BY: SABINA KARIAT
A pile of paper brushed the edge of my Geometry textbook’s stiff cover emblazoned with shapes sporting a spectrum of garish colors. I doodled at the edge of my math notebook, procrastinating the moment when I would finally have to pressure my reluctant brain into navigating through the complicated word problems. Every few seconds, my eyes would twitch toward the phone that perched on the pile of binder paper. But the phone remained infuriatingly silent, its silver surface reflecting the light, winking at me, mocking me soundlessly. Finally, I pushed away my math homework with a frustrated growl and positioned myself so that the phone was within grabbing distance. My fingers twiddled nervously, straightening the binder paper and placing my purple pen so that it lay perfectly parallel to the neatly stacked sheets.
When the phone emitted a shrill beeping noise, my hand shot out so fast that the papers trembled in its wake. I clicked the green button swiftly and held the phone up to my ear to be greeted by a low, accented voice. The voice that swooped through the phone in a symphony of rumbling chords belonged to Reverend Roosevelt Tarlesson, an aging man who left Liberia at a young age in pursuit of education. Upon reaching the safe environment of California and establishing a stable lifestyle, he decided to use his prosperity to build better lives for refugees fleeing the dark shadow of war. He created The Tarlesson Foundation as a sanctuary for refugees fleeing strife, a place where people whose lives had been tainted by violence could experience peace and opportunity. I pressed the cold metal of the phone harder against my ear in order to hear him better, enabling myself to detangle the unfamiliar intonations of his accent. He explained that he was not an eligible candidate for an interview because he had not fled Liberia due to war, but in pursuit of education. However, twenty-nine of his family members were refugees who had escaped a chaotic civil war in Liberia to stand on American soil.
“I will give you the number of my granddaughter,” he rumbled, “ Her name is Azata Nyepan. She came to this country only a few years ago.”
My fingers darted to ensnare the pen that sat easily within reach. I carefully copied down the number as he voiced it, each word dropping from his lips slowly and deliberately. I thanked him, said good night, and hung up the phone, allowing the buzz of white noise to replace the musical tones of the old man’s voice. For a moment I stared at the number scrawled across the blue lines of the binder paper in black pen. Overcoming the nerves that came with the idea of asking a complete stranger hard hitting questions, I picked up the phone and dialed.
A soft female voice answered the phone, touched by the same lilting accent as her grandfather. Though I had never seen her before, the image of a woman with chocolate skin and deep eyes surfaced in my mind. Azata Nyepan greeted me and, after saying hello, I rapidly fired the first question into the phone, afraid of the uncomfortable silence that might otherwise occur.
“What was the biggest change between before and after you left your country?” I asked nervously.
“The biggest change, I think, after the war was that there were no restrictions, that we were able to have care from the government program. Coming over here was a great opportunity for me expanding my dream for education. Before I came, in my country I couldn’t go to school. I wanted to get a high school diploma,” she mused. Her voice seemed the most passionate when she mentioned her education. She emphasized the lack of education in her previous situation and her appreciation of the government funding her school in America. Her character, featuring her thirst for academics, was beginning to shine through, but her past still appeared blurred to me.
“What was your background like? Did you live in Liberia or the Ivory Coast?” I queried, my curiosity growing.
“I grew up in Liberia. I fly to Ivory Coast. In Ivory Coast I, we, went through a rough life. I couldn’t go to school. All the difficulties we were facing. We had to cut down trees for wood. Sometimes we didn’t even have food to eat. And no hospitals,” Azata pondered. Her voice became darker as she reflected on this sad era of her life in the refugee camp. She drifted through her memories. I could hear her tone grow softer as she lost herself in the past.
“When the war spread to the Ivory Coast, we couldn’t go out. We had to be locked up indoors. In our hiding place, there was no freedom,” Azata stated. “Life was, it was just horrible, the situation.”
“And you can’t go to the hospital,” she continued. Here, her voice became sharper, almost indignant, tinged with anger. “Sometimes you go to the hospital, you face discrimination because you are a refugee.”
Azata explained that the area was home to French speakers who could tell the difference between a born French speaker and a refugee whose French was edged by the accent of her native tongue.
The picture of her previous life grew clearer in my mind. My imagination painted pictures of a glaring sun and trees cracking beneath the blows of an axe. I could see a dark, simple room. I felt gnawing hunger in my stomach and claustrophobia after being locked inside for a long time. Fear washed through me, and anger at the people who treated me differently because of the background that I did not choose, because of the accent that I couldn’t change. When this stranger who I had never seen before in my life told me her story, I felt like I could slip into her skin and walk through her memories.
Trying to further understand her emotions, I asked her, “How did you feel when you were in Liberia? Were you always afraid?”
