Dear refugee child in your first year of arrival in a new country,
Your mother who everyone says beautiful in the old country is no longer beautiful here in the new. She had to cut her long hair to get a job at the factory. Aunts who have been in this country longer tell her that short hair is much safer when working with machines with large teeth and invisible hands.
She says people at work don’t watch her. She tries to make a joke: “It’s a good thing they don’t look at me anymore because if they do, I might look back and the heavy carts I’m pushing might fall on me!” “
“You lose your accent immediately”
Your father who has a loud voice, deep but sweet as honey going down his throat in Hmong has lost his voice in English. In the new language, his voice does not have the power to travel. The air inside him dies at his mouth. All he can say is, “Hello, I’m sorry, please help me, thank you.”
You wonder where the poetry has gone. This man whose shoulders were straight and strong enough to hold you high so that you could touch the leaves in the belly of the trees. This man whose songs carried you like wings through the empty spaces of your life. How is it that in this new place the fear inside him comes out of his mouth every time he tries to say something?
Your older sister is learning English. She says every color is “yellow”. She tells you, “If you put an s at the end of every word in English, you immediately lose your accent. “
In stores that sell clothes that people no longer want, she chooses only the most important clothes: a button-down shirt with a white collar and a brown belt to wear with her jeans. You want the t-shirts with the cartoons on it, but some of the cartoons have been stretched so much that their faces have gotten wider and longer than they need to be, so you know other kids will know it. is an old shirt that you wear like new.
Your sister thinks you should also get used to wearing jeans to look like other kids in school, but the fabric is stiff and hard and it makes you miss your shorts from the other life.
“You try to swallow the dry pieces”
The food. As you miss the slippery sweetness of the fermented rice noodles in bone broth that vendors were selling at the camp market. With just one baht you can buy a bowl. You can put as much sugar as you want in the broth. You can add chopped cabbage and banana blossoms, mint and cilantro. You would eat it all and then invert the bowl until the last bit of broth flows down your throat. Now at school you are given cold bread and cold meat and a little yellow thing called “cheese” which is a little salty but not at all sweet. You can barely eat it, so you pluck the inside of the bread with your hands and try to swallow the dry pieces while everyone at the table is watching you.
The children at the long table are all staring at you and you don’t know where to look. You watch the pieces of bread in your hands and you can feel the food in your mouth getting drier and drier. The children start to laugh. You stare at them. Some of them have removed their bread from their meat, they eat it, chew it with their mouths wide open. You realize that you are also chewing with your mouth wide open.
It’s the only way you’ve ever known to eat. This is the way the people around you in the refugee camp ate. The food was such a gift. The goal was to eat it and swallow it. No one ever told you you ate it badly. No one has ever laughed at you about it.
Liquid that does not enter your mouth enters your eyes. You know you’re crying but there’s a warmth in your heart now. You won’t stop eating. You can’t stop crying. The laughter subsides. You feel the hands of an adult on your shoulder. The teacher says, “What’s wrong? You look at the person’s face but it is filtered through water.
You are at the bottom of a well. You look up. There is light. There is a face. Everything wavers in the water.
You are now in the principal’s office. There is a Hmong translator. He’s older than your father, but he can speak English. He said: “Muaj teebmeem dabtsi? What is the problem? – he wants to know.
The problem is this place that doesn’t see your mom, that doesn’t hear your dad, that laughs at you. All you can say is, “I miss my mom and dad.”
The man nudges you. Why do you miss them today more than yesterday or the day before?
“The things you have already learned are the reason you are alive”
His question makes you cry even more. You can’t tell her the truth, that today, not yesterday or the day before, is the day you learned that the way your mom and dad taught you to eat your whole life is wrong here in America. The more you think about his question, the more you cry.
He tells you, “Here in this country, you have to learn to do things like other people do in order to survive.
His words will live on in you for a long time. Sometimes you will believe them. Other times you won’t do it because you know the things you’ve already learned are the reason you’re alive. And here. Nevertheless.
This new country makes you feel a lot, it’s going to push and pull on who you are, it’s going to try to destroy the way you see the people who love you the most, who love you the most, but if you survive that will you want to change this place to make it better, kinder to new people arriving, new refugees, new refugee children.
Refugee child, you just have to survive. Everything will come later. The beauty of your mother. The sound of your father’s voice in your language. The place you will take at this table full of children’s laughter. All you have to do is survive this first year, second year, third year and so on.
All you have to do is remind yourself: you are not alone.
A refugee woman who was a child like you who survived