. Dedicated to prayer. Their heads bowed, covered in a rainbow of elegant silk scarves. A religious fashion show on display. Devoted wives and young mothers. Six times more devoted than me.
I watched them in the salon. Washing hair in secret. Hundreds of Rapunzels finally allowed to let down their long hair. Laughing, talking and gossiping in a language I couldn’t understand. Free to let loose for a little while.
Though they weren’t aware of it, I watched them. Unnerved and intrigued. Frightened and curious. They were so close to home. But day by day they came, filling the few unoccupied buildings in with their kind. Apartment complex by complex. Street by street. Forced neighbors in an already divided city.
Their presence providing no answers, only questions. Identity under siege. Somewhere between native and free, foreign and American, immigrant and permanent resident. But they seemed content with their piece of the American dream and made Dearborn, Michigan their home.
But all the while, I watched them, wondering about the quiet intruders called “A-rabs” because that’s what everybody called them.
And of course, middle school didn’t teach me any different. Cultural ignorance rooted in American education. So intruders they remained. Thousands of them, occupying certain parts of the city, clueless to all that existed beyond their government-provided borders.
“I don’t even know why they’re here,” my friend said, placing her lunch tray at the end of the long table. In the midst of the crowded, large cafeteria, we had created our own little world.
The echoing noise made it one of the safest places to share all the wisdom, knowledge and gossip we’d acquired in our twelve years of life.
“Me either, but I heard my mom say that they’re the reason taxes are going up,” Michelle chimed in. “Apparently they just came here and took over Dearborn. Now they’re everywhere. One of my friends’ family members got kicked out of her apartment because the government had to make room for them.” She finished her applesauce before continuing. “It’s so sad.”
“But where did they come from? Who are they?” More involved in the conversation than my lunch, I picked over the food on my tray. And is she one of them too?” I nodded my head toward her after asking the question, trying to be discreet. The young girl in question sat quietly at a table across the room. As usual, she sat alone, eating her lunch with her head down. She never really said much, but she didn’t have to. The pink scarf tightly wrapped around her head said enough. She was one of them.
“Of course she is! That’s why she has that thing on her head all the time.” Michelle leaned across the table more than ready to share her gossip disguised as wisdom. “You know she’s a Muslim too, right?”
“Is she?” I wasn’t sure why or how that mattered, but I heard my teachers whispering about children of war and assumed the sudden influx of Muslims were to blame.
“Yup. They pray like we do but to another God, like a mean one. That’s why there’s so much war in their country all the time.” Michelle took a bite of her chocolate chip cookie and continued sharing her limited wisdom. “I feel bad for them. The women have to wear those black dresses every day and the girls never get to put on make-up.” She took out a tiny mirror, tightened her ponytail and reapplied her clear, but cherry flavored lip gloss.
I of course, had more questions to ask. “Wow, that’s so messed up. But what does that have to do with them being here?”
“I don’t know, but I hope they don’t bring their war here.” The lunch bell rang.
Still unsure about the entire situation, we knew better than to covet war. We nodded in agreement, grabbed our trays, slung our tiny purses over our shoulders and proceeded to our next class. But instead of continuing straight down the hall, I made a sharp right turn.
“Where you headed?” Miss Smith’s class is this way.”
“Yeah, I know. I’ll be right there,” I said trying not to lose sight of her as she strolled down the narrow hallway.
“Ok. We’ll save you a seat.” As soon as they turned the corner, I dashed down the hallway, hoping to catch a glimpse of her pink scarf in the crowded hallway.
Too short to look over the tall, lanky seventh and eighth graders, I bent down and moved in between the rest of my peers, searching for a stranger. But just as I caught a glimpse of what I thought was the scarf, Ms. Taylor, the middle school guidance counselor, stopped me to say hello.
“Well hello Sharita. It’s so good to see you. I’ve been meaning to running into you. How are your classes going?”
“Pretty good I guess.” Every second I spent talking felt like an eternity. “Well that’s good to hear. And what about your extracurricular activities?”
“Good. Yup, they’re good too.” Hopeless, I watched the top of the pink scarf float out the glass doors leading the school’s courtyard.