“Yeah. I was, always. A bird that flies in the air, it would scare me if I hear the sound,” Azata murmured. “I’d think it was a rebel coming. Like an airplane in the air. They were using the airplanes for war.”
“How old were you when you came here?” I asked, trying to cement the image of her identity in my brain.
“I was seventeen. And now I am twenty four,” she replied.
She was only a year older than me. She shouldn’t have had to endure such a horrible lifestyle at such a young age.
“Maybe the portion of her life stained by war was brief,” I thought, “Maybe her childhood was brighter than the shadow that fell over her adolescence.”
“What was your life like before the war?” I asked, hoping for a positive answer and a light retelling of happy memories.
“I only remember the war. I was born before the war, but I spent my childhood in it. The only thing I remember is war. You know, when something horrible happens it’s hard to forget it,” she responded.
She tried to laugh it off, but I was impacted strongly by her words. I couldn’t imagine being robbed of my childhood, of some of the happiest, most carefree times in my life. I wondered if she still bore the scars of her past and if those scars brought her pain even in her joyful new life.
“How do you feel now?” I questioned. “Have you recovered from the sadness in your past?”
“No,” she said, the word slashing through the air. “You can never completely recover from something like that. I am still recovering. I try to get over it, but it’s just hard,” she said, her voice edged with a roughness that I had not heard before. I wanted to bring back the happiness in her tone that I heard when she mentioned her dreams and opportunities, instead of forcing her to relive terrible memories.
“How was your journey to America? Did you face any challenges along the way?” I said, trying to fill the gaps in her story and bring the conversation back to the topic of her new life.
“Yes. It was hard. For example, my mom had a lot of kids, though some died in the war. It was hard to bring all the kids to America, and there was no one she could leave them with,” Azata said quickly. Her speech speeded up at the mention of death, and I almost couldn’t understand her words as they blurred together. I wasn’t sure whether I had heard her correctly, and was afraid to ask.
“So many people said, ‘No, you will not be able to go to America. No one ever leaves’,” Azata intoned, imitating the naysayers. “I got a visa because of my refugee status,” she clarified. “My grandfather was our sponsor….”
“What was the transition into American culture like?” I asked.
“It was hard. It was like I was jumping in a dark hole and I didn’t know my way out. I see different things around me,” Azata described. She illustrated how foreign the world around her seemed to be, and how alien the American way of doing things was to her. However, her voice was light, and at the edge of laughter, when she mentioned her education.
“I am a full time student,” she informed me proudly. “I am in college studying engineering.”
I could hear the satisfaction in her tone. She had accomplished her dream, overcome obstacles, and thrown herself into a new world in order to achieve her goal of education and to build a new life for herself. If I were in her place, I knew I would have been terrified to leave everything I had ever known, to throw it all away and come to America. But the most definite answer Azata gave me came after the question: “Do you ever regret leaving your country?” Her reply was a resounding, “No” that split the air like a gunshot. The same answer was given when asked whether she had any options other than coming to America. She did not hesitate, did not think twice about her response. To her, leaving was the obvious choice.
I decided that it was time to confront the sensitive topics that I had tried to skirt around. Part of me thought it was impolite or even cruel to bring up such heavy discussion into our conversation, and to invoke her darker memories, but I felt that I had to know.
“How was your family affected by the war?” I said. I bit my lip, the way I usually do when I am nervous or fearful.
“We lost everything. We lost family members. There was the hunger that killed my brother. My uncle got killed too. My uncle’s wife got killed. My childhood friend got killed. There was a lot of separation. My cousins, some of them lost their family,” she described. Her voice remained steady throughout the description. It was as if she was using the phone as a mask, and beneath the thinly veiled cover were powerful emotions. I suddenly felt like I was infringing in a place I didn’t belong, lifting the canvas off a hidden painting, or exposing something that I wasn’t meant to see.
“I hope you’re okay telling us this,” I said, “I hope the interview hasn’t upset you.”
“Oh no!” she stated reassuringly, “I talk about it all the time. Now, it helps me to talk about it. Because now I can feel more comfortable. Before if I start talking about it I start crying.”
“I want to get the message out,” she continued, more confident now. “Women and children are always the victims of war. I just want to get the message out.”
I thanked her vehemently for telling me her story, said goodnight, and hung up the phone. The silence that followed was utterly devoid of sound, but her words still echoed in my ears. I glanced back at my math homework that lay sprawled on my desk, the homework that I complained about every night. There were people out there like Azata who had lived without food, without safety, and without a home. They had lost their childhoods, their family members, everything. Still, her foremost priority had always been education. The interview had jolted me out of my little world, past my selfish obsession with shallow grievances. It showed me that people who have truly suffered are not that far away, and that they are not that different. I also glimpsed the pointlessness of war and the pain it inflicted on people. Now I realize how much we have, and how much we have to lose. Azata Nyeman did get her message out. I am one of the people who received it.