Litany for the Displaced

“What does it mean to be like a rhizome? It means to be without roots, a deserted plant drifting in the desert. In Arabic, to be told you have no roots is an insult. You are nothing without a home.” — from an interview with “Floating Outsider,” a young woman stateless in her native Kuwait, now studying in Philadelphia

 I

Origins and Departure

Where do we come from?

We come from conflict, upheaval.

We come from Darfur, from Iraq, from Syria, Yemen.

We come from erasure, diminishment.

We come from Tajikistan, Palestine, Kuwait.

We come from scarcity, from want, from the wrong end of progress.

We come from Honduras, Jamaica, Indonesia.

We come from nowhere (or so our passports declare)

Where do we come from?

 

What do we remember?

We remember the taste of mangos and papaya.

We remember the date palms and orange trees that grew in our grandfather’s garden. We remember the flowers that he loved.

We remember the crops our grandfather grew to feed our neighbors who worked in the steel mills.

We remember collecting spilled coal in the railyard so our family and neighbors could have heat in the winter.

We remember working.

We remember the satisfaction of work, the adrenaline rush of reporting from war zones; the pride of selling books in a city, a culture, where poetry had always been treasured; the pleasures of teaching — art to schoolchildren or sewing to young women in our village so they themselves could find work.

We remember the rhythms and routines of ordinary life: studying for exams, keeping a clean house, raising children, running a shop, playing with a stuffed lion. We remember the rat-a-tat pop of gunfire,

the screech of rockets over our rooftops.

We remember picking shrapnel off our roof.

We remember waking up in the night to see flames in our neighbors’ hands as they surrounded our house.

We remember hiding under our beds.

We remember the clomp of boots as soldiers searched our rooms.

We remember the shattered windows in our father’s car dealership.

We remember the shattered windows of our classroom where we took our final exams.

We remember the smell of gunpowder on our mother’s dress.

We remember the neighbors who offered us shelter, endangering their own lives. We remember our cities before things changed:

1930s Baghdad, when Jews and Muslims and Christians co-existed peacefully.

1990s Beirut, a haven for mind and spirit, where we could argue ideas without fear of reprisal.

1950s Philadelphia, the Black Bottom, before it was razed by the University, alive with shops and music day and night, back when everyone sat out on their front stoops and neighbors looked out for one another.

We remember the cool air in the mountains, the first delicate spring flowers blooming under the snow.

What do we remember?

 

Why did we leave?

We left because we were poor.

We left because we were censored.

We disagreed with our government.

We were stateless.

We left because our lives were threatened.

Because our children’s lives were threatened.

We were under suspicion.

Our religion was banned.

Our university was bombed.

Our homes were shelled.

 

We left because we wanted opportunity.

We wanted to work.

We wanted to go to school.

We wanted our children to have an education.

We wanted a home of our own.

We wanted to feel safe – again.

 

We left because we wanted freedom:

freedom to practice our faith,

freedom to speak up and speak out ,

freedom to be ourselves.

Why did we leave?

 

Gulnora

 Journalism was my life’s blood. I wanted to tell the truth. This was in Tajikistan. There was a civil war. I always wanted to see and hear for myself. What were the conditions in the refugee camps? In the prisons? What did the rebels want? The government tried to silence me. They stopped me on the street and threw me in their car and took me to a cellar. They said they knew where my children went to school. That night, I didn’t hesitate. I was no longer a journalist. I was a mother. I packed my family and left my home, my country, and the work that was my passion behind.

II

Journey 

How did we leave?

We left suddenly, in the middle of the night.

We bribed 3 border guards.

We paid 2 coyotes.

We walked for five hours.

We skirted the border for 30 days.

We slept inside a tractor trailer with 123 others.

We crossed through Russia, Turkey, Yemen, Jordan, Guatemala, Mexico, Lebanon, Italy, Germany on our way to America.

We applied for student visas.

We applied for refugee status.

We applied for sanctuary and special protection.

We snuck across the border.

We were interviewed.

We filled out forms.

We waited for months.

We filled out more forms.

We waited for years.

We flew in an airplane for the first time in our lives.

How did we leave?

 

What did we leave behind?

We left six sleeping children.

We left our husbands.

We left our parents.

We left our grandchildren.

We left our jobs.

We left our purpose.

We left our land.

We left our language.

We left our country.

We left everything.

What did we leave behind?

 

What did we carry?

We brought suitcases filled with family photographs.

We brought a Persian rug that reminded us of our grandfather’s garden.

We brought books of poetry.

We brought our mother’s tea urn.

We brought our family Qur’an in a carved wooden box, inlaid with mother of pearl. We brought our expired IDs and credentials.

What did we carry?

 

What happened along the way?

We saw cities abandoned in the desert.

We carried a wounded man across a river.

We piled into the back of a pick-up.

We were asked to cook and clean for 60 men.

Our children subsisted on sugar.

Farmers fed us tomatoes and apples from their fields.

We were sure someone was always following us, watching our every move.

What happened along the way?