“Very good. And what have you decided on?” I stood on the tip of my toes, hoping to see which way she went, my eyes darting from the hallway back to Ms. Taylor.
“Umm. Math club. Beta club. Poetry club...”
“Wonderful. A very diverse group of activities. Well,” she said pausing, “if you’re up for one more, I’ve reserved something special for you. It’s less academic but I really think you’ll enjoy the sociology of it. It’s requires a little bit of social skills, but I know you can do it. Interested?”
The pink scarf vanished into the clear blue sky, leaving me no choice but to pay full attention to Ms. Taylor’s proposition.
“Sure. Sounds interesting.”
“Great, stop by my office this afternoon. You’ll be out in time enough to catch the extracurricular bus so no worries there.”
“Ok.” I hoped to catch one more glimpse of the bright pink scarf but she had disappeared as quick as she appeared. Suddenly. Out of nowhere. Just like all the people I assumed she represented.
As the day went on, I thought of all the places she might have disappeared to. The mosque. The farmer’s market. Her boyfriend’s house. My imagination ran wild. Endless possibilities occupied my mind. But as the last bell of the day rang, I rushed to Ms. Taylor’s office, eager to discover the special opportunity she’d reserved just for me.
I dashed up to the front desk of the counselor’s office full of pride. “Ms. Taylor please. She told me to come see her.” The high school girl sitting behind the front desk looked up from Algebra book.
“You must be here for Courtney. Did you bring some books to read?”
“No. Ms. Taylor didn’t say anything about reading books. And who is Courtney?”
“Courtney,” she said with one eyebrow slightly more raised than the other, “is the best. I’ll let Ms. Taylor know you’re here.” I sat down in one of the lobby chairs wondering if Courtney was the Muslim girl with the pink scarf. The name seemed a bit normal for someone so foreign, but I had no other point of reference to choose from.
“Sharita?” Ms. Taylor peeked outside her office door. “You can come on back. We’re all set up for you.”
I followed her to a hidden room full of books. The lights were off, but the opened blinds allowed the sun’s light to filter through the darkness, casting an angelic shadow on the two desks and bookshelves that occupied the space.
“What is this place?”
“Just a little something I reserve for bookworms. Take a seat. Write. Read. Study. Ask questions. Do research. Consider this a little home away from home. That way,” she said, pausing, “when you get to high school and even college, you’ll be well prepared to study independently.”
“Wow. Thank you.” I ran my fingers across the bookshelves, looking at the titles one by one. I was so enamored I almost overlooked the young girl sitting at the desk nestled in between two windows. “This is amazing.”
“Isn’t it?” She turned toward me. “I’m Courtney.” But as she stretched out her hand to greet me, I noticed the problem with her eyes. They weren’t closed, but they weren’t open either. They were glassy, cold and greenish blue.
“I’m blind, but no biggie. I’ve learned to see with my other senses. What kind of books do you like to read?” Her pupil-less eyes stared back at me, waiting for me to respond, as if she hadn’t just told me she was blind.
“Nice to meet you,” I managed to respond. “I like all kinds of books. I just like to read really.”
“Me too. It’s like my favorite hobby. I could literally read all day.” She laughed, her glassy eyes frightening me. “Ever read Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli? One of my all-time favorites. I read it over and over again. I’m actually writing a paper about it now.” She pointed toward a large metal device that I assumed was a braille machine.
“Well now that you guys are acquainted, I’ll leave you to your own devices. Courtney, can you make sure Sharita gets on the extracurricular bus when the time comes?”
“Sure thing,” she replied, waiting for Ms. Taylor to leave room. “She’s just like my mom. Always giving orders. I like totally love her though. She’s amazing and so good to me. Let me know if you need anything,” she said, turning back to her machine to finish her paper. I browsed the shelves looking for the book Courtney recommended as she typed away.
“This might seem odd to ask.” I hesitated.
“No worries. I’ve been asked some crazy things as you can probably imagine.”
“Right,” I chuckled. “What do you know about all these people that are coming to Dearborn?”
“You mean the Arabs?”
“Yeah, I guess. I don’t know really. My friends said they’re all Muslims.”
