People Should Not Forget

BY: ROBERT SCREVEN 

I call my grandfather Gong-gong, which my parents tell me means “old man.” He grew up in the countryside of Toishan, an area of China. He does not speak much English, and I never learned Chinese, so we have never been able to converse. Even so, he and my grandmother took care of me every day until I was five years old, and we have a strong, loving relationship. Over the years, I had heard stories about my grandparents escaping to Hong Kong, building a life there, and then starting over again in the United States after immigrating years later. I knew my grandfather to be quiet, kind, hardworking, and willing to sacrifice for his family. But I did not know what drove him to take those chances and shoulder those burdens, what events pushed him to do whatever was required to ensure his family was safe and secure.

Driving up to San Francisco to eat dinner with my grandparents, as my family often does, I wondered if my grandfather would be willing to answer questions about his life during World War II. I knew Japan had occupied Toishan when he was a boy, but I had never heard anything about his life during that time.   In the car, I struggled to imagine personal questions about the invasion. During the war, the Imperial Japanese military murdered 17-20 million Chinese civilians. With numbers that large, it is hard to conceive that it actually happened. That infamous quote by Joseph Stalin rang in my head, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.”

After finishing dinner, I was ready to interview my grandfather. With my mother next to me as translator, I sat on one end of a large, tan sofa in my grandparent’s living room. My grandfather made slow, small steps toward his favorite black chair across from me, shuffling forward in a weathered body shaped by hard years. I nervously glanced around. Even though I had spent thousands of happy hours in that very room, I began to feel uncomfortable. Doubts about the interview raced through my mind, but it was too late. There was a slow creak as my grandfather sank into his chair.

I began with a basic question, “How old were you when the Japanese invaded?” It was an easy question to relax us both. He glanced at me for a second and then glanced at my mom who repeated my question in Chinese. He responded in a strained voice, “I was 12 or 13 years old at that time.”

Silence ensued as I nervously stalled. My grandfather is not a talkative person, and I wondered how willing he would be to discuss his past. Suddenly, my doubt was shattered by loud speech from the neighboring kitchen. My grandmother, a little girl during the war, wanted to jump into the conversation. She plopped down on the couch and eagerly awaited questions. Reassured that the interview would go well, I asked about life before the Japanese invasion. My grandmother responded first, saying, “Life was entirely different before the invasion. Everybody had enough to eat.”

My grandfather added, “It was not perfect, but it was a peaceful, secure life.” My grandfather stared out into the distance, slouching deep into his chair. I wondered what was going through his mind.

I then asked, “What do you remember of the Japanese invasion?” My grandfather answered first this time, sitting up and becoming alert. He told of the Japanese army badly beating the Chinese army and sweeping through surrounding villages. “We heard of the Japanese burning through nearby villages, and stories came out of soldiers raping and killing the inhabitants. We knew we had to leave soon for our safety.” The villagers’ fear of Japanese attack soon became a reality. My grandfather described Japanese warplanes bombing his village in Toishan and destroying its main bridge. I cannot imagine the terror that my grandparents must have felt then. The very idea of facing death at such a young age is completely foreign to me.

After the bombing, my grandparents and their families evacuated from Toishan and fled into the mountains to avoid the Japanese army. The Japanese army came and went, creating a cycle of villagers cautiously returning and escaping. I asked them what images they remembered from running away. My grandmother began, passionately waving her hands as she spoke about how ill-equipped they were. “Many people didn’t even have shoes. They only carried small bundles containing food, firewood, and clothes while they traveled from mountain to mountain. I remember seeing the Japanese Army approaching us from behind on the mountain. I saw them firing and then saw the bullets landing in front of my face. I remember hiding behind low walls.”

Before I could ask another question, my grandfather began to speak unprompted. “The Japanese army had three principles of attack: kill, steal, and burn. In Toishan, people were either killed directly by soldiers, or they starved to death.” On a return to Toishan, he remembered seeing people who starved to death on the street because of dislocation and theft by the Japanese.

There was a brief pause. Then my grandfather continued describing the utter cruelty of the Japanese army. The Japanese had no regard for any kind of life and killed young children they found. “I saw the soldiers spear through the stomachs of little kids. Then, they hanged them.” Shocked that anybody could do this, I remained silent. That image conveyed the true terror burned into my grandfather’s memory. This event was no longer a paragraph in a history book; it was a vivid, tragic reality personally experienced by my grandfather and millions of other people.

