WHY: Living Among Refugees

I’ve talked about this briefly in other posts, or perhaps, I’ve only mentioned the bare facts of the case: that I live in a rough(ish) part of town among refugees. I’ve thought about telling you more, for many months in fact. But today, with soft grey skies and the hope of a thunderstorm this afternoon, I thought I would tell you more.

We moved there almost a year ago. Molls and I had been talking about living together for a few months. She wanted a house, a yard, I knew I could never afford that. So we drove around and I let her look at signs, always knowing in my heart that this would never come to be. I simply didn’t have the income. Eventually, when nothing turned up, we  both put the idea on hold. I wasn’t panicked yet. Sure, G and J were moving and I needed a place asap. I didn’t worry though, because my life always turns out to be alright. But I thought that was the end of living with Molls and I started to consider (in thought if not in reality) other options.

So when Molly called on a rainy afternoon that I actually had off of work, I was surprised. I barely asked her how she was doing before she cut me off with “I found where I want to live and I think when you see it, you’ll want to live here too.” She was talking fast, about visiting Baba and children in the courtyard, something about Aurora and a landlord who could hold an apartment for two white girls. I paced and waited for her to come up for air. My mind was whirling. I remember looking at N, the guy I was dating at the time and I could see in his eyes, there would be disapproval. She said, “Colfax and 225, but there are so many kids,” and “you just have to see it.” Before I even knew, there were words coming out, “yeah. when?” We hung up, and N asked what was going on. I told him and when he asked where it was, he muttered in an exasperated tone, “I knew you were going to say that.”

He wasn’t the only one. As soon as the word colfax comes out of my mouth, anyone who has lived in Colorado long enough just looks at me like I’m crazy. Two single, white girls, there?

I understand why they question it. In the summer time, E bought dowel rods because it made Molly feel better about leaving the windows partially open at night. I was dying every time she closed the glass, suffocating with out air conditioning, despite the massive box fan lodged in my window during the day. The heat was brutal. But Molly was worried about someone breaking in so we put rods in the windows. To this day, whenever one of us forgets to lock the door at night, I never tell her in the morning. I almost always leave first, and as far as I’m concerned, she doesn’t need to have extra worry added to her burdens. But it isn’t just the windows and doors. There were five cops at the apartment next door only a couple months ago. Across the breezeway there were cops to settle a domestic dispute. Sometimes–when I get home from a late night out–the parking lot makes me anxious. Once I’m inside the courtyard, I feel safe. But the lot is a different story.

So you see, I understand the concern because I feel it every night, every day.

That isn’t what I thought of when we went to visit. Y took us to an apartment that was being renovated. The twenty year old stove was pulled out from the wall, there was new carpet the colour of watery mud. The white tile was smudged with the dirt of the courtyard, tracked in by workers who we would discover are not always competent. Outside I heard kids screaming and laughing. There were children who shied away from us, but peered in the open door at our backs as we surveyed the first floor home. I think they were curious because we were white. Because we were women without men.

I don’t remember anything Y said. I remember Molly looking dismally at the dead roaches all over the floor, killed by a recent bug bomb. I kid you not, all over the floor. I kicked some of them out of my way as we went down the hall to the bedrooms. Molly would later tell me she feared that was be a turning point for me; that I would say no. I glanced down at them and shrugged. “Those are little ones,” which was true. These are the size of my little toe. The ones back in Costa Rica were the size of my palm. They’d be a nuisance but… the children outside, the dreary rainy day, the cold tile beneath my sandals and the uneven cabinets… it was like coming home.

There were so many languages being yelled in the courtyard that day. There were ethnicities and clothes I didn’t recognize. The parking lot was (and is) a mess of potholes and unevenly parked cars. The bedroom windows looked onto the highway. But the breezeways were open and there were trees in the courtyard. There were children and isolated mothers, wearied men and lost grandparents who hardly survive the transition to this country.

It was home. It was everything I longed for, even when I did not always know it.

I said yes. We signed a lease two weeks later.

It isn’t always easy. Sometimes I stay away until late at night because I can’t deal with being needed as soon as I get home. My little free time is easily sucked away by people who want to talk, who want your help, or who just want to be with you. Molly is much better at it than I am. It’s an annoying drive to school–30 minutes on a good day. The workers are incompetent at fixing most things. I wish I was closer to the mountains that always wait so patiently for me to come and find my rest. Last night I walked into the bathroom at 1230 to find a cockroach on the toilet. I didn’t even apologize as I killed him and wiped the seat clean. The refugees get married too young, they drop out of school, they don’t do homework, they don’t fight for their jobs or their GEDs. I don’t know how to help them. I don’t know how to explain Jesus to them because he is so easily entangled with my western churched perspective. I’ve cried with friends about the frustration, the hopelessness, the incensed anger I have to the societies that drove them here and our failure to make their lives much better than the ones they fled.

But there are these times when I am reminded of why we went there.

A few weeks ago, I climbed the stairs after another long day of classes and work. The sun was shining and I was hot. The children were back in the courtyard, riding second hand bicycles and kicking a half flat soccer ball. There was a little girl spinning in a circle, her skirt twirling around her. She wore a hijab* of brown with faded teal blue swirls that look like sunbursts. Her sweet face was framed by the cloth of her land, her smile was brilliant as she giggled and hopped from one foot to another. The orange of her hijab clashed horribly with the dress she wore but one could hardly notice that for the glow of her eyes in the warm light that covered the rowdy courtyard. She spun again and again to the delight of a younger sibling, wearing her own hijab of flowered print. They were playing with the Nepali girls, battling through cultural and language differences. I walked on the breezeway above their heads, leaning over the railing to watch them with enraptured hope that these children could someday heal the wars of clashing civilizations. Boys hung off the railing, jumping ten feet to the cement below with wild laughter. Women squabbled and laughed and pushed their children in strollers or held babes on their hips. There was a woman in purest white, her hijab edged in bright yellow that glowed like the sun and made me long for summer. She has such dark, smooth skin, she is what the ancients might have called a Nubian beauty.

And that was what I thought of as I walked to my apartment, where I left the door open and dumped my bags, like empty burdens, as I sat on the arm of a stained white chair.

That little girl, spinning in her mismatched clothing, she was beautiful. I don’t know her name, but I want to. The sound of their laughter and shouts rang in the open door, the afternoon breeze drifted lazily through the courtyard, bringing with it the scent of curry and unknown spices.

There is beauty here, and that is why we came. It is not the sort of beauty that America looks for: clean, contrived and subdued. It is the type of beauty that survives, that endures, that stands strong, that remains true. It is the beauty of resilient humanity that remains ever hopeful.

We came for the beauty.

And I, for the first time in at least four or five years, I was gifted a home.


Hijab: muslim head covering for women. Though, this one might technically be more of a chador or at least has some resemblance to being worn with a jilbab. Basically, the Somali hijab covers more than the typical ones I’m used to seeing.


4 responses

  1. I LOVE love this. And geez, to people who think you shouldn’t be living there because it isn’t wise, well, I think that’s where Jesus would be living. I’ve wanted to move into the local refugee apartment complex, but it’s never worked because without the government subsidies that they receive, it’s not affordable for me. I love that you’re doing this.

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