“Well, that’s definitely not true.” She stopped writing and turned toward me. “They can be Christian, Atheist or Muslim, but they’re Arabs. And they’re from a bunch of different places, but they’re here because of war in their countries. Refugees.”
“Oh. And what’s a refugee?”
I assumed Courtney was a safe place to ask these kinds of questions and she seemed to know what she was talking about.
“Well that depends on who you ask fortunately and unfortunately. But basically, they are people who are displaced because of war, civil unrest and all of that. And they come here and other places looking for a new home. But it takes forever. Like years. Most of them have to get asylum first and anything with the government takes forever. And they get asked a ton of questions and stuff. I feel bad for them. They’re stuck in between two places, two governments and two worlds really. Who would want that? Plus, the idea of having to start over in a whole new place with a whole new language is exhausting.”
“Yeah, I guess I never thought about it like that.”
“Well I’m not an expert or anything, but from what Abeela told me, it’s a nightmare. Her mom can’t find work. Her dad works twelve hours straight. And they had to pay the cost of their flights to the United States back within ninety days of arriving here. She finally gets enrolled in school and has some kind of stability and people have the nerve to say she doesn’t belong! Like where the hell else is she going to go?”
“Wait, who’s Abeela?”
“She’s a refugee that goes to school here. She’s in high school like me. One of my classmates. But I think she has a sister in your grade. Quiet. Likes to be by herself. Brown skin. Pink hijab.”
“Yeah, I know her. Well, not really,” I admitted. “But I’ve seen her around.” “Yup, she’s pretty cool. She comes in here every now and then.”
“Oh yeah. She’s so into books. You guys are actually a lot alike. She’s always asking questions. Interested in cultural interactions. A total sociologist in the making.”
“Wow, I would have never thought that.”
“Yeah, crazy how life works. I’ve learned to never assume. Those are the real blind folks. Just making guesses without really knowing. It’s so annoying. Don’t get me wrong, it’s totally sucks being blind, but I’d rather be blind than stupid. You know what I mean?” She shrugged her shoulders. “I mean that’s the way I feel about it.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” I said, finally finding Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl on the shelf. I sat down at the desk across from Courtney as she continued typing her paper.
“So what’s your paper about?”
“Being blind. It’s a book review that I’ve kind of morphed into an essay about my life. I’m basically saying that Stargirl rocks because it taught me how to be a better person even if people are different from me. It’s all about being a nonconformist. When the world says no, say yes.”
“Wow, I like that. I just found the book on the shelf over there. You totally inspired me to read it.”
“That’s wonderful. I highly recommend it. One of my favorites quotes from the book is ‘The earth is speaking to us, but we can’t hear because of all the racket our senses are making. Sometimes we need to erase them, erase our senses. Then—maybe—the earth will touch us. The universe will speak. The stars will whisper.’ I just added it to the end of my paper. Amazing right?”
“Yeah. Reminds me of a line from a song my grandmother sings in church. Basically they’re saying I was blind, but now I see.”
“Oh yeah, I know that song. Actually that might not be a bad title for my paper.” She scratched her head as she thought about it.
“No. But Now I See. Yeah.” She paused. “That’s so fitting.” She smiled, grabbed her bag and looked in my direction. “You ready? The bus should be here any minute now.”
“Yup,” I said, linking arms with her as we walked down the narrow hallway, enlightened in more ways than one.
The blue and green Ninja Turtle balloons validated my suspicions. The gift was perfect. I spent all night searching for it after Muna text me a picture of it. But of course, the Walmart and Target locations closest to me didn’t have it in stock.
No, he told me over the phone. The Ninja Turtle one. It makes pizza. Pizza for heroes. It’s sooooo cool. So I drove twenty miles to the nearest Toys R Us to get the Ninja Turtle pizza oven. It wasn’t anything fancy, but Muna promised me it would make his day. So when I pulled into the apartment complex and the saw the balloons outside their door, I knew she was right.
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY REWASH,” we all yelled as he walked down the stairs, shocked, surprised and probably a little nervous. He blushed. His spiked hair, moccasin shoes and sweater vest made it obvious he decided to dress himself. Muna walked behind him, dressed in royal blue sari that flowed down to her knees with matching harem pants.
