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The middle of everywhere

How Lincoln, Nebraska, came to be the picture of America's multicultural future.
By Mary Pipher
July/August 2002 7.1.02

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As a girl in Beaver City, Nebraska, I played the globe game. I would shut my eyes, put my finger on the globe, and spin it. Then I would open my eyes and imagine what it was like in whatever spot my finger was touching. What were the streets like, the sounds, the colors, the smells? What were the people doing there? I felt isolated in Beaver City, far away from any real action.

As a young adult, I escaped for a while, but much to my surprise, I missed the wheat fields, the thunderstorms, and the meadowlarks. I returned to Nebraska in my mid-twenties. I’ve been happy, but until recently I thought I had to choose between loving a particular rural place and experiencing all the beautiful diversity of the world.

Even though people of color have a rich history in our state—and, of course, the Native Americans were here long before the white settlers pushed them out—our state’s identity the last 150 years has been mainly European. In the last fifteen years, however, something surprising has happened. It began with the boat people, mostly Vietnamese and Cambodians, coming in after the American war in Vietnam. In the 1980s Lincoln began having a few Asian markets, a Vietnamese Catholic church, a Buddhist temple, and English Language Learners classes. Around the same time, Mexican migrant workers, who had long done seasonal work in our area, bought houses and settled down. Refugees from the wars in Central America trickled in.

Because Lincoln had almost no unemployment and a relatively low cost of living, we were selected in the 1990s by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement as a preferred community for newly arrived refugees. Now we’re one of the top twenty cities in America for new arrivals from abroad. Our supermarkets and schools are bursting with refugees from Russia, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Hungary, and Ethiopia. Our Kurdish, Sudanese, and Somali populations are rapidly increasing. Even as I write this, refugees from Afghanistan, Liberia, and Sierra Leone are coming into our community.

Lincoln has often been described by disgruntled locals and insensitive outsiders as the middle of nowhere, but now it can truthfully be called the middle of everywhere. Suddenly, in Lincoln, multicultural life is a reality. And Lincoln's experience is not unique. As writer Pico Iyer puts it, "More bodies are being thrown more widely across the planet than ever before." America keeps taking people in. We're becoming a richer curry of peoples. Before 1990 most of our refugees settled in six big states: California, Texas, New York, Florida, New Jersey, and Illinois, but now an increasingly multicultural society is a reality across the United States.

As the Unitarian Universalist Association works to become an anti-racist, multicultural institution—a goal that can sometimes seem awfully abstract—I point to Lincoln: This is what multiculturalism looks like.

The borderland where cultures collide is the best vantage point for observing human resiliency. Where cultures intersect, all of a sudden everyone must do things differently. I love to be present when teenagers who don’t know the earth is round or who have never seen a toothbrush, collide with teens who play violins or go scuba diving in the Bahamas. I like to watch people who have no written language in their home country learn to use the World Wide Web or to see what happens when third-generation Swedish farmers hire day laborers who have lived for generations on the island of Haiti or in the mountains of Peru.

More and more, I can watch cultures intersect without leaving my hometown, so I decided to write a book for ordinary people like me who live in communities with refugees, for other people who also live in the middle of everywhere. I interviewed people who grew up in the mountains of Laos and in war-torn Bosnia. I celebrated Eid al-Adha with northern Sudanese, did family therapy with refugees from Macedonia and Romania, and worked with an elementary school classroom where the kids spoke twenty-two different languages—and still slept in my own bed at night.

Like all people, I see the world through my own cultural lenses. My view of reality is dependent on my Nebraska perspective. As I write this, I am a wife, mother, and grandmother. I was raised Methodist although now I am a Unitarian Universalist. I am middle-class, middle-aged, and very ordinary in most ways. I have lived in the Midwest almost all my life.

Like most Americans I speak only English fluently. I value freedom and personal space. I am time-conscious. I am comfortable with only certain forms of touch. A certain amount of eye contact and distance between bodies seems right to me. Some things seem much more edible than others. Certain clothes—jeans and T-shirts—feel best to me. I do not cover my head when I go out, and I wear shoes inside my house. I like to talk.

We all live in many cultures. Nebraska culture is not coherent and homogenous. I have more in common with my book editor in New York and with psychologists in Europe than I have with some Nebraskans. And I belong to other cultures—the culture of women, of gardeners, of my neighborhood, of writers, of Piphers, and of my family of origin. I move among them, switching roles and rules as I move. My everyday life is crisscrossed by borders. It is at those borders between cultures that much of my most interesting experience occurs.