“Did you know any victims of the killing?” I asked.

He told me that he had friends who didn’t survive, then described two instances in particular. “The son of a family I knew well unluckily visited Toishan during Japanese control and was caught. He starved to death. Japanese soldiers forced a man who had worked for my father to be their guide, showing the Japanese the roads. Once he outlived his usefulness, they beheaded him.”

Despite the grisly subject, my grandfather seemed to be invigorated by the interview. I have never seen him so passionate. My grandfather was only a teenager when this happened. It must have been traumatic for him, yet he stayed strong and survived. I asked him how he thought his experience might have shaped his world view. He replied, “I am lucky and grateful to be alive. I am also thankful for the United States because without them, it would not have ended.” It also made my grandfather wary. As he saw the brutality of the Chinese Communist Party grow, he began his search for a safe haven. He was eventually able to slip over the border into Hong Kong, under British rule at the time, where he immediately applied to immigrate to the United States. After years of waiting, he reached the front of the queue, and then he, my grandmother, my uncle, and my mother reached San Francisco, finding sanctuary at last.

With the interview coming to a close, I asked one more question. “What is the most important thing to say about those times?”

My grandfather said simply, “People should not forget.” Then he smiled. I thanked him and departed for home with my family.

Riding in the back of the car, watching night overcome twilight, I replayed my grandparents’ stories in my head, stories I had never heard, stories my mother had never heard. The ribbon of history that includes my good and comfortable life was woven in part with threads of horrible atrocity. It would have been so easy for my grandfather to give up, to live out a life of bitterness and hatred. But he did not. He focused on the future and the well-being of his family. By living their lives constructively in spite of the searing tragedy of the Japanese invasion of China, my grandfather and many of his fellow survivors have done their part. Our part is to make sure that the human impact of those events, the survivors’ words and emotions, are captured forever so that the world never forgets what did happen and what could happen again if we don’t all stand guard.

Understanding my grandfather’s experience has deepened my love and respect for him. While any adversity I might encounter will almost certainly pale in comparison, his determination and forward-looking attitude will always inspire me to push on, fight through it, and get to that better place. And, Gong-gong, I promise you, I will not forget.

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Silent Voice, Blaring Soul

BY: ANGELINA LAUS

When I made my first phone call to Mrs. Haas, an 87-year-old woman who had survived the Holocaust in Germany, I felt confident and excited to finally begin my exploration of her story and her experiences.

“Hello, is this Mrs. Tamara Haas? It’s Angelina Laus, Chris Bradshaw’s friend,” I said politely.

“Hello? Hello? Yes. This is she. You are… Angelina?” Tamara asked—the decline of her health that comes with old age was reflected in the frailty of her voice.

After we introduced ourselves, I asked her if I could conduct an interview; however, when I asked her, my voice begun to shake. I was reluctant to utter words such as “Holocaust,” “atrocity,” “suffering,” and “survivor.” I stuttered before every word that would have sparked a painful memory of hers. I did not want to hurt her; I did not want anyone to set a reminder to—in my assumption—a person who has already moved on.

Initially, Tamara and I made plans to meet in San Francisco one week after our phone call. Unfortunately, she called me the night prior to our meeting and cancelled. We made plans to meet once again, but they did not go through because she had an unexpected appointment with the doctors. Finally, we were able to conduct a phone interview three weeks later.

I was in Priory’s Student Center, standing in front of the glass case, looking at the pictures, trying to distract myself from feeling the least bit nervous. I assumed she was in her living room, seated perhaps on an old-fashioned couch, whose fabric may have had floral patterns with a pastel color palette.

“Hey, Tamara, it’s Angelina,” I said. By this time, she and I had frequented the phone, and naturally, we let go of the formalities.

“Hello, so what is it you need to ask me?” Tamara asked. She was a confident woman; she knew what she wanted and despite her weak voice, and one could hear her personality past her voice. I told her that she should answer the questions freely and proceeded with the interview.

“What was your family like? Did you have any siblings?”

“My parents were married; they loved each other, and they had a typical relationship. My father was in charge, made us feel safe, while my mother stayed home with us and made sure the home was arranged. I had an older brother and a younger brother.”