Maria

I left my home in Honduras on a Wednesday, the 13th of July, at 4:00 in the morning. This was more than 20 years ago. Only my two oldest daughters woke up to kiss me good-bye. I let my four youngest stay sleeping. My baby was two years and three months old.

I prayed to God to lend me strength on the journey. I paid the coyote, and traveled with 123 others, half men, half women, plus one extra woman. From Honduras, we walked five hours to Guatemala. We stayed in Guatemala three days, and then traveled for eight days, first by bus and then spending one night inside the trailer of a big truck. Eleven days later, we reached the outskirts of Phoenix. At the U.S. border, the men and women were loaded into pick-up trucks. The men lay down in the back. The women crouched in the cab in front. The trucks stopped at the edge of the highway and let us out. They told us to wait until no cars were coming. Then we ran.

III

 Resettlement

What happened when we arrived?

We ran across the highway.

We saw two planes crash into two towers.

We worked two jobs. During the day, we sewed blankets and pillows for airlines. At night we shrink wrapped vegetables in single-size servings.

We commuted an hour and a half each way.

We went to work even when it snowed.

We waited tables.

We washed dishes.

We took care of other people’s children.

We drove a taxi.

We delivered pizza.

We were robbed at gunpoint.

We lived on chicken and rice.

We sent money home.

We were teased for our accents, for our clothes, for the food in our lunch boxes.

We were mocked for the shape of our eyes.

We were asked where we came from.

We were told to go back where we belonged.

We moved to a house infested with bedbugs.

We moved in with a roommate twice our age. We did not speak the same language.

We waited for our parents.

We waited for our children.

We divorced our husbands.

We totaled our car.

We got sick.

ICE agents waited outside our front door.

ICE agents raided our home in a blizzard.

We were surprised by America. It looked different than it did on TV.

It was dirtier than we expected.

And so many immigrants.

We were surprised when people were helpful.

We were given directions.

We were given advice.

We were given support.

We were given sanctuary.

What happened when we arrived?

 

How did we make a new home?

We planted flowers on the sidewalk.

We raised bees in the backyard.

We grew raspberries.

We painted the walls orange.

We hung purple curtains.

We learned a new language.

We learned how to code switch.

We played soccer.

We lit Shabbas candles.

We made tea.

We made our mother’s pastries.

We seasoned our food with familiar flavors –cinnamon, cardamom, sumac, allspice.

We hung the flags of our homelands in our upstairs window.

We planted the flag of our new country in a flowerpot in the kitchen.

We tattooed our shoulders and ankles, pierced our noses.

We made art from stones and salvaged wood.

We wrote poems.

We performed.

We taught others how to survive.

How did we make a home?

 

What does home mean?

Home is the house we grew up in.

Home is where our parents are buried.

Home is the place we can never return to.

Home is our family.

Home is the place we can be ourselves.

Home is the place our souls long for.

Home is wherever we can be free.

What does home mean?

Ahmad and Zainab

             Z:  Our new house was so dirty. We had mice and bedbugs. Bug bites made our daughter sick. I have diabetes and high blood pressure. I couldn’t sleep at night. I had nightmares that bugs were crawling over me and my children.

            A: Philadelphia is safer than Baghdad. At least I wasn’t constantly worrying that my kids would be killed on their way to school. 

            Z:  In Baghdad, we always kept our lights on. It’s a sign of hospitality. Here, electricity costs too much. I can’t show my neighbors they are welcome in my home.

            A:  I do worry about this new president. I worry about the travel ban. What does this mean for us living here?

            Z:-I was cleaning all the time. I had to throw out all our clothes. At one point, because of the daily frustration, I thought it would be better to go back and live in Baghdad.

            A: We’ve burned our ties, and we’ve burned our papers. We can never go back.

            Z: We found a new home. Near the river. It is clean. Our oldest son bought us two American flags as a present. He planted them in a flowerpot in the kitchen window. “This is now our home,” he said. “This is our country. This is our flag.” 

            A: I believe in democracy. I believe in the Constitution of America. I have faith that that won’t fail.

****

“Now I realize something about rhizomes. Being a rhizome makes you a universal citizen. You’re floating, not deeply rooted. Rhizomes spread across the land in a wide net or chain. They are easy to dig up and break apart, but nearly impossible to destroy. Rhizomes move. They transcend boundaries the way poetry does. Rhizomes are free.”

                                                                        “Floating Outsider”

 


Ann de Forest’s fiction, non-fiction and trans-genre explorations center on the meaning and significance of place, especially her native California and her adopted hometown of Philadelphia.  Her work has appeared in Cleaver MagazineThe JournalHotel AmerikaTimber Creek Review, Open City, and PIF.  In November 2016, two weeks after Donald Trump’s election, she embarked on an 18-month project with Al Bustan: Seeds of Culture, (Dis)placed Philadelphia: Expressions of Identity in Transition, absorbing the tales of exile and resettlement from immigrants and refugees from around the world.

You can read Ann and Al Bustan: Seeds of Culture’s project, 12 Profiles, here.

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