I have lived, as much as a white person born in the Midwest can, in the world of refugees. I’ve tried to be not judgmental but involved and observant. Refugee status magnifies multicultural challenges in the big umbrella culture of the United States. My immersion into this multicultural world has not been anxiety- or mistake-free. At first, I was clumsy with people who didn’t look and talk like me. I worried I wouldn’t be able to understand people for whom English was a second, third, or fourth language. I wondered if I would be accepted and understood. I was embarrassed that I was fluent only in English.

I had trouble mastering names of people from foreign cultures. I knew too many men named Ali or Mohammed and especially on the phone I had trouble keeping them straight. I wasn’t quite sure how to talk or touch, and when I might inadvertently offend. Encounters with people very different from me were hard work. Often I was anxious, awkward, and even suspicious.

Ridiculous misunderstandings occurred. Gradually, I learned to relax and even to laugh at mix-ups. I learned to tolerate more ambiguity in conversations, to speak more slowly and clearly, and to smile and hug when other ways of communicating fell apart. Looking at America through the eyes of refugees, I have seen a very different America than the one I’ve inhabited for fifty years. I’ve seen Americans’ kindness and eagerness to help newcomers. But I have also seen how some businesses use up their employees, how some landlords manage not to rent to people who have accents or brown skins, and how some doctors and police give very different kinds of service to the rich and the poor. I have seen the Immigration and Naturalization Service treat refugees like criminals and make their lives needlessly stressful and difficult. Refugees reveal the strengths and flaws of America.

Schools are the sacred ground of refugees, and education is their shared religion. Outside school, groups may feud, but inside school, they will be respectful so that they can all quarry the American educational system. School may be overwhelming at first, but it is school that will enable children to make it in America. Teachers connect the dots between the worlds of family and of school, the old culture and America, the past and the future. They help children understand how their worlds fit together.

The vignettes that follow are about English Language Learner (ELL) students and their teacher, Grace, who is a cheerleader, an instiller of hope, a cultural broker, a therapist, and an occasional comedian. Over the course of my research, I met hundreds of children, all of whom had interesting stories. I’ve limited these stories to one classroom at one school. The class had twenty-five kids; for these stories I chose to describe only a few of them.

September 6, 1999. The school is just off a busy street that is lined with a McDonald’s, Arab and Mexican markets, liquor stores, pawnshops, and a Vietnamese karaoke bar. It was built for the children of Czechs and Germans, but it now welcomes students of all colors and ethnic groups. Walking in the first day, I admired a sycamore tree with its sheltering white branches and big green-gold leaves. There is something about the shape of a sycamore that reminds me of embracing arms. On the playground, a Latino boy scored in a vigorous soccer game and his team shouted and high-fived each other. Soccer is the universal solvent in Lincoln—Vietnamese, Mexican, Haitian, Romanian, and Serbian kids all like soccer.

Inside the school, a teacher listened to an Arabic-speaking mother in a hijab. I walked past a sign that said, “You have only one chance to have a childhood.” I examined pictures of houses from all over the world—a Thai houseboat, Panamanian hutches, a Somali camp—and a display of macaroni-and-cereal necklaces, some of which had been nibbled on.

The kids in my new class looked between eight and eleven years old, although some might have been small twelve-year-olds. They were holding Village Inn menus and practicing how to order. The kids giggled and pointed at the glossy pictures of cheeseburgers and blueberry pie. In a dozen languages they discussed the pictures as if they were rare objets d’art. These kids came from many religious traditions and had food taboos and preferences. But today several ordered pretend hamburgers and boasted that they had eaten before at McDonald’s. Others ordered the most expensive dishes on the menu and bragged about how much it cost.

Grace watched them converse. She didn’t miss much and nothing rattled her. She spoke softly, laughed easily, and kept the room reasonably calm without making threats. As the kids ordered pretend meals, she told me a little about each of them.

Grace’s biggest worry was Abdul, a beautiful Iraqi boy with nut-colored skin and deep dimples. He had watched his younger brother freeze to death in the snow when his family walked barefoot across mountains into Turkey. Possibly he was brain damaged from gas attacks during the Gulf War.

Abdul rarely did his work, and he didn’t seem to connect with anyone. Other teachers thought he should be in special education classes, but Grace wanted to give him a chance to adjust. She said many of the ELL kids look like special education kids at first, but then they adapt.