“Come, come Rewash. You see all the people?” She pointed to us packed into the tiny living room. “They come for you. They come for your party.” She nudged him down the stairs, bit by bit, until he came face to face with all of us. Joyce was there with her five kids and so Ruth and her two boys. Even some of Rewash’s teachers came and a host of others from the neighborhood. The room was nicely, but modestly decorated with hanging banners, baby pictures and the few balloons we managed to blow up without waking Leah as she slept on her mother’s lap.
He ran to give me a hug. “Shuda! You come!”
“Of course I came,” I said handing him his gift. He grabbed my phone instead and tried to take a selfie. He managed to snap a really close photo of his right eye instead. Ruth burst out in laughter.
“Lawd, these kids got too much. Give ‘em a toy and they want the phone instead!” She shook her head and headed into the kitchen. She, like the rest of the women, had baked Rewash a special dessert.
“Miss Sharita, Miss Sharita!” Resheeka grabbed my hand and pulled me towards her.
“You like my dress?” She twirled around, her knee length pink skirt, blowing effortlessly as she twirled. “My mom didn’t make me wear a sari,” she said, spinning around one last time.
She stared at me with her narrow eyes, pulling me down to her level and whispered in my ear. “Did you bring me something too?” She knew me all too well. I smiled, put my index finger over my mouth and slipped her a tiny jewelry making kit.
“You’re the best.”
“And you’re the cutest.” She cheesed, turn around and sneaked away to find a quiet place to play. Muna tried to gather everyone’s attention.
“Excuse me everyone. Can I have the attention please?” The tiny crowd paid her no attention. Her voice was too high pitched and too gentle to echo throughout the room. Ruth decided to help her out. She cleared her throat and stood up on one of the kitchen chairs.
“This is a public announcement.” Her voice was deep and robust. It didn’t take long for everyone to pay attention. “Everybody who keep talking over Miss Muna has to give up their piece of cake.” The room hushed. All eyes were on her and Muna. She bowed, pointed to Muna stepped off the chair and took a seat near the back of the kitchen table. Muna stood there with candles in her right hand, Rewash right by her side.
“I just want to thank everybody for coming. It mean so much to my baby.” She looked down at Rewash and smiled. He grabbed her leg. “Please, come have some cake. We have so much sweet for everybody to eat.” One by one, guests made their way to the kitchen where Ruth portioned out the cake slices according to her own system.
“All the skinny people like you get a nice big piece of cake.” She looked me up and down, shook her head and then smiled. “And all the fat people like me, get a thin slice of cake.” She grabbed her hips and did a little dance. “I got it all worked out.”
“You just can’t be normal,” Joyce teased. Ruth handed out the slices of cake as the kids ran wild with excitement, playing outside with all of Rewash’s new toys. The women sat in the kitchen together, watching the children play. Joyce covered the cake and looked up at Joyce.
“Oh honey no. Aint nothing ‘bout my life been normal. I watched my mom get killed by rebels when I was ten years old. My dad left us to get revenge on them and never came back. I was in a refugee camp for seven years. And when I finally got to the United States it was just as bad. I couldn’t get no job, couldn’t speak the language. All they had me doing was cleaning rooms.”
Joyce nodded. “I know.” I had no idea Ruth’s life had been so hard.
“But that’s yesterday. Today is a new day.” She perked up a little.
“Would you ever consider going back to school?” She looked at me like I was crazy. “What? School? What I need school for? I done been through thangs. School try to teach people the stuff I have lived. But I already seen war, poverty, match gone wrong, economic downtown and bad politics. What school gonna teach me?”
I didn’t answer.
“Mom?” One of Ruth’s sons tapped her on the back. “Can I have another piece of cake?”
He held out his plate. She cut him a large slice without answering.
“Don’t worry about her,” Joyce said. “Our co-workers say she a Virgo. I don’t know what that means, but I think it mean she a little bit crazy.”
“You all are co-workers? I thought you worked at the factory?” Joyce looked at me like I was crazy.
