A letter to a refugee child ‘finding friends on this journey’

In the beginning, you can’t know that they will become your best friend, that together, you’ll grow closer and then apart, and then carry forth a memory of friendship, forever and always.

The author, left, with her childhood friend, Julia Chang, on their high school graduation day [Photo courtesy of Kao Kalia Yang]

Dear refugee child,

She has long black hair, thin and flat, and always in her face. She’s nice and inclusive when you play together. Your parents know her parents. They came from the same country, a shared childhood. But she speaks English well and has lots of friends to play with in the neighbourhood.

You can’t go to her school – although she tells you it is wonderful – because it doesn’t have a programme for children who can’t speak English well. Most of the time, when you are playing with her, you are shy and uncertain. So, she’s more a relative than a friend.

In the school that you go to, there’s a pale girl, who is shy and very quiet. You two have started whispering to each other in the playground. When you go to the toilet, you wait for each other to finish, before you both leave. She tells you about her family. She has lots of brothers and sisters. She’s the oldest child in her family. You tell her that you’re the second. She’s born in the US and you are not but it doesn’t really matter in your friendship. You love the fact that she has an aunt who is the same age as her.

The friendship is great and it is small although you are both nice to all the other people in class. You are the kids who share your gum. Others know that if they need a pencil, you are happy to help.

But then, this friend becomes friends with one of the more popular girls and things change quickly. She wants to race and run with the others in the school play yard. She isn’t interested in looking for four-leaf clovers anymore. Drying dandelions in a square of pavement, checking on them day after day, is no longer interesting. You take this personally: perhaps you, too, are just not that interesting to her anymore.

A memory of friendship, forever and always

There is another Hmong girl who is confident and outspoken. She’s not with the popular girls but she’s also not a loner. She plays where she wants. You know her name, Julia. She was named after the nurse who delivered her, a white woman her mother remembers as the kindest.

Julia treats you like every other kid and that’s fine. In the beginning, you can’t know that she’ll become your best friend for the rest of your public school years, that together, you’ll grow closer and then apart, and then carry forth a memory of friendship, forever and always.

It happens suddenly. You are all caught up in your life and your responsibilities. You’re the second child in the family but now there are more and more and you’re basically a big sister all the time. At school, you’ve never talked much so your silence grows ever more powerful. One day, Julia sends you a letter, folded into a heart the size of your palm.

The letter is nothing special. The letter you write back to her is nothing special either. You talk about the day. You both make your letters long and flowy, grown-up, full of style and personality. You’re both mirroring the letters you see in the history books, the way the people from the past used to write the language and it is fun to have something to do in school, when everyone else is talking or busy. It makes you look busy, too.

‘She makes things beautiful for the people in her life’

In middle school, Julia gets a little bit of money. She buys balloons for you on your birthday. She puts them in your locker. When you open it, the balloons rise. The sides of the locker are decorated in streaming ribbons. She’s the first person to do this kind of unnecessary beautiful thing for you.

You wish you could do the same but you don’t get a little bit of money and you are not artistic or creative and so you buy dollar store gifts and wrap them in grocery store brown bags. She’s gracious and she doesn’t care that gift-giving and celebrations aren’t your thing. She likes to make things beautiful for the people in her life. That’s all.

In high school, a boy who likes Julia writes to her and tells her in a letter, “Your friend is the loneliest person I’ve ever met in my life.” You are uncomfortable with the truth he seems to be espousing. You think he’s nice and they could get into a relationship. Lots of the other people in your grade are now in relationships. That pale girl who used to be your friend, and in many ways will always remain so, is already married.

Julia laughs at the notion of a relationship and the observation of the boy.

She just laughs. Not unkindly but with a kind of maturity you can’t understand. You smile because it feels appropriate. It’s not cruel to observe if the thing you see is not something you hate or judge. Without her knowing or even you realising, Julia is teaching you how to become a writer. But you are Hmong and she is Hmong and you are a refugee and her parents are refugees and neither of you know of any writers.

Both of you read voraciously. Your letters get longer and longer. You write about the books you are reading. You write about the stories inside of them. You write about how the authors came up with such ideas. You write about your own ideas.

And the days all flow fast because you are young and despite everything you have a friend who keeps you busy and who continues to put balloons in your locker as the years go by and you are so thankful.

Neither of you talk about the hardships. You don’t talk about the fact that Julia’s parents both farm in the summers and that Julia and her siblings help. You don’t talk about the fact that your mother and father work in the factories and every day after school, you rush home to take care of your little brother and sisters in your falling-down house.

Neither of you asks questions or tries to meet in the hot summers when school is off, and you don’t do after-school things together because you can’t. Your lives don’t have that kind of room.

‘I’ll miss you when this is over’

One day, it is time to graduate. You’ve both done well enough in school. You are going to different colleges. You know from the past that when you don’t see each other, you don’t see each other. You know the future is opening up and it is going to swallow the past. But you stand together, heads close, staring at the camera, in your graduation gowns and you both don’t say it but you write it in the letters, “I’ll miss you when this is over.”

For a while, you’ll believe it is very much over. Then, one day, at your college, someone tells you, “There’s a young woman whose written to me looking for you. Here.” They hand you a postcard. It is of New York City. On the back, there, in that familiar handwriting, are the dreams of your best friend unfurling. Life has not quite gone the way it could have.

Life never quite goes the way it could. And you and she, across the next decades of your lives, will discover this on your own, but somehow the journey will be united because you were friends for a long time. In your particular ways, you have tried to make the world a celebration of each other and you kept each other busy in the kindest of ways in some of the loneliest years of your lives. Long before the world took notice, you saw the parts of each other worth appreciating.

Friends, Refugee Child, are instrumental to your journey. Even if they aren’t perfect, even if they don’t behave the way other people’s do on television and in the books, even when they cannot include all aspects of you because your worlds are fraught with the demands of a new country. Your friends will teach you how to be kind to someone else, how to care for others even as you are learning how to care for yourself.

Your friend,

A refugee woman who found friends on her journey

Source: Al Jazeera