Pavel sat beside Abdul. He was a big awkward kid from the former Soviet Union with tangled blond hair and his shirt half tucked in. Grace said he was much indulged by his parents. Pavel was good-natured, but restless and lazy.

Khoa was skinny and wore tight polyester pants that didn’t reach his ankles. He wore a torn “Star Wars” T-shirt and his shiny hair badly needed a wash and a cut. He was clowning and hamming it up, making everyone laugh at his outrageous order of four hamburgers and three malts. Grace said his family had experienced great trauma getting to this country from Vietnam. In Lincoln, he lived in a rough neighborhood and his older brother had been in trouble with the law.

Beside Khoa sat three Vietnamese girls. Grace said, “I put them beside Khoa because he can make them laugh.”

Ly was from a big, hard-working family. Her parents were strict and Ly had extremely good manners. Her schoolwork was consistently A-plus.

Mai was a small, angry-looking girl on the edge of the group. She had lost her mother when she was three, just before she and her father came to America. Her father had remarried and Mai lived with her father, stepmother, and new baby brother. Mai was troubled and had few ways to deal with her troubles. She scratched her arms or pulled her hair when she was upset.

Beside Mai, Trinh stared at her glossy menu. Grace said, “Trinh will not answer questions. I haven’t heard her speak yet.” Her parents had drowned crossing from Vietnam into Thailand. She lived with her grandparents, who had told Grace that Trinh spoke occasionally at home.

As Grace told me about Deena’s life, the small, blond-haired girl ordered an imaginary ice-cream sundae. She had seen her grandparents and uncles killed in Bosnia, then she and her parents had been herded into an internment camp. Her mother was depressed and her father was incapacitated by stress. Solid, energetic, and intelligent, Deena spoke the best English in her family and was often kept out of school to translate.

Next to Deena, Fatima held up her menu and, like Deena, she ordered a pretend ice-cream sundae. Fatima was a Kurdish girl who'd been burned on her face and arms when Iraqis bombed her village. Grace told me that her scars had caused her some trouble at school. Some ELL kids came from cultures where deformed people are shunned. These kids did not want to hold her hand. "In America," Grace had exclaimed, "we treat all people with respect."

Grace asked the class to write a story about a family who forgets to do some jobs. I pulled my little chair up by Abdul. He bristled and turned away as if he were allergic to me. For the first time that day, however, he did some work. He hunched away from me, working on his assignment so that I wouldn't stay with him. Grimly, I reflected that I was helping him, but it wasn't much fun.

When it was time to go, Ly flashed me a smile and said, "I'll see you next Monday, Miss Mary." Trinh and Deena slipped out, but Fatima waved shyly at me. I gave Abdul a hug, but he shrugged it off.

October 14, 1999. Amazingly, Abdul asked for my help with a spelling test, and I went to sit by him. With me almost doing his work, we completed the spelling test. He never looked at me, but he smiled when I helped him, and afterward, he showed his paper to the other students.

Fatima's teeth were very crooked. I wondered if their parents would be able to afford orthodontists later. Many of the kids had bad breath, and I wondered if they came from countries without toothbrushes.

Grace explained that Americans brush their teeth two times a day and that we take showers daily. The kids were amazed by this fact. Ly said, "You will get sick if you take baths when it is cold." Grace said, "Not really, but in the winter you must dry off very well and put on warm clothes right after your bath."

Grace said the kids could draw something from their old countries. Trinh drew a river with black water. Mai drew a picture of her hut in Vietnam. In front was her mother, a stick figure, holding the hand of Mai, also a stick figure, but with a big smile.

Ly drew a plane that looked like a silver bird. She told me the villagers thought that she rode on this silver bird to her home in the clouds. She giggled, "We thought America would be in the sky."

Khoa drew a rice field with an old man in it and said, "That is my dead grandpa." Pavel drew a picture of his family at a dinner table with empty plates, and he said, "In Russia people had no money to buy soup." Deena drew a street filled with dead bodies.

I marveled at these kids' resilience. Many had been here only a few months. They had been starved, shot at, and terrorized, and yet here they were drawing and talking. Some seemed more emotionally mangled than others. It is not surprising that traumatized kids who don't speak much English have trouble learning. What is surprising given their circumstances is how much and how quickly most kids learn.