She went straight to the point, as if she did not want to exert any emotion. She wanted to remain separate from what happened.

“How old were you when the Holocaust started?” I asked.

“I was a teenager, I forget. It was difficult, I had friends, I was in love, and I was confused. I had no idea. I was frightened. Things happened. And I did not know. It seems odd. Events just flashed before my eyes, and I did not know what to do.”

“Did anyone assure you? Make you feel safe?”

“Well, I was lost—emotionally and in every way possible. But my father always remained strong. I knew everyone was hurting, so I tried my best not to show any emotion. I did not want those around me to panic.”

“Where did you go when the Holocaust was happening? Where were you sent?”

“My father and my brothers were taken from us in our home, and my mother and I left immediately, to different people’s homes, hiding, in barns. Anything we could do, we did.”

By now, I did not know what to say. I was in awe of how strong she was, but I was also in awe by the way she trusted me. I felt like her confidante.

“Did you eventually lose anyone close to you?”

“My father and my brothers. I didn’t see them since the day the soldiers barged into our house. And, eventually, my mother. We were in hiding. She went off to the market to get some bread, and she never returned. No one would tell me what happened, and I, too, did not want to ask.”

There was a long gap of silence. Our conversation must have been the first time she had spoken abut her mother in years, but I did not hear her cry. It was just a long pause of silence, but we both understood.

“What helped you get through the day?”

“I just worked and was too busy thinking about how I could stay alive. Back then, there was no time to feel. You could not. Otherwise, you would go mad. I heard frightening stories about my friends, my relatives, but I could not be weak. I had to live. I did not know everyone else’s future, and I had no control. But I had control of mine. I looked for food, sometimes ate the dying grass just to get some sort of nutrients. I controlled what happened to me.”

“Were there any defining moments that flashback every now and then?”

“I try to forget. Try not to think of the bad memories. The flashbacks that keep me alive are the happy moments. The moments when my family and I would go the fields and have a picnic, or when my mother prepared our favorite meal. You know, Angelina, I cannot dwell on the past. It happened. And I am still hurt. I would like to know what happened to family members, but it is easier to move on without knowing. I love them dearly. But I continue to live for them. In their memory.”

Our interview ended on that note. Tamara had been so intimidating, so self aware and strong. I wondered if she had any break downs every now and then, and I wondered what she thought of late at night before she went to sleep, when she had nothing to do but listen to her own thoughts. There was no doubt in my mind that she did think of her family, the atrocities, the joys, and the bliss, the mixture of emotions from the past.

Speaking with her made me think of a conversation I had with the school Dean, Mr. Schlaak. He said that often, survivors feel a guilt for having been the one to make it through. He said, “It is as if you are in a plane with all of your closest family and friends, and it crashes. All of them die, except for you.” I think Tamara was strong-willed, but I felt as though she was merely existing. I sensed the lack of spirit when I talked to her. She was living, but not for herself, and I could not blame her. I commend her for merely existing because perhaps, when people undergo atrocities such as the Holocaust, merely existing is more than enough.

On Leaving

BY: WILLIAM WANG

When my watch indicated that the time was already 7:20 pm, I knew I was in big trouble. I had scheduled my Skype interview with Ngan at 7:00 pm, and I was already 20 minutes late! I was initially very happy about the seven o’clock schedule, as I would have ample time to finish my dinner and rest before the interview. Yet, it was not until 6:55 pm when I found out that I had to go to a mandatory dorm curriculum at the same time! To make things even worse, I had left my phone in my room, so I was unable to tell Ngan about the delay. As time slowly went by, my heart beat faster and faster. Finally, by the time I got out of the curriculum, it was eight o’clock already.

Being my cousin-in-law, Ngan has always been nice to me ever since I first met her four years ago. We had been close, but this time I wasn’t sure if her patience was strong enough to tolerate my clumsiness.

After a few rings, she picked up my Skype call and greeted me with her usual warm smile and expression. I could see her in her bedroom, sitting on her bed and leaning on the wall next to her. As I apologized for the delay, I was surprised to find that she was not mad at me at all, but instead asked me if I had enough time to eat dinner. All I was thinking was, “Lucky man, cousin!” and my guilt and nervousness largely melted away. Soon, we began the interview.

