Real Refugees of America: A Sting That Lasts

Real Refugees of America: A Sting That Lasts

You’re listening to Stories by Vanessa Jencks. Visit my blog for more information about global life and languages. I’ll be releasing two new series this coming month called Traveling Women of China, documenting the experiences of transient lives, and My Life In China, a look at the diverse expats in China. Keep in mind that all names have been changed to protect the privacy of these refugees. This last podcast about Zamua and Mohammed includes their backstory.

Real Refugees of America A Sting that Lasts

            When our daughter was born, the Palms armed up with Fort Worth housing law and required Bobby and I to move to a two bedroom. We could have waited until she turned one, but we agreed we could use the extra 80 square feet anyway. So we moved earlier than required, but we were a bit farther away from Zamua and Mohammed. I know she hated winter, and the two hundred footsteps might not have been bearable considering her typical Sudanese apparel. Without shame, I admit the newness of washing cloth diapers and the rigidness of the sleep rotation kept me mind-numbingly fatigued. Her children wandered to the littered grass courtyard behind our building when Jacob and Amy couldn’t play with them at their closer apartment, but all factors considered, I saw Zamua much less than when she first arrived.

One early summer afternoon when the roasting temperature in my bright living room steadily rose to a peak, I opened my door at the sound of a knock. Zamua greeted me with tears and breathlessness. The warm Texas wind was already starting to pick up that year, and her always-breezy clothing waved and flapped around her. I quickly moved sideways, taking the door with me, to encourage her quick entrance. She took two steps then sunk down into my ugly plaid sofa. The lack of support in that old pile of dark green cushion made her seating posture obviously uncomfortable. The bends of her knees were level with her mid-torso, a very disagreeable position for pregnant women. I was also pregnant again, and I already preferred sitting on my long and heavy wooden coffee table rather than our saggy upholstery.

Even though our living room was tiny, we tried our best to maximize seating for guests. We had two so-called sofas on opposite walls and a beloved double rocking chair with a matching green cushion facing our only windows in the combined living room, dining room and kitchen. The five-foot long coffee table fit nicely underneath the windowsills, providing an extra seating option when needed. The benefit to the size of our apartment was that both sofas got service from the coffee table without making the arrangement awkward. I took a mere eight steps from that ugly couch into our kitchen then filled a cup with water for Zamua. After she took the pink plastic cup from my hands, I sat down on the coffee table to peer at her extra puffy face. She gracefully placed the cup on the stained carpet next to her feet, but disregarded the water for the rest of that evening.

While I studied her downcast face, she stopped sobbing, but her moist, glistening hands tightly gripped the tissue paper I passed to her.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“No, no, no. Ai. Allah salmm…. Ai don’t…No, no.. no,” she whimpered into more sobbing.

She laid back into the hugs of the sofa and lifted her hands to her face to wipe away the tears cleaning the dust from her face.

I’ve noticed my mind wipes itself of memories, or I’ve trained myself in how to survive after such a painful past by always looking ahead to the future. The images, sounds and feelings mixed between her sudden appearance and the next knocks on our door have slipped away. Please forgive me for those lost details. I think I called Bobby to come home, and he called Jacob and Amy. I don’t remember caring for our daughter while Zamua was there, so surely others had been with us. I imagine I was worried since her belly was so large and her sobs were so deep, and Bobby is always who I call first when I don’t know what to do. Mohammed had a reputation of anger and often publicly yelled at her. Maybe this time had been too much for her, or this time he had been violent.

We had already worked with refugees for three years at that point. We firmly accepted that people are not inherently good. We believed people could be taught to obey the rules of society, just like in their own home countries, but we saw that even recovering victims struggle with selfishness, pride, anger, maliciousness and deceit. We had learned what it meant to suspend judgment despite the discouragement and disappointment we faced when their failures to adjust or to conduct themselves in the American-sense of civility weighed down upon us.

Of course no woman deserves abuse, but American citizens have done worse things to their wives. And, most American citizens didn’t have the majority of their family hacked to death by machetes like Mohammed’s family. Most Americans didn’t have to flee from their homes in fear of the death of their wives and children. Or worse, fleeing in the fear of Mohammed’s death and the resulting savage wartime rapes of Zamua and Narah, probably the only child they had at the time of the genocide.

And to add more dirty laundry to the already wobbling pile of issues, the country that welcomes him is passively hostile. Personally, I want to suspend judgment because I don’t know how I would handle the stress and pain. I am not above him; I am not inherently good. I was simply there trying to assist in his little family’s adjustment to a new world.

Our door swooped open promptly after the bangs startled us. The Fort Worth police first identified Zamua’s language, then the blonde female officer quickly dialed a translator on her city cell phone. The conversation between Zamau, the cell phone, and the blonde quickly progressed. Every time Zamau passed off the cell phone, she hung her head over her hands and skirt, dangling in the space between her knees as she leaned forward with elbows propped on each leg.

When the blond officer handed the phone back for another question, I noticed her white jaws pulsing at a slow, interrupted rhythm, indicating she was trying to hide her chewing. She kept her hands in her pockets, fiddling with something or maybe rubbing the sensitive skin on the tips of her fingers to calm her nerves. The Palms probably had that affect on many officers.

Jacob was with us now and the female officer chatted with him during her phone breaks while Bobby talked to the male officer. I observed everyone from the double rocker. Our living room quickly started to stink and swelter with so much anxious heat emitting from our backs, shoulders and heads. The Palms had even cut costs by foregoing on overhead lights in the living rooms, so the black floor lamp we used to light our living room blinded and toasted us all.

In the swirl of heat and breath, the female officer confirmed that Mohammed had hit Zamua the day before.

Eventually Jacob and the male officer stepped out into the cool Palms night air to chat and watch the residents emerge from their sweating homes. The steady flow of incoming cars made our stairs well lit despite the Palms’ infamous cost-over-safety community plans.

Soon, the female officer explained Zamua could file a report, but they could not arrest Mohammed unless a report was filed the same day as the abuse. I don’t remember if she decided to file or if Jacob, her caseworker at the time, was required to do so according to the resettlement company policy.

Jacob went back inside our apartment to talk to Zamua; Bobby stayed with him so he could eat his cold dinner. I found myself following the female officer outside. She chatted with me about our life in the Palms while she waited for her partner to radio in the results of their short investigation.

After a bit of chatter, she floored me with, “Who pays for all of these people?” Her chewing was steadier now. Shocked, I shrugged my shoulders, pursed my lips before I responded with side-glancing eyes, “They do. They have to pay back the money for their airfare, and they have jobs just like everyone else.” I bet I wasn’t very convincing in my daze, ironically facing the steady dribble and spray of headlights. I had just shared with her brief details of general refugee lives. Machetes, guns, war, rapes, starvation and homelessness – you know – all of the media-publicized generalities, but her concern was for money.

The rest of that night’s details have faded like a busted headlight, but her words flying on the wind, which whipped my hair around to catch on the corners of my parched lips, still sting like the dirt and sand so common in Texas gusts.


I hope you were moved by this last installment of Mohammed and Zamua’s story. Next week I’ll begin sharing stories about some of the Nepali people at the Palms. If this story resonated with you, let me know in the reviews or on my blog at

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