I feel things very deeply and any genuine connection with others that ends up being temporary is hard for me handle. I want things to last forever. Whenever they don’t, I try to push that memory away from my heart, so I can view it for brief moments on a rare occasion or two in a nostalgic yet emotionally distant way. So, I’m not sure why this memory has wedged its way into the forefront of my mind to tear me up today.
Three summers ago, I spent a summer in an intern immersion program with Wold Relief Nashville (a refugee resettlement agency that has since closed because of budget cuts on the organization’s national level due to, well, everyone is pretty aware of the political climate right now).
We had to raise money for the internship, which I had never had to do before. I only bring it up, because in my process of asking for money, I informed people I would have a blog over that summer to keep them updated on my experiences. In doing so, I’m pretty sure I talked about going to Nashville to “love on” refugees, which I feel kind of yucky about saying now. How pretentious of me. Okay, I’m definitely getting sidetracked (would it truly be an Alissa blog without going down a few rabbit trails?), but the reason I feel yucky about the term “love on” is it, in my view now, implies this power dynamic over the recipients of this love. I guess it seems a little patronizing to assume my privileged self’s love was the answer to some other groups problems or that I was doing something noble. Don’t get me wrong, I can sincerely say I didn’t go in the internship for God’s/people’s approval or to convert everybody, but simply because I wanted to help people who had been screwed over by life, I was intrigued by my Google search on refugees, and my gut told me I was supposed to go for it. But still, I feel yucky about that “love on ” part. What I should have said is I was going Nashville to learn a bunch of things, teach a few things, play a lot of soccer while wearing jeans in 100 degree weather, help drive people to appointments, and to be granted the privilege of friendship with fascinating and humbling people.
I actually don’t know what the point is, but that wasn’t it. So back to the part where I mentioned I would have a summer blog. I did, in fact, create that blog and went to great efforts to make sure I had the *perfect* picture for the banner. However, other than my introductory post while I was raising money before I left for Nashville, I did not publish on it. Not once. I meant well, but I just never did. I was busy and also not disciplined. Now days, I wouldn’t make that promise to write, because I know how I am about following through on that sort of thing and also I have come to terms with the fact it takes me quite a long time to process my experiences (hence this post being three years late).
So, lovely humans who gave me money (seriously, thank you so much–I was forever changed by that summer) and checked by blog pointlessly (seriously, I’m sorry–I’m the worst), this is for you:
And by “this” I mean my recollection of the first time I got to know a refugee family.
They were from Cuba and had only been in the United States for two months. I was from a small Midwestern town and had been in Nashville for 24 hours. They lived at the apartment complex myself and the other five interns would live. But to quote the end of Chapter 1 in any Captain Underpants book, “before I can tell you that story, I have to tell you this story.”
The six of us had spent the day in the first part of a refugee simulation. We met at the agency with our suitcases, learned about the refugee process, and were each given a personal refugee profile. We were given clothes common to the culture our profile was from and forced to wear them (which felt sort of weird too, a little culturally disrespectful, but I get where the agency was coming from–we stood out from the rest of society) as we trudged for what felt like a bazillion miles in the heat. We were on what I think I remember being a prayer walk along roads in the area of Nashville we’d be living. The main part I remember is being thirsty, wishing I could take off the cultural outfit I was wearing on top of my own, and stopping at Walgreen’s to go to bathroom. I probably could have had a more spiritual attitude.
We had been told we could only take five items with us for this overnight simulation and that we couldn’t bring our phones (a detail, among others, we all agreed we’d probably leave out when talking to our parents). I don’t really even remember exactly what I brought with me, other than a water bottle I begrudgingly (though I think I hid it fairly well) shared with the girls who didn’t bring one.
Also that day we were taken to a large ethnic grocery store of some sort with a Mexican food truck outside of it and given a small amount of cash with which to feed all of us, not knowing how many more meals we’d have to use it on. Eventually, one of the staff members came and picked us up and dropped us off at the refugee families’ homes. He then informed us we’d be spending the night and he left.
This is where the Cuban family comes in, the family whose doorstep we were left on. It was comprised of a mother and father, and their three kids: a 15 year old daughter, Cailida (names of the kids have been changed), a 9 year old daughter, Anesia, and a 7 year old son, Eladio. I don’t remember a whole about the parents, other than they had kind eyes, wore big smiles, and were extremely hospitable to us.