“I got two jobs. I got to feed my kids and making beds don’t let us make enough money.
People don’t like to leave the tip when you clean the room,” she said as if she worked for a Hilton property. She didn’t, but I understood her point.
“When do you spend time with your kids? Who picks them up from school?”
“The bus my sister. The bus pick them up and drop them off. My oldest daughter take care of them until I can get home. I am blessed to have so many kids. They take care of each other.” I sat back in my chair, feeling ashamed for having ever said I was exhausted. I had one job and no kids. I would never be as tired as Joyce.
“What about you sister? What is your sign?” She caught me off guard.
“The sign. Like the Virgo. You are Virgo too?”
“Ooooooooh. You mean horoscope sign. I’m an Aquarius.” They repeated the word a few times, letting it become familiar with their tongue. “What does that mean?”
I hesitated. “Umm, it could mean a lot of things.” Ruth grabbed her phone off the table.
“Let me look it up! Oh girl, it say a lot about you.” She started reading the characteristics off a site she found online. “Detached. Smart. You like freedom. Independent. Quirky?” She looked up, waiting for me to define the word.
“It means, different. Unusual, I guess. I like things other people don’t. I’m drawn to unusual things.”
“Yea, that’s true.” She continued. “Nonconformist. Oh I like that one!” She put the phone down. “These go by birthdays right?”
“So, what’s your birthday then?”
“January 29th? When is yall birthday?” The women quieted themselves at the same time.
Clearly, I said something wrong.
Joyce started first. “You don’t know? It’s all the same.”
“What’s all the same?” I looked them in eye, waiting for them to correct my ignorance. Muna spoke up next. “The birthday. We all have the same because they don’t know and we don’t have the paperwork to tell them. Unless we remember, they give us all the same. “Are you serious?” They nodded, confirming the validity of this information.
“But Ruth, I thought Joyce said you’re a Virgo?
“They don’t know honey. The lady at my job just made it up cause of my attitude. But I take whatever I can get and hold on to it. Names. Memories. Photos. Paper. Identity. That’s what we do.”
So, what’s the date then? What date do they give you?”
“January 1st. They try to make it cute. You know because of the New Year.” It made sense. New year. New life.
“But technically your birthday, could be today?”
“Hell. It could be any day,” she said, in between bites of her second slice of cake. “So it could be today?” They looked at me as if I were crazy.
“I guess,” Joyce said.
“Yup,” Ruth said.
“Yeah because we don’t know,” Muna said.
“Well then, let’s toast!”
“Toast what,” they asked in unison.
“Toast your birthdays!” Muna jumped up and ran to the refrigerator.
“I don’t have any wine and my husband drink all the beer.”
“We don’t need that. We’ll toast with what we got.”
“With coffee and tea?” Ruth finished the rest of her cake and raised her eyebrows.
“Oh lawd. You really are quirky.” She said the world slowly, hoping to pronounce it correctly. We raised our mugs full of coffee and tea and toasted the new year of their new lives.
“To my beautiful friends,” I said, sipping chai tea. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!”
Muna went next. “To us!”
“To life,” Joyce said simply. Ruth interrupted her as usual.
“Naw honey. To new life!” We sat there with our glasses raised until Rewash came in the kitchen and asked a question.
“Shuda? What do you want for your birthday?” His question was so innocent, so sweet and so unplanned. Nothing worthy came to mind. Well, one thing did, but it was nothing like the material things I usually asked for. It was something I would only think of sitting in the presence of those women.
“I’d like to be a better neighbor. That’s what I want.”
“How do you get that?” I decided to let the women respond.
“You get to know people,” Joyce said.
“You cook with and share food with them,” Muna said.
“You get deep down and dirty with them, Ruth said. “You live with them. Cry with them. Share with them. Get mad with them. You be a friend to them, that’s how.”
I could not have agreed more. “You learn to be present,” I said more to myself than them.
“Like a gift,” Rewash asked, misunderstanding Ruth’s last words. We laughed.
“Yes, his mother said. “All of those are like the presents.”
“Ok Shuda. I’m going to get you a neighbor,” and with that, he rushed outside to play with cake on his face and determination in his heart.