Being a dumb and inexperienced interviewer as I was, I abruptly started by stating, “So, tell me about your story!”

She giggled a bit. “It was 1975, ” said Ngan, “and I was only four years old. My uncles and my dad all served in the army during the previous Vietnam War. Unfortunately, they fought on the side of the losers.”

I immediately recalled what I learned about Vietnam War in class, about the communist victory, the southern government’s defeat, and the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops.

“Our family wasn’t poor, but during the war…we lost everything, and we had to start over again.”

Then there was a brief silence. She wasn’t looking at me but was instead looking up at the ceiling. I wondered what she was thinking, but there was no way to tell.

“After the war,” she then continued, “the communist government wasn’t so nice to the soldiers who once fought against it. Many were arrested and convicted with unreasonable charges. The life of those who made it through wasn’t easy, too. My parents were forbidden to have a high-paying or governmental job, and my sister and me were not allowed to enroll in any decent schools or institutions. Some people may even look down on us, calling us by offensive nicknames.”

Upon hearing this, I was shocked by the inequality and persecution at that time in Vietnam. It must have been really hard for Ngan’s parents.

“My parents knew we would have no future there, so ten years after the war they decided to move to America.”

“Well, why America?”

“My uncle was an American citizen living in San Francisco, and luckily he had enough money to sponsor our family. With his help, we applied for refugee status, and we were approved. Later, my uncle helped us buy plane tickets for the four of us—my parents, my sister, and me. We first flew to Thailand and spent two weeks in a refugee camp there. Then, we flew to Japan, Seattle, and finally San Francisco.”

To be honest, I felt somewhat relieved. At least Ngan’s family flew here by plane, not by an unreliable boat that could have been attacked by pirates.

“I was too young to remember every detail, but I remember that many people came to the airport to say goodbye. My grandparents were there. They were too old to travel, so they chose to stay in Vietnam. I remembered seeing my grandmother crying…everyone was crying.”

I tried to picture the scene in my mind—the crowded airport, parting family—but it felt like nothing I imagined was close to what actually happened. Then, I asked her about how she felt as she left Vietnam.

“Honestly, nothing.”

I was surprised by her answer.

“I was only four years old, and…I guess I was too young to realize the magnitude of the situation. I didn’t know the U.S. and Vietnam are two different places. I didn’t know why everyone was sad, and I didn’t know I wouldn’t be able to come back for a very, very long time.”

She then paused again, only this time was much longer. I was planning to ask another question, but after that statement I was completely speechless. There was deep emotion in her tone and her expression, so overwhelming that I could feel it through the computer screen. Looking at her face, I sensed a little bit of regret. Somehow, I knew it was much more complicated than that.

“What I clearly remember, however,” she finally said, “was how tough the first several years in America were. None of us spoke English, and we had nothing in the U.S. other than my uncle. Struggling in the new environment, trying to learn the language…it wasn’t easy for all of us, especially for my parents.”

I could really relate to what she said. Being an international student, I fully understand how hard it was to be in a strange place. I struggled a lot during my freshman year in Priory as well. Even now, I can, without hesitation, say that it was by far one of the most difficult moments in my life.

“The next time I went back to Vietnam, ten years had passed. I was really happy to be back, really happy to see my aunts and uncles, really happy to be back in the country where I was born. Vietnam is still my home, after all. Here in the U.S. I am Vietnamese American, but when I went back to Vietnam, I’m simply Vietnamese.”

As she talked about her returning experience, I was able to see her smile again.

“Of course, many things had changed, too. The country wasn’t as authoritarian as it used to be, and my family could finally enjoy some freedom. My grandparents, however, passed away a long time ago. That day at the airport was the last time I saw them.”

It was almost 8:30 pm by now, and I thought it was time to end my interview. My final question for her was, “Do you think your parents made the right decision coming here?”

“Yes, definitely. I’m very thankful for what they did. Had they stayed in Vietnam, I wouldn’t be able to come to America, wouldn’t be able to go to the university I like (Berkeley), and wouldn’t be able to be married with your cousin. In short, I would not be able to become who I am today.”

I agreed. Although the context of my experience was very different from that of Ngan’s, there were still many similarities. Both experiences were about taking risks, leaving home, struggling to fit in, and finally, hoping for a brighter future.