It’s the kids I really remember. You would never guess Cailida was 15. She acted much older, like she was 18 or 19. he laughed a lot, the cutest giggle you could imagine, and her smile was absolutely contagious. Anesia had fluffy bangs that were also sweaty. She was sweet but she was also tough and did not take crap from anyone. I saw her flip off some of the Mexican children who lived at the apartment complex as she rode by on her bike once. She just shrugged when she noticed me, and Cailido explained that Mexican children and the Cuban children did not get along. And then there was Eladio, my sweet Eladio.
When we first arrived at their house, Eladio watched us curiously, careful to avoid too much eye contact, in a calculated careless way that boys his age do when receiving attention from older girls. But I would catch him looking at us and raise my eyebrows, making a number of ridiculous faces when no one else was looking. Eventually I broke him, he laughed, and we become quick friends despite the language barrier. Remember how I said I try not to think with my heart about some memories? He is one of them. I don’t even like writing about him right now—I’m afraid I’ll start crying. I miss him. He was so cute, with his dark hair and dark eyes, always a sparkle of mischief in them.
They fed us food and we tried to ask each other questions. They asked if we were Christians, and told us they were Christians too. We spent most of the evening outside. The air was hot and thick, but much better than inside their house which they did not air condition. Eladio begged us to play soccer, the first of many games that summer. He loved anything involving a soccer ball and was very gracious when it came to my lack of skills in this department. He was constantly shaking his head to let me know it was okay after I’d accidentally kick the ball in the most inconvenient direction and sheepishly yell lo siento!. The tennis courts, where we went to play soccer, were full of kids from multiple countries playing soccer as well, riding bikes, and playing tag–I don’t think I ever saw a single person playing tennis there. The younger children found us amusing and delightful, though some of the older boys cast suspicious glances. For having had such an exhausting day, I was also energized, happy, excited for what the summer would bring.
Despite the fact we’d sleep on the floor of a hot living room (remember the part about no air conditioning?) belonging to people we’d met only hours before that night, I’d sleep like a rock. Before we went to bed, we sang together. It is one of my favorite memories of the summer. The family had a Spanish worship songbook from church, and we sang Open the Eyes of My Heart, in English and then in Spanish. Santo, santo, santo… I can still hear Cailida’s beautiful voice mixed Anesia and Eladio’s childish ones. Sometimes you can feel a moment etching itself into your mind, into your heart, right as it’s happening. This was one of those. A few minutes after we’d said good-night, Eladio shyly return to request we all pray together, in English and Spanish. We held hands and I remember feeling so alive.
The next day we were off to finish the simulation, but that night was just the beginning of our friendship with the Cuban family that summer. In the following months, we would invite each other over to our apartments for dinners. We’d take goofy selfies–I made this one face where I blew out my cheeks and crossed my eyes which the family adored; they treated me like I was God’s gift to comedy every time I did it and would request it all the time. We’d take a trip to the mall with the three children and a few other refugee teens, where we’d try on goofy sunglasses a take a picture with a big, stuffed oso. We’d play a more soccer than a summer traveling team. Eladio and I would become better buddies than ever. Another one of those etched in memories: during a break between playing a ball game and playing yet another ball game, Eladio and I sat on the curb, tracing letters in the dirt with little sticks as we taught each other our alphabets. My heart’s too soft to think about that memory too much.
That very first night, though, was important not just because of the friendship it formed, but also because it was the first time by world got bigger and smaller.
Bigger. I was seeing with my own eyes people from another country, another life, another culture, another language. They had lived (and were living) stories very different from my own while their friends and family in Cuba were too. At that very second, everywhere on earth, on the same dang earth as me, people were living stories of all different kinds. Smaller. I saw the life that was in my Cuban friends. It was the life that was in me, the light I see in my parent’s eyes, in my friends’, and in my neighbors’ who all look like me. How amazing to think that life was also present in someone so different than myself, was also alive back in the people in Cuba, was pulsing through all humankind globally.
That was just the first time, just the beginning. My world still keeps getting bigger and smaller. I keep meeting and making friendships with others, mostly refugees, who began their stories in other countries and are continuing their stories, starting new chapters, here. I learn about their religions,their customs, their foods. I’m told and read about the conflicts and nightmares in their home countries and the refugee camps. I admire their traditional clothing and listen to their strange languages. And the world seems so big. But I also see in their eyes, hear in their laughter and their jokes, witness in their tears, and sense in their love for their children: the life that is in us all.
And the world seems so small.
So, though it’s a little late, thank you to the people who donated their money so I could meet Cailida, Anesia, and Eladio. And thank you, my Cuban friends, for letting me stay in your home and share in your life for a little bit. Without you my world would still be too small and too big.