November 17, 1999. When I got to class, Fatima reported that Nibbles the rat had died the day before. Deena had immediately developed a headache. Mai had pulled her own hair. Abdul had punched another boy. Fortunately Grace had channeled their grief into a service for Nibbles. The funeral had been well handled, but I could see their grief.

When the class was ready to work, Grace suggested we do family drawings. Abdul smiled his Mona Lisa smile and drew fish with teeth and wheels where they should have fins. Khoa's drawing was the biggest and most colorful. He had drawn his siblings around his parents with a big red heart in the center of the picture and everyone holding hands. He pointed to the tallest brother and said, 'My dad hired a lawyer. We'll get his butt out of jail."

Mai drew a picture of her father, stepmother, and baby brother. I asked her why she was not in the picture, and she said, "I am in Vietnam." I asked if she had a picture of her mother and she nodded yes. I said, "Carry that picture with you and whenever you look at it, your mother will be smiling at you." She looked at me carefully and then nodded again.

Abdul and Khoa picked at each other, trying to start a fight. I remembered something Grace had told me earlier about Abdul. She had described him as not following rules. But she said, "He recently arrived from a war zone and there were no rules. No good rules, anyway." She told me about a Bosnian boy whose dad had taught him, "Always attack first."

Grace took out a picture book and told them the story of the Mayflower. Fatima was impressed that there were no bathrooms on the Mayflower, a fact that generated a host of raucous remarks from Khoa.

Grace showed them pictures of the Mayflower landing and of the Native Americans helping them plant corn by burying little fish by each plant. When Grace showed a picture of Massasoit, the Native leader at the first Thanksgiving, Ly said, "He looks Vietnamese."

Khoa shouted with great enthusiasm, "Let's all meet at school for Thanksgiving dinner."

Pavel said, "I will go shoot rabbits for our food."

Deena said, "Please don't kill a rabbit."

Ly announced that last night someone had thrown a rock in the window of their home. Grace asked if her parents called the police, and she nodded. The children discussed robbers and getting hurt. Deena, Mai, and Pavel seemed especially anxious during this discussion. Grace tried to make good things happen but the tone remained somber. We kept returning to themes of loss. Nibbles’s death had cast a pall over the class.

November 24, 1999—Thanksgiving Day Celebration. Grace reminded the class of the Thanksgiving Day story and read a book on the arrival of the Vietnamese boat people in America. Trinh listened with interest. Mai looked at the pictures of Vietnam closely and twice whispered something to Khoa. When he examined the cover to the book, Khoa said happily, "That boy was my friend in Vietnam."

A few minutes after nine, we marched to the next-door classroom. The students from the other ELL classroom had prepared a tablecloth on the floor with hand-decorated paper napkins. Grace led the class in songs. As they belted out the songs, all the random energy became group energy.

I reflected how fitting it was that this class celebrate Thanksgiving, the refugee’s holiday, the holiday that said we came to a new land and endured hardships, but we survived. The Native Americans said to the Pilgrims, "Welcome, there is room for us all. We will help you until you can take care of yourselves."

The Sycamore students’ stories were unique to their places and times, yet universal to the American condition. The refugee kids had tales as harrowing as that of the Pilgrims, but now they were warm, well fed, and safe. Of course, there was sadness and poverty in the room, but there was also the sweet glaze of hope.

While two students passed out slices of bread and pumpkin pie, Grace served cups of chicken soup. Then she said, "Let's all go around the table and say what we are thankful for." Trinh whispered, "My house," so quietly only a few of us heard her. Khoa shouted out, "Toys and pizza."

Abdul didn’t want to answer, but when Grace pushed he said shyly, "My teachers." Deena said, "For our church that gave us clothes and furniture." Fatima said, "I am thankful to the hospital that treated my burns." Everyone cheered. Ly said, "I am thankful for Miss Mary." I asked myself, How did I deserve this honor?

We ate the good healthy soup in silence. Unlike many American children, these children don’t take food for granted. They came from places where food is respected and where people had been hungry. But today’s meal was more than vitamin supplements designed to keep humans alive. Food celebrated the soul of our little community. Sharing food has a special meaning all over the world. It is our most ancient and beautiful ritual of connection.

What a good time. It takes so little to make a party with children—a little food and permission to dance and sing. I was happier than I usually felt. The energy and joy were infectious, and I started thinking of all I was thankful for—my health, my family, my work, and finally my time with these kids who brought into my life something I hadn’t had for a long time—the strong, fresh energy of childhood.

