Real Refugees of America Series was brought about because of the change in my blog. I realized that my blog was much too broad, and I needed something to connect my themes of Educator, Expat, Woman, and Writer. If I don’t make this change, I’m going to be blown around constantly by the change of winds in these large areas.
Exploring cultures, battling misconceptions (racism and discrimination being born from this), learning language to be apart of a global context and bringing justice to the hurting connect my areas of interest.
Resettled refugees from diverse cultures often carry heavy burdens of misconceptions while learning to live again from scratch. So, I wanted to give honor to all of the real refugees of America I love by sharing my stories of living and working among them. I hope you are moved to fall in love with refugees through these stories.
Below is a transcript of the free Real Refugees of America series podcast you can find on iTunes. Sorry to those of you who were enjoying the Alex & Landre Series. They could show up in a book in the future, but they’re on hold for a while.
You’re listening to Stories by Vanessa Jencks. Visit my blog vanessajencks.com for more information about global life and languages. Today as I kickoff for the Real Refugees of America Series, I’m going to share one of my favorite stories – dinner with Zamua and her husband Muhammad. Keep in mind that all names have been changed to protect the privacy of these refugees.
Bobby and I had been living in the Palms for almost a year, and we frequently enjoyed spending time eating dinner at refugees’ homes. In general, they loved to share their culture and food with us. Now that I’m a foreigner in a strange land, this is one of the best ways locals show their acceptance of me. Even if they don’t like my food, just trying it means so much.
Either six feet or more, Sudanese Zamua and her husband Muhammed stood tall over most residents at the Palms. The outdoor grounds at the Palms attracted so much heat, dust from dead grass and trash that when I watched the thin Zamua and Muhammed gracefully move around the neighborhood, I had the uncanny feeling of watching giraffes move across the savannah into the baked land of a village to curiously ponder over the villager’s odd ways.
Zamua had shiny skin the color of Arabia coffee beans and her face was full and round. The roundness in her face made the joy of her brightly white smile even more delightful to see. Her high cheeks were plumper than those of her children. Zamua’s voice was high but rich and full.
Before Zamua’s English impoved, I couldn’t understand a word she was saying past alaahum asalam, sucran, and masalama the Sudanese greeting, thank you, and goodbye, but I loved to hear her speak and laugh. She also had an endearing way of saying “Yeah?” Zamua dressed with brightly patterned, arid clothing down to her calves while her scarf simply hung around her head and neck.
Muhammed contrasted Zamua in his dress and behavior. He wore white or tan long pants and long sleeve shirts, but the quality was loose and light, almost like the texture of cheesecloth. He was lighter skinned than her, but not as handsome and she. The skin on his face was marked with a few pocks and his black thick hair kept short. Of course, they both wore sandals to keep cool.
In the spring of 2012, I suffered a temperamental appetite in the second trimester of my first pregnancy. I often struggled to eat things like chicken, much less the food of my refugee neighbors. I tried my best to avoid dinner at their homes and instead invited them to ours.
We had agreed to have Zamua and Muhammad over to dinner, but language barriers stopped effective communication at their borders as normal. I opened the door when Zamua knocked. She briefly wafted her hand for us to come with her. Not satisfied with our pace, she grabbed my hand and led me toward her apartment. The food on the table had its chance to cool before being stored in the fridge later that night.
We sat down at their table with a large pot of fragrant smelling Sudanese food and very empty tummies. Zamua had set out bowls for us and she began to fill them with scoops of this stew from the pot. Zamua and Muhammad began to eagerly eat. Bobby and I took one heaping mouthful in blissful expectation.
I tried my best not to gag. I’m glad they enjoyed their goop so much that they were not watching our expressions. I felt the muscles in my face involuntarily tensing up, and then I forced those muscles into a look of half surprise and faked delight. That was the best I could do at lying with my body.
“So, what do you think?” Bobby asked me.
“I can’t believe I’m eating this. What do you think this is?” I complained.
“It looks like some sort of flour snot with ketchup and bits of lamb and small bones.”
“Shoot me now,” I gagged again. “I don’t think I can eat this. I’m seriously afraid I’m going to throw up right in front of them,” I whined.
Zamua interrupted us, “You like?” Her smile was starting to form.
I widened my eyes, smiled and shook my head in a yes pattern.
“Yeah?” Zamua’s eyebrows lifted and her smile grew as she looked at Bobby in disbelief.
He mimicked my reaction.
Zamua’s smile finished its spread across her face then her lips closed, but her cheeks remained high in a suppressed smile of satisfaction.
“We’re awful people.” I said quietly, then quipped, “Well, looks like Sudan is off our list for a future food vacation.”
“Andrew told me Burmese food is pretty bad, too.” Bobby responded.
I roughly swallowed two more spoonfuls. My throat had to force down the food with violent squeezes since it started to physically hurt from the feat of repressing gags.
“Bobby, I don’t think I can eat this. Will you eat this for me?” I pleaded.
“I can barely eat what I have myself!”
I wanted to cry, but I knew that this was only a moment. Soon we’d get to just enjoy their company.
Zamua got up to offer us cans of Coke.
“Oh my goodness! Yes, please! And thank you.” We reached out to accept this unexpected grace.
Sip, spoonful, sip, spoonful.
Chug, chug, spoonful.
I hope you enjoyed this installment of Real Refugees of America Series. You can find the transcript of my story on my blog at vanessajencks.com.
In the future, I’ll be sharing more of my experiences with Eritrean, Sudanese, Somalian, Nepali, Iraqi and Burmese Refugees.
Original picture thanks to Mende Mazer. Image modified.