Many years ago, I was like you. It was my first time on such a journey and I was leaving everything I knew behind.
Dear refugee child in your first year of arriving in a new country,
Your mother who everyone says was beautiful in the old country is no longer so here in the new one. She had to cut off her long hair to get a job at the factory. The aunties who have been in this country longer tell her that short hair is much safer when you are working by machines with big teeth and invisible hands.
She says the people at work don’t look at her. She tries to make a joke, “It is a good thing they don’t look at me anymore because if they do, I might look back and the heavy carts I push might fall on me!”
‘You lose your accent immediately’
Your father who has a strong voice that is deep but smooth like honey going down a throat in Hmong has lost his voice in English. In the new language, his voice has no power to travel. The air inside of him dies at his mouth. All he knows how to say are, “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 you could touch the leaves in the underbelly of the trees. This man whose songs carried you like wings across the empty spaces of your life. How come in this new place, the fear inside of him comes out of his mouth every time he tries to say something?
Your older sister is learning English. She says every colour is “yellow”. She tells you, “If you put an s at the end of every word in English, you lose your accent immediately.”
At the stores that sell clothes that people no longer want, she chooses only the most important-looking clothes: a button-up shirt with white collars and a brown belt to wear with her jeans. You want the t-shirts with the cartoons on them but some of the cartoons have been stretched out so far that their faces have grown wider and longer than they should be, so you know the other kids will know that it is an old shirt you are wearing like new.
Your sister thinks you should also get used to wearing jeans so you can look like the other kids at school but the fabric is stiff and hard and it makes you miss your shorts from the other life.
‘You try to swallow down the dry bits’
The food. How you miss the slippery softness of the fermented rice noodles in bone broth that the vendors sold at the market in the camp. With a single baht, you could buy a bowl. You could put as much sugar as you wanted into the broth. You could add thinly sliced cabbage and banana blossoms, mint, and cilantro. You’d eat the whole thing up and then tip the bowl until the last bit of broth ran down your throat. Now, in school, they give you cold bread and cold meat and a thin yellow thing called “cheese” that is a little salty but not at all sweet. You can barely eat it so you pick at the insides of the bread with your hands and try to swallow down the dry bits while everyone at the table is looking at you.
The children at the long table are all looking at you and you don’t know where to look anymore. You look at the pieces of bread in your hands and you can feel the food in your mouth get dryer and dryer. The children start to laugh. You sneak looks at them. Some of them have taken their bread off their meat, they are eating it, chewing it, their mouths wide open. You realise that you are chewing with your mouth wide open, too.
It is the only way you have ever known how to eat. It is the way the people around you in the refugee camp ate. Food was such a gift. The goal was to eat it and swallow it. No one has ever told you that you were eating it wrong. No one has ever laughed at you about it.
The liquid that won’t come into your mouth comes into your eyes. You know you’re crying but there’s a heat in your heart now. You won’t stop eating. You can’t stop crying. The laughter quiets. You feel the hands of an adult on your shoulder. The teacher says, “What’s wrong?” You look up at the person’s face but it is filtered through water.
You are at the bottom of a well. You are looking up. There’s light. There’s a face. Everything wavers in the water.
You are now in the principal’s office. There is a Hmong translator. He is older than your father but he knows how to speak English. He says, “Muaj teebmeem dabtsi?” What is the problem? – he wants to know.
The problem is this place that does not see your mother, that does not hear your father, 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 that?
‘The things you’ve learned already is the reason you’re alive’
His question makes you cry even more. You can’t tell him the truth, that today, not yesterday or the day before, is the day you’ve learned that the way your mother and father have taught you how to eat all of your 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 how to do things the way other people do it to survive.”
His words will live on inside of you for a long time. Sometimes, you’ll believe them. Other times, you won’t because you know that the things you’ve learned already is the reason you’re alive. And here. Despite everything.
This new country makes you feel a lot of things, it will push and pull at who you are, it will try to destroy the way you see the people who love you best, who you love most, but if you survive, it will make you want to change this place to make it better, kinder to the new people coming in, the new refugees, the new refugee children.
Refugee child, all you have to do is survive. Everything will come after. The beauty of your mother. The sound of your father’s voice in your language. The place you’ll take at that table full of children laughing. All you have to do is survive that first year, that second year, that third year and on.
All you have to do is remember: you are not alone.
A refugee woman who was a child like you who has survived