Wednesday, July 4, 2007


Refugee kids are amazing. They come here with their parents after living in dangerous and often squalid conditions, and then, without missing a beat, they thrive. Their parents struggle with the cultural and lifestyle adjustments, but the kids hit the ground running.

Yesterday I had an appointment to meet with a Somali Bantu woman who had requested help learning English. The volunteer tutor and I arrived at about 5:30 only to find that Sharifo, the student, wasn’t home.

Sharifo and her family live in the projects. I suppose the politically correct term is “public housing,” but that’s just semantics. The complex is a sprawling maze of brick-front, two-story units, ten homes to a block. There used to be grass on the front lawn, but it has, for the most part, given up its struggle to grow. Too many feet stray from the sidewalk, and too many children run across the dusty patches of gravelly soil.

While the volunteer and I stood at Sharifo’s door, children playing on the swing set next door stared at us. Eventually, three Somali kids—all under the age of ten—came over to investigate.

“He’s not home,” a waif-thin girl of about declared. “He’s not here now.”

I told her I was looking for a “she,” for Sharifo. A boy of about six piped up, “Maybe she’s, um, she’s down there.” He pointed down the impossibly long row of identical units. He may have been indicating that Sharifo was on the next block, but he couldn’t remember which house he was talking about. He tilted his head and rolled his eyes back. His eyes came forward again, but his lids remained at half-mast. “Buddy,” I said, “You look drunk.”

The tutor laughed nervously, and the boy grabbed her hand and pulled himself against her. “Why are you here?” he asked her.

“I’m here to help Sharifo learn English, but she’s not home.”

The oldest girl leaned across from the front stoop and poked her hand through the torn and disconnected window screen of Sharifo’s front room window. On tiptoes, the girl, Amina, peered in the window and said, “I can’t see anybody. Did you knock?”

By now, we were attracting attention, and at least a half-dozen kids had abandoned the playground area so they could get a closer look at us. I asked the tutor if she wanted to wait for awhile, and she said it was no problem. One of the kids took off to ask her mother if she had information about Sharifo’s whereabouts.

A little girl, who appeared to be about four years old, slid up against me and held my hand. Her hair was haphazardly braided into lumpy cornrows. “What’s your name? I asked. “Binti.” It was almost a whisper. “Binti? I think that means daughter.” She pressed her weight against my side, and then stepped back to stare at us some more.

I looked at the tutor, and another little girl was trying to look through the woman’s purse. She looked at me and said with mild panic, “I’m not sure what to do. I never babysat when I was a teenager.” I laughed. “Watch,” I said. "I know how to get everyone’s attention."

I pulled out my cell phone and flipped it open. I pushed the button for the camera feature and hoped that I could remember how to use it. I took Binti’s picture, and showed it to her. For the next twenty minutes, Jessica and I snapped pictures with our cell phones. We took pictures of kids laughing, dancing, jumping, smiling, posing, being silly, and much to my horror, flashing gang symbols.

Next door, a group of teenagers played with firecrackers. I jumped every time a firecracker snapped on the tired lawn. The kids didn’t care for the noise much, either.

At some point, I gave piggyback rides, held hands and moved in a circle without any recitation of Ring Around the Rosie, and took more pictures. We tickled, we cuddled, we spun. There was a moment, a crystalized moment, when I looked at the kids and realized that they were totally lacking in self-consciousness. They hadn’t yet been made aware that they were poor, that they were immigrants, or that they were living in a very bad neighborhood. For now, they are the embodiment of pure happiness. Bliss. And dirt. Every one of these kids, in their mismatched outfits and sporting bare, callused feet, was filthy. Their clothes looked as if they could never be laundered clean again, and as a group, they looked like the “before” scenario for some kind of extreme Tide commercial. They had no idea, and in the early July heat, it just didn't matter.

The littlest boy’s short-sleeved, plaid shirt was completely unbuttoned and inside out. I told him, but he misunderstood. He took off the shirt and turned it around so the buttons were in the back. I tried to help him, but once his shirt was off completely, he squealed with laughter and refused to let me work his left arm back into the sleeve. I had the advantage of size, and eventually I won the struggle.

The wind picked up and large swirls of dust made us squint and turn toward the building. Fat raindrops started to freckle the sidewalk, and I decided we had waited for Sharifo long enough. She has a critically ill infant, and I assumed she was once again spending the evening at Children’s Hospital.

Just as Jessica and I started to walk away—amid loud protests from our new friends—a chubby Mexican girl (the bossiest of the bunch) ran over to us, out of breath from the effort. “They’re here! They’re home! Look!” She pointed toward the back of the building where a white mini-van was surrounded by very small children. A tiny girl wearing a dark hijab was struggling with a jumbo-pack of paper towels. Another boy, barely out of the toddler stage, was carrying a 24-pack of ramen noodles. Sharifo had apparently been made aware of our presence, and she came around the side of the building to see what we wanted.

I introduced myself and reminded her we had spoken on the phone—about English. She looked exhausted, but in a flash her demeanor went from all business to delight. “Ooooo. Yes, my teacher! Come in, come in!”

As we entered the front door, our audience of pintsize onlookers gathered at the window to see what we were up to. Necks craned, teetering off the concrete platform at the front step, it turned out nobody was tall enough to see through that tattered window screen after all.

I wrote earlier that I don’t have kids, but while I waited for Sharifo, I was able to connect—if only for an hour—with the Somali kids and with the part of myself that remembered how to be silly, how to spin, and how to enjoy just playing on the dirt-mottled lawn without even considering what anybody thought about me. What a relief.

It was fun.

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