Aicha likes America, which surprises her a bit. When she first came, she panicked if her young son got out of arm’s reach. “I just didn’t know what was safe and what wasn’t. It was all so new,” she told me. This makes sense to me. The twins were about the same age when we first went to Mauritania, and I had no reference point to know what was okay and what wasn’t, whether people would kidnap sturdy blonde toddlers, whether people would feed them hard candy that might choke them, whether people were glaring at them or smiling. I’ve also heard from others of people who got their refugee visas to America but were afraid to come. One man told me he put off the decision for months. He likes to watch movies and he’d watched a lot of American films, and he thought we were a violent people, our streets full of high-speed car chases, our cities full of explosions in slow motion, our banks constantly under siege and filled with hostages. He expected everyone to be packing heat.
That was last January, when Aicha panicked about her son. Now she puts him on a school bus and sends him off to Head Start without a care. “I don’t worry about him,” she tells me. He went to a preschool in Baghdad, but she says she took him there herself and called every day to check on him. Helicopter parenting? Not exactly. “The teacher would yell at the kids and beat them, and it upset him,” she told me. “The other kids were very rough and sometimes he’d get hurt.”
She’s relaxed and settled into life here. She was in my summer ESL class, and when I asked her what was something she liked about America, she said “Freedom.” That sounded a little too much like the perfect sound-bite to me, so I asked her what she meant. Societal freedom, it came out, like the right to show a bit of hair underneath your scarf without all your neighbours gossiping about how immoral you were getting, or the right to hold differing opinions without threat. The ability for women to get out on their own without being constantly criticized by their families. Aicha wanted to study medicine at a university in another city but her mother wouldn’t let her go. She has a degree in computer science from the local college instead. The thought of a society that expects parents to let children travel, to fulfill their dreams, to become what the child wants to be instead of what the parents choose–that is breathtaking for her. She feels free and unjudged as she walks the streets to nearby shops or waits for a bus to take her to the community college, where she’s continuing her English studies. Ironically, since she’s invariably dressed in a long robe and headscarf, she is probably garnering a lot of attention. But the stares slide right off her back. And indeed, I am learning that the long robe is invisible to her, like my daily wear is to me. We went down the Columbia River Gorge and hiked in to some falls, and she scrambled across the creek and up an enormous boulder to the top, where she posed proudly with her purse over her arm for some pictures, wearing her long robe, her black socks. Although not a wisp of hair showed, she was smiling broadly.
(I also asked what she didn’t like about America. She said all the dogs and how people kept showing her the bottoms of their feet on the bus. Dogs are considered unclean, and most Muslims I know are scared to death of them. And of course, showing someone the sole of your foot is a great insult. She knows the Americans aren’t insulting her, but it still feels rude, just like I know she’s not insulting me when she insists on using her middle finger to point to words, but it still feels a bit strange)
She is also relaxing as she learns how inaccurate American television can be. She was surprised at how Ilsa talks to me, how she checks in with me about her plans and asks permission to go places. “I thought she could do whatever she wanted,” she says, breathless with the newness of it all. (She, too, has believed American television, especially bratty kids on sit-coms) She asks me advice on parenting, and presents hypothetical situations. What would I do if Ilsa, at 14, told me she was in love with a boy at school, whose parents I didn’t know? What would I do if Ilsa wanted to go to college far away, not another city in Oregon, but a university in another state? Do I care what Ilsa studies or does Ilsa get to choose? We have some great discussions.
Ironically, she may have to leave the Land of the Free because of societal norms back home. Her husband’s mother is sick and demanding he return, since he’s her favorite, out of her 11 children, 10 of whom are still local and could look after her just fine. I’m annoyed. On the one hand, I don’t fault her–I can’t imagine never seeing one of my children again. But she already worked through this when they left last year. Why would she bring her son and his young family back to a place where their lives will be endangered because of where they’ve been living? And my heart breaks for Aicha, who loves her new home even while she is still adjusting to the strangeness of it all, and who longs above all to be free to make her own choices.