Old thoughts, 2014

(I was cleaning up some text files and found this old entry from summer 2014, written after the last day of my internship at the local refugee resettlement agency. There are a lot of things about the way this is written that startle me, but it’s a nice memory to preserve nonetheless.)

A pretty magical last day of work.

Began with a cringe as the woman at the cupcake store rang up my order of a dozen cupcakes for my girls group (“well, there goes my grocery money for this week!”). Hugging them like my first-born child the rest of the way to the office, for the party we had promised each other on our last day. I wondered if the girls, with their other jobs and complicated lives, would have followed through on their food pledges, feeling slightly guilty that I was too sleepy last night to cook anything of my own. Follow-through they did, my god. Sugary sweets upon sugary sweets, savory treats, even the poor girl hugging her stomach due to illness was polite enough to bring a pizza. There’s nothing quite like a bunch of immigrant girls on a mission to have a party. Feasting, small talk, jokes, camaraderie. Laughter. What can I love more than your smiles, your free-flowing conversation in a room that’s become a safe space?

4 leftover cupcakes, carried through a small mob of expectant children to my desk upstairs.

Hurried preparations for adults’ class on “healthy relationships,” the usual balancing act of plastic platters on top of microwaves and rickety shelves while preparing snacks. Warm smiles and hello’s to Afghan guys waiting for the classroom to free-up (is this smile too inviting? is this awkward? do I even care? what if I actually want to smile this happily when I see you?) Making tiny talk with a new Afghan woman, trying to remind her that her ability to speak 3 languages is pretty incredible even if her English is still basic. Asking her if she’s met any of the other Afghan women yet, discreetly pointing out the woman getting tea behind me, seeing their eyes meet and tea woman hesitantly ask her if she is Arab — me excitedly bursting out, “No, Afghan!” and scooting away brimming with joy when they take each other’s hand in greeting and recognition.

Running back to my desk for a minute and seeing a little girl who’s been absolutely morose all day long, offering her a cupcake and seeing the widest grin on her face as she takes it and runs off to show her mom.

3 leftover cupcakes.

Class starts, a little introductory talk and the straight into the discussion — what helps relationships? What harms relationships? What does a healthy relationship look like? What looks different in America compared to where you are from?

Middle-aged Iraqi women expressing pleasant surprise at their new-found freedom of movement and safety. Congolese woman lamenting that she doesn’t feel comfortable letting her children play outside, wander the way they used to in Africa. Afghan men contemplating the problems of arranged marriages. An Iraqi man vehemently stating his belief that a wonderful aspect of America is “100% equality between men and women,” criticizing the double standards of gender/behavior.

It reminded me of how in diasporas we often harken back to traditionalism as a symbol of our “authenticity,” when the reality may be that the “people back home” we are narrativizing are trying to disrupt that very narrative. It also reminded me of how cynical I usually am about these notions that america is the land of equality — but listening to their opinions, how can I raise a finger in protest? I don’t want to. They deserve their optimism. They’ve certainly earned it.

Trying to sit down for an exit interview with my supervisor but getting recruited to babysit some kids for an hour instead. Inviting the girl who got roped in to babysitting with me on a trip to the art gallery. Cutting up my last 3 cupcakes so we kids and sitters can all share. Their beautiful smiles, their half-successful attempts to operate spinny chair toys. Marveling at how much English they’ve learned, how much they’ve grown, in only 2 1/2 months. Goodbyes that they don’t know will be our last.

Coming back to my desk to see a small gift bag with a cat plushie in it, along with a thank you note from one of the staff. Hoping no one could see my ridiculous grin while I nuzzle-nosed my new stuffed friend. Wondering how my love for cats was discovered.

Ice cream party for the intern exodus, interrupted by the visit of one of my girls who couldn’t make it to the party and her adorable little sisters. Hugs, exchanges of email addresses, smart phone pictures. Begging all of them to become hair product models (really, you should see their hair). Realizing, on my last day, that beyond “streamlining processes and improving learning comprehension and assisting in cultural adjustment,” I may have brought love and non-judgmental understanding to someone’s life, and they may — no certainly — have brought love and fulfillment to mine.

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