It is free day at the pool, which means it is crowded and loud and the water feels more communal than you are comfortable with, babies and children shrieking with glee, stressed out 15-year-old lifeguards taking their duties seriously, moms of all shapes and sizes scattered about. You could be fooled, on free day, of thinking Portland is actually a diverse city: the browns and tans and creams and pinks all bobbing about in the tepid water.
I brought along three Bhutanese girls, neighbors of mine, refugees who have been here a summer or two. The girls are the enjoyable ages of 2nd and 3rd grade, dramatic and sensitive, both polite and wheedling. This is a change for me, as all the recent summers in my memory have consisted of me taking Somali children to pools and parks; but this summer I find myself with fewer and fewer Somali friends.
Portland is not an easy place to live if you are different. What I mean is, while certain types of different are celebrated here, it is still a place where outsiders are ostracized. It is difficult for me to find work, and I am a masters-educated Caucasian. I have seen my refugee friends try and try and try again in a system that has no room for them. Every month more move away, to exotic places like Pennsylvania or Ohio, places that still have manufacturing and processing jobs, a place where one can work and have a house and raise as many children as Allah would allow. Portland is not that kind of a place.
But there are still some here. At the pool, I see a pack of wild boys, all Somali, thrashing and jumping and generally behaving in a way that makes all the parents pause, sniff, and look around for disciplinarians. There are none here, and I alone know the boys walked the two miles on their own to the pool. I know most of their names, both their given names and their secret family names, and I can remember when they were squishy, grinning babies tied to their sisters’ backs. Now they are long and lean and intimidating, swarming in large groups at the kiddie pool. I see the lifeguards shrill the whistle and talk sternly, watch the boys laugh and confidently ignore. I put on my sunglasses and stretch out in the weak Portland sun. I pretend I don’t know them and absolve myself of all responsibility. The Bhutanese girls slowly twirl in their corner of the pool, playing quiet games and talking about school drama. This feels like a metaphor for something.
In the past, I was the guardian of those packs of kids, the eager volunteer. I would have made a big show of talking to the boys, hovering and helpful, stern when I needed to be, setting good boundaries. A part of me loved the stares I got, tramping about this city with all the colorful kids in tow. In the beginning, when there was so much tangible need, I felt gratified to be a part of making their present more bearable. It was only later I realized that the present never mattered much to them, and I never had quite the starring role I thought I did.
This past year has been difficult for me, personally. All the Somali Bantu families I am closest to have moved away, some to other states or neighborhoods across town (which, when you have no driver’s license or motivation to bus, can seem like the ends of the Earth). Some still live nearby, but have drifted away relationally, our friendships strained from lack of language and little common ground. I got a degree in literacy, but none of my non-literate neighbors will come to my classes anymore (they always, always plead headaches or some urgent cooking need). I sit on their couches, but there is little to be said that hasn’t been spoken before. Their movements become more and more insular, while mine are becoming broader.
I knew this might come. I was trained from all my years of working with the refugees that things can change so fast. Diaspora is in the blood, possessions and apartments and cities are held lightly. People come and go, sometimes finding a better life (but usually finding the same kind of existence in another beige apartment complex). The future is not something talked about very often, apart from broad generalizations. There is only the inescapable, crushing present, which ultimately leads to a mythological past.
A refugee, as we have defined it here, is someone who has no past to go back to. And so it makes sense that they idealize it in order to make sense of the present, to have a hope for the future. For my Somali Bantu (and Bhutanese, and Burmese and other refugee) friends, their defining characteristic is their nationality. No matter that most of them spent the past decade or two in a refugee camp in a different country (or that the majority of their children were born in Kenya, or Nepal, or Thailand). They identify with the country that expelled them, with the country that will never again exist in this world.
Nostalgia as a coping mechanism is one I have seen in my own people, the evangelical and the fundamentalist, the ones who long for a world that we can never get back to (and maybe never existed at all). Christians too like to cling to a narrative where we were once the majority, in order to give meaning to a conflicted present and dour future (Tea Party, anyone?). The seemingly innocuous creep of nostalgia into nationalism has become one of our world’s biggest dividers, using differences to segregate us and to make violent action seem probable. When faced with trauma in our backgrounds (both real and perceived) stories and histories get passed around until they turn into myths, leaders and countries taking on god-like characteristics, histories overtaking scriptures in importance. I have seen boys crowded over computers, watching home videos of other boys just like themselves running through the jungle with machine guns, posing and posturing and calling for revenge. I have heard people in my own community damn people, cities, and nations to hell. I have seen leaders, throughout history, capitalize on these feelings to perpetuate violent means, to create new exiles who will in turn vilify them.
When I drive by the streets where I first met my Somali Bantu friends over eight years ago, I am startled by vivid memories and the grief they hold therein. Several months ago in the car, apropos of nothing, I am sobbing violently and telling my husband, “If I just could have done more”—more homework clubs, job education courses, Jesus film showings, prayer times—then I could have done something. My friends would not be moving away. That they would not love violence, or get married at age 15, or be crushed by debt the rest of their lives. In the weird way that nostalgia works, I am casting myself as a hero of sorts in our narratives. (Later I will recollect how my outburst sounds strangely similar to the one Liam Neeson gave at the end of “Schindler’s List”—I could have saved one more!, and trust me when I say I understand how ridiculous this all is, how the past seems to hold such a grave importance, how I could have changed anything.) But underneath my histrionics is the unsettling reality that I am not needed anymore, and if I am, then I don’t have the strength to do it. We are both being abandoned, forgotten, as we forge on in a world that is still reluctant to give up the space, to make a place for us wanderers.
In the past few months, I have found myself halfheartedly interacting with my neighbors, more times out of compulsion than love. I don’t call my Somali friends as often as I should, blaming busyness with work and family. I feel tired, all the time. Spades of refugees from Bhutan have taken up the available apartments left by the Somalis and my new neighbors cook me and my family food with a vengeance (I have been keeping tabs, and I am in a food debt the likes of which I will never emerge). They are wonderful friends, eager to learn English and visit and talk about life. They grow me vegetables in their gardens, buy clothes for my baby, are truly invested and interested in me. I laugh and I smile and I take their daughters to the pool on free day, and it is all very pleasant and good. But then I look at the pack of boys that I used to know, the ones whose mothers rarely leave the house anymore, the ones about whom I used to be so proud about being an intricate part of their lives. And even as I write here, immerse myself in the stories I never knew I would tell, all those weird twists that life has brought me, I know: my present state has become listless, as lukewarm as pool water in July. As I look back, I am finding that I am nostalgic for something that never even happened. I long for the world where I was saving everybody, and where everybody was being saved. And even though I know it never existed, I still miss it so.