“Leaving was the hardest thing to do,” said Ngan, “but it was the right thing to do.”

 

A Simple Life Story

BY: MICHAEL GUTHRIE

Witness. It’s a deceptively simple word; completely humble and unassuming, it doesn’t feel as though it accurately conveys the sheer importance that the witness constitutes. Appropriately enough, I found that these qualities were perfectly reflected in Father Maurus Nemereth. Father Maurus had always been something of a pleasant mystery to me; I first met him nearly five years ago when I attended a Priory open house. During one of the science lectures I, somewhat hesitantly, answered a question correctly and induced a particularly memorable response from the Father. Clapping my shoulder he said, “You must come to the Priory.” His warm smile is what I remember most vividly from that day. When I was given the chance to interview him as a refugee, I eagerly accepted, and one beautiful Wednesday afternoon I found myself trekking to the very top of campus to the monastery, one of the few places I had not yet explored at the Priory.

I have never been particularly religious. Faith has never been something that comes easily to me, and for this reason I have always harbored some trepidations regarding the monastic community at Priory. Not wanting to offend or embarrass, I was more than a little anxious as I knocked on the Father’s office door. I needn’t have worried. Father Maurus welcomed me in, shaking my hand and drawing me into his simple, cozy office. The entire room felt homely, worn out but well loved as benefits an old monastery. He asked me to sit down, and I found myself sitting next to a well-tended fish tank, a colorful underwater menagerie whose inhabitants darted around coral and vegetation.

“I understand you wanted to ask me some questions.” His voice shocked me into action.

“Right, yes, sorry,” I stammered, fumbling with my tape recorder. “So how old were you when you were forced to leave Hungary?”

Father Maurus leaned back in his chair and looked at me, a slightly bemused expression on his face. “Michael, how old are you?”

“Seventeen,” I replied.

“I was eighteen, one year older than you are when I left.”

I felt the breath leave my lungs as I tried to grasp what he just said. He was my age, and he had to leave behind everything he had ever known.

In 1945, following the liberation of Hungary from Nazi Germany by the Red Army, Soviet military occupation ensued, as Father Maurus vividly recalled. “Hungary never wanted to be part of the war. We were forced into it; we never wanted to be part of it. I remember when the Russian army came to my village; one of the soldiers came to our bunker and swung his rifle over my soldier and said something like, ‘Oh, I have a son like you’ in Russian.”

Unfortunately Hungary, along with a majority of Eastern Europe, was awarded to the Soviet Union and, through coercion, force, and manipulation, Russia established a puppet government that, in 1947, began to severely oppress the Hungarian people. This brutal crackdown on personal liberties was complemented with complete denouncement of religious institutions, something Father Maurus himself protested.

“You are a teenager; you know that you like to do things that you aren’t supposed to do. When I was your age, the thing to do was to go to church.”

“Church?”

“Yes, myself and several of my classmates agreed to go to a different church every Sunday to protest the oppression.”

I was stunned. Religion has forever in my mind always been associated with the traditional establishment. I had always considered it synonymous with obedience and maintaining the status quo. And yet, when Father Maurus was my age, his protest, his act of rebellion was to attend church.

“So was your reason to leave Hungary specifically religious persecution?” I inquired.

“No” he responded, “I had to make a choice. I was 18, I had just graduated from high school in 1956 June, and the revolution broke out that same year, October 23, and I was part of it like hundreds of thousands of other young Hungarian students. But by the end of November, I had to make a choice. I was part of the revolution, I was part of the demonstration, I was part of the scene, but certainly not in any kind of a position where I would have considered myself a threat.”

The revolution Father Maurus referred to began as a peaceful demonstration of students in Budapest, but the unnecessary force utilized by the Hungarian secret police provoked widespread riots throughout the capital.

“My former Mathematics teacher,” Father Maurus continued, “who was also a good friend of mine, actually sought me out and told me that he had heard from reliable sources that the government was after us, a group of friends, and he recommended that we try to escape to Austria if we could. We knew that after the revolution, a large number of people were taken to the gulags in Siberia and executed. About 1200 young people were executed as a result of these mock trials.”

