Assimilate Or Go Home: Dispatches from the Stateless Wanderers
2011 COLUMN CONTEST WINNER
DLM is a home-schooled pastor’s kid, a real life Bible-college educated evangelical in the middle of Portland, Oregon. Currently living in low-income housing with a bunch of Somali Bantu refugees, a husband, a baby, and a very cranky cat, DLM writes about her missionary dreams and cross-cultural schemes while ardently striving to put the “fun” in fundamentalism.
When there was finally a boy, and we got married, I officially had something to offer. Now all the Somali Bantu women in the complex wanted to talk to me, our conversations always revolving around babies and the pain of childbirth (a universal subject, if there ever was one). They loved telling me about every single birth (and these women had many, many children), of every ache and pain, and even of the babies that didn’t make it. I nodded, trying to appear proper parts interested and sorrowful, all the while feeling a little faint.
A couple of years in and one month off the pill, (oh, let’s just make some “space” for God to give us a baby, I recall blithely telling my husband), I was pregnant, trying to understand a body that didn’t really seem cut out for this kind of thing. My own mother, who had borne four children and was an exceptionally fit and beautiful woman, told me stories of how much she enjoyed (and glowed) during her own pregnancies. I was miserable and heavy and tinged with gray, finishing up my grad school and working terrible retail jobs to pay the bills. And then I was in the home stretch, only two more months to go.
I threw myself into life at the complex in order to escape my own weary body. We did basketball camps, summer reading programs at the library, weekly visits to the pool. I made plans to take several of my refugee neighbors to the beach, coordinating van rentals and volunteer drivers for all the aunties and uncles and cousins who wanted to come too. At the last minute, the women sat me down, told me they wouldn’t be going anywhere with me. For the past few weeks whenever I would come to visit in their apartments, they would ply me with slices of oranges and scalding cups of tea, retreating to huddle together and have hushed and urgent conversations, always pointing and tsking about the size of my ankles. This time, we were sitting in the park and watching the children play when they patted my legs. “No beach,” they told me, waving their hands at my belly. “We can go next year, with you and the baby.” I was mystified by how they could barely look at me. I pleaded and begged and swore I felt just great, but they continued to pat me and lie through their teeth: next year, next summer, if you are even here at all.
When I woke up so swollen I could barely open my eyes, I thought it strange. On the way to doing other important errands, I stopped in at the local hospital to get my blood pressure checked. The nurses frowned, ever so slightly, and the air changed. The afternoon stretched on, a forced sort of cheerfulness underlying all the tests and paperwork and chart-checking. A strange doctor came into the room to chat and I couldn’t understand what he wanted from me. He talked about my liver failure, of the blood pumping and exhausting my heart, of platelets being destroyed and the imminent refusal to clot. I thought: he must be talking to someone else. I’m young, healthy, and prepared and committed to a natural birth. I barely heard him say that the only cure for me was delivery. That I would not be leaving the hospital until I had the baby.
That moment, in the room, felt so familiar. I had watched a lot of ER dramas in my day, so I understood the layout of gray-blue tiles and fluorescent lights, the beeping machinery and murmured voices. What I didn’t expect to feel was the aching sense of loneliness inherent in surgery, of being prepped by faceless strangers for the unknown. Shoulders slumping, a giant needle stuck in my back, I thought for the first time that I really might be dying. I felt too sick to imagine the ending of this particular scenario, much too tired to grieve my carefully laid plans. My blood was pounding too hard, too fast, my temples throbbing. I couldn’t pray, but it was strangely easy to imagine Jesus sitting next to me, not saying anything at all. And then, like I suppose it always happens, all I could think were the mundane thoughts: Our apartment is a mess. I’m supposed to be at work tomorrow. And: Oh my gosh, who is going to buy the crib?
Our apartment was warm on the 4th floor, and we lived on the couch with the baby nestled alternately on our chests, a style the nurses called “kangaroo care.” The baby was fine, an inscrutable little gnome, 4 lbs, perfect. We spent two weeks in that small hospital, ours the only baby in the makeshift NICU. As I was too ill to do anything for those two weeks, I sat and watched my husband, surrounded by adoring nurses, turn into an extremely capable father. Once home, friends came out of the woodwork to bring us food, impossibly tiny clothes, hand sanitizer. Everyone talked quietly in our apartment. For our non-refugee friends, we were some of the first people they knew to have a baby. We were also the first to have a brush with mortality, to be a kink in the narrative of happy hippie mommas that we all wanted to live. As people cooed over the baby, I liked to nonchalantly announce that we had both almost died. There were slightly shocked faces, profuse exclamations of gratitude. But I could see in their eyes that nobody really believed me, because I didn’t believe it myself. I was 26 years old.
