“She has no friends at school,” says Beka* sadly, speaking of her daughter. They’ve been in the US for 4 months now, and her daughter is turning 18. I’ve met her several times, and she’s a delightful girl—smiling and friendly, kind. But I’ve heard a similar refrain from several Iraqi mothers and children. It’s hard to make friends at school—in part because they spend most of their time in ESL classes, with other immigrants. Beka’s son tells of turning out for the soccer team, being asked if he was Mexican, and being told there was no room when he said he wasn’t.
“All the players and the coach were Mexican,” he says. I have no idea how accurate his perception is, but I do know that these refugee kids feel isolated.
It’s Beka’s daughter’s birthday today. I’ve been wanting to introduce our children to each other—I am particularly interested in getting Elliot together with her son, who’s about the same age—and today there was no school, because it’s the end of the trimester.
So I told Beka we’d be stopping by. Ok, she said. Come about one and stay one hour. I told her we’d bring a cake for her daughter’s birthday and I’d bring my kids.
We got there about 1:30 (yeah. Don’t ask. It wasn’t pretty). We had no cake because the cake had not turned out, at all. It tasted okay but was just a mess, half of it still stuck in the pan. I stopped by the store on the way there to pick her up a small gift, which I didn’t wrap, just left in the bag.
As soon as I walked in the door, I knew it was a party. There were the platters of cookies and candy, and a chocolate bakery cake. (Aside: a lot of their food comes from food banks, so a frequent treat is day-old baked goods.) I was so glad I hadn’t brought a cake! I was so glad I’d brought a present! I had clearly told Beka I’d bring a cake; had she not understood? Had I not understood her response? Life is just an adventure when you’re crossing languages like this.
We went in and I handed Hana* the bag with her present. (I’d chosen a necklace and earring set, in case you care to know) We introduced all the kids to each other.
Soon we were called back to the kitchen and seated round the table with its chairs held together with duct tape, and we were presented with a feast. There was biryani and qua’boo (or something like that. They are like samosas with a curried meat filling and the exterior is rice and potatoes and saffron and they’re deep fried. They are exceptionally tasty and have become my new favorites) and samosas and salads and yogurt (leban) and olives and pickled cauliflower and several other dishes, including meat in a tomato and garbanzo bean sauce. We all ate and were satisfied, and then the doorbell rang and it was my friend Susi’s 3 daughters, all of whom are much younger than Hana. Another woman and her 11-year-old daughter were there; she and Beka are related.
We moved away from the table and they all sat down and ate.
And then it was time for the party! Elliot, Abel and Beka’s son went off to his room which left the woman free to dance. Hana was wearing a tight, bright pink shirt and a long swishy black skirt that was sheer below her knees. (Ilsa adored this outfit) Her long black hair reaches her hips and she is gorgeous. She tied a black scarf with coins round her waist, cranked up the arab pop music, and began to dance while her mother ululated with joy. “We do this at birthdays and weddings,” she told me. “I know but I can’t make that sound,” I replied (although I have tried a few times in the shower. I sound like a weasel being strangled)
The party lasted several hours. All the girls and women danced; the males were secluded and not allowed even a glimpse of the festivities. And as I let my afternoon’s plans slip away and just relaxed and enjoyed myself, I realized: it’s like I’m not even in America. I am in Iraq right now, and I feel like I’m in Mauritania in Rana’s living room, watching her and her sisters and friends dance to the same music. For this short time, the incessant rain and the alien trees, the mold-stained ceilings and broken chairs, were gone: this was a time to celebrate. Everyone danced together and it was beautiful.
*not her real name