He paused suddenly, and I tried vainly to study his face. The usual cheerfulness I was accustomed to was no longer there, I but I was unable to tell if it was anger he was displaying … or remorse. There was an almost palpable dread that had corrupted the atmosphere of the room. I couldn’t imagine my fellow classmates, let alone my close friends, being unjustly imprisoned and executed. Just as upsetting was Father Maurus’s account of saying farewell to his family. Understandably, his parents were devastated and even his sister, only eight years old at the time, could understand that something was terribly wrong. It would be fifteen years before he saw them again. Father Maurus suddenly appeared tired; he furrowed his brow as he recounted the tearful goodbyes. I did not feel that it was proper to push Father Maurus into revealing more.

“So you mentioned Austria….”

“Yes, on November 28, 1956, we escaped, all of us, and we registered with the Red Cross. I ended up in a refugee camp not far from the Hungarian border, and we made our choices as to where we wanted to go. My first choice was the United States, but because we escaped from Hungary so late in the year, the United States’ quota was full. But there was a chance to go to Canada.”

Father Maurus went on to tell me that he and some 260 other Hungarian refugees were invited by the Queen of Holland to be her guests during the transition period and, on May 27, 1956, Father Maurus and his fellow refugees began a six-and-a-half day journey across the Atlantic before finally arriving in Quebec. Opting to travel to Vancouver, Father Maurus began his official Canadian life. Becoming a Canadian citizen after six years of living in the Yukon Territory, as a lumberjack no less, in 1963, Father Maurus eventually moved back to the cities and became involved in the burgeoning Hungarian Catholic community. As he recalled, “We put some money together and bought a church. Now we had a church, but we needed a priest. By that time I knew about the existence of the Benedictines. I was the president of the Holy Lamp Society, and I contacted Father Egon Javor and asked if he could spare any monks for Christmas. And he did.”

“And that was your first connection with the Priory?” I asked.

“Yes.”

After that, Father Maurus became friendly with the monastic community at Priory and eventually travelled to California to discuss becoming a monk. Arriving on August 10th, Father Maurus informed Father Egon Javor that while he was eager to become a monk, he wasn’t entirely certain of what exactly that entailed.

“Father Egon asked me if I would be opposed to continuing my education; mind you, I hadn’t been in school for seven years. When I said yes, he came back the next day with a plane ticket to Minnesota. I didn’t even know where Minnesota was!”

I laughed for the first time during the interview at that; it seemed that Father Maurus’s story was finally taking a turn for the better. Father Maurus had been enrolled in St. John’s Abbey and University, where Father Maurus arrived on August 27th, a mere seventeen days after first coming to America. Earning degrees in Philosophy and Biology, Father Maurus returned to the Priory where, in addition to teaching full-time, organizing the school treasury, and running one of the dormitories, Father Maurus also began additional religious studies at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park.

Father Maurus first returned to Hungary in 1969, fifteen years after he had escaped. Immediately after arriving, he was interrogated by government officials and was questioned about the religious community at the Priory, although he refused to answer any inquiries about the nature of the Priory. After this harrowing experience, he was told that he could not leave his home village without express government permission.

When a lull finally appeared in the conversation, I somewhat self-consciously glanced at my watch. I had been speaking with Father Maurus for over an hour. I looked up quickly when Father Maurus began speaking again.

“So Michael, don’t become a refugee,” he grinned, “and don’t leave your family too soon.”

“Thank you for letting me interview you. That’s an amazing story,” I responded.

“It was nothing. It was just a simple life story.”

Those words shocked me. This was a man who remembered the resolution of WWII, who had actively protested Communist oppression, and who had been forced to leave his home when he was only a year older than I. If anything, this was the most incredible story I had ever heard. As I left Father Maurus’s office, I deliberately took a roundabout path back to my car. The nervousness I had experienced when I first entered the monastery had been replaced with a kind of serene tranquility now that the experience was over. Certainly Father Maurus was no longer simply the kind old monk who had convinced me to come to the Woodside Priory all those years ago. If anything, his “simple” life story made him the most interesting person I had ever had the pleasure of speaking with. For all his modesty, Father Maurus’s status as a refugee, as a witness, made his experiences all the more important. They serve as a living connection to the past, reminding us of the tragedies and hardships that came before us, and effectively guarding the future from these terrible mistakes.

The Message of Azata Nyeman

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.