Some of the more traditional Somali people in our apartment complex wait 40 days to name their babies. For 40 days after the baby is born, the mother stays in her apartment, and people come to visit, cook food, and clean. She just sits with her baby, exhausted, presumably enjoying the attention. It always bothered me that they would wait 40 days to have a naming ceremony, and that until this happened the baby wasn’t considered a real person. And then I realized; for all the women I knew in this community, they all had several dead babies each. The 40-day ceremony was a way of preparing one for the possibility of tragedy, the likelihood of which was great in the refugee camps.
After several months, some of our Somali friends finally came to visit. They didn’t want to hold the baby; they felt no need to comment on how cute she was, how she had no hair. They just looked at her, asked me a few questions about the birth. There was a soberness to our interactions, and a sense of calm without the riot of pleasantries all Americans are supposed to produce at the sight of a baby. I was hurt by their inattention, but tried not to show it. I asked for advice on colic, feeding, and sleeping, sure that these original attachment mothers would have some advice for me. They didn’t. They would look into the baby’s wizened little face, listen as she cried. “It is good for you to stay home,” they told me, and then they left.
I wondered at how seldom they came to see me, how they had so few words to share. Maybe they didn’t know what to do with me or the baby; premature births as a general rule do not survive refugee life. I learned later that the condition I had is thought to be a major factor in the mortality rates of women in majority nations. If I hadn’t been here, if I had been there: me and the baby would be gone.
We make it through the first year, are almost done with the second. We survive breast-feeding complications, formula, colic, developmental delays, tests. Everything is normal now, the baby can run and shriek and declare emphatically what it is she needs right this very second. I can finally breathe, I can finally start to live with one eye on the future. But I have been unprepared for how the women all press into me now, asking me when I am going to have another.
At the pool, me in a sensible one-piece and my friend Maryan in several layers of pants, dresses, shawls and headscarves (she still manages to look beautiful, an unfairness I have to get over), Maryan informs me that my husband will leave me and add another wife if I don’t have another child soon. I stare her down and say no, that isn’t going to happen. I tell her I don’t think I can, physically or psychologically, have any more babies. The risk is too great, the memories too near.
She shakes her head and looks very disapproving. Unasked, she gives me tips on getting pregnant: suck on lemons, pray to meet the baby in a dream. Maryan is really preaching to herself: her one child is nearly four and the community pressure for more offspring is enormous. Her story has several more complicated layers, as Maryan was one of the few girls in her community to choose birth control so she could finish high school. I don’t know if the doctors here don’t want to help her or if it simply is a lack of communication; whatever the case, she has been trying for over two years now to get pregnant again, with no results. Watching our children splash, she whispers to me that the women in the community have now taken matters into their own hands, performing rituals on Maryan like they used to do in Africa. I feel ill again, nearly faint with the implications of what she is telling me, the procedures that have been done by someone’s grandma in a back bedroom. She wants another baby so bad she will suffer for it, and she is not asking for sympathy. She is proud, fiercely optimistic that she will soon be pregnant.
The question of whether or not Maryan or her friends can “have it all” is worthless to them; they fully expect to sacrifice themselves on the altar of motherhood, to give of their time and energy and bodies until there is nothing left. Here in the west we have the luxury of arguing our life choices, of casting our votes on how other women live their lives; but there are pockets all over the world dealing daily with tragedies not so existential in nature. My neighbors are born from such a place, resulting in a clear-headedness towards the entire life-giving endeavor that I admire: having babies and raising them to adulthood requires enormous sacrifices both psychological and physical (things we would prefer not to be broadcasted in our own land). At the same time, there resides in the Somali Bantu women a flintiness borne out of too many tragedies and too many deaths. I can see it in the way they looked at my baby, so tiny and helpless, and in the way they looked at me. Motherhood, that great universal experience, has only driven me further away from these women. There is no solidarity here, only an uneasy glance into the inequality of the world.
At the pool, I feel so guilty, and I listen to Maryan. Finally, to appease her, I lie through my teeth and say: maybe next summer, we will both have more babies. She smiles and nods, happy that I have come around. Maybe next summer, if we are even here at all.
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