January 4, 2000. Grace was worried about Deena this morning. She made low scores on the standardized tests that require fluent English, a common problem for ELL kids. But her parents felt she should have made 100 percent on this test. Grace had tried to explain that no one made a 100 percent, but Deena’s father felt Grace was being too easy on Deena. They had ordered her to her room from after school until bedtime every day for a month. Still, Deena didn’t seem too much the worse for wear. At least she knew her parents considered education important.

Ly was more restless this morning. As she had assimilated, she’d grown louder, more assertive, and more American in her actions. Today she’d rapidly finished her seatwork and she looked disgusted that others were so slow. Ly had blossomed into a confident, loving girl, who every now and then was mouthy and impatient.

Abdul came in at 9. He had grown taller in the two weeks since I'd seen him.

The students kept their jackets on. Ly sat gratefully by my side, not so much listening to my reading as absorbing me. She told me her family was Buddhist and didn't get a Christmas tree. I knew she had wanted a tree—it's understandable in a country where Christmas is on TV from October until January. We were all happy to be back together after the holiday break. Even a cold room with a wheezing heater had clean paper, sharp pencils, and a teacher to suggest that the universe was a bright, well-organized place that smelled like books and chalk.

Grace had a big clear plastic globe for the lesson, and she found the country of each of the students and asked them to tell about their homelands. Deena said, "Bosnia used to be a beautiful place with many forests." "There were floods in Vietnam every year during our rainy season,” Ly said. Khoa added, "There were cobras and rats in the rice fields." Pavel said, "It snows all winter long in Russia."

February 4, 2000. It was a gray, cold day, the kind of day that induces epidemic seasonal affective disorder. I was glad I had these kids to cheer me up. But this morning no one jumped up, as they sometimes did, to shout, "Miss Mary, sit by me."

Grace looked tired. She had a bad cold and had been at the school every night. Fortunately, the class was getting ready to celebrate Tet. As students filed in, I filled red-and-gold envelopes with money and notes. Then I sat by Mai and Fatima, and we looked at a book filled with pictures of flowers and butterflies, a good book for February.

Mai told me her father’s factory was having layoffs. As she chatted with me, I realized that we had a friendship of sorts. I liked and understood this tiny, angry girl, and she liked me, a gray-haired psychologist. It was a proud moment.

Grace read a story about Vietnam called "The Lotus Seed." The kids listened, but afterward, they wouldn't do their seatwork. Usually, this class liked group work; they were a collective culture and floundered when they were left on their own. I wondered how they would change as they moved into the American system.

When all else failed, Grace encouraged stories. Khoa said, "When we flew to America we came across a great ocean." Abdul told how his family had been airlifted by helicopter from a place in the desert. Deena said they had dinner on the plane. "Very delicious. Ice and noodles."

Khoa told of Tet in Vietnam at his grandmother's house. He had burned incense sticks on a shrine to his relatives. He showed us some incense sticks. Almost all these kids carried totems of their former countries. Mai had her mother’s picture. Pavel still had his favorite toys from Russia. Fatima carried a twig with one green leaf that her grandmother sent her from Iraq. Deena's grandmother sent her spinach gum that she passed around.

I asked about the future. Fatima said she would like to be a bride in a beautiful white American dress. Ly said she would be a doctor in Vietnam. Khoa said he would be a criminal, but when nobody laughed, he changed his future career to fireman.

Grace pulled the shades, turned off the lights, and turned on the video. We got to see a movie of "The Lotus Seed," which began with a poem.

Nothing that grows in a pond
Surpasses the beauty of a lotus flower
With its green leaves and silky yellow styles
Amidst milky white petals
Though mired in mud, its silky yellow styles,
Its milky white petals and green leaves
Do not smell of mud.

In the film, women in traditional gowns sell flowers along the Perfume River in Hue. But the hero is a young girl who tells the story of the lotus. All of the kids were spellbound, but especially Khoa, Mai, Ly, and Trinh. The lotus seed could survive cold and fire, last a hundred years, and still grow all over the world. The lotus was a good symbol for Ly. She had been through so much, in so much metaphorical mud, and yet, she was emerging clean and beautiful.

Khoa loudly said, "When this movie ends, I will explain everything to you." Mai shouted, "I come from a town like that one." Twice Khoa shouted out, "I know her." Once Ly said, "That is my friend." For the first time all year, Trinh’s eyes were sparkly and her face shone. She sat taller, and she looked proud.

I thought how rarely Trinh saw a face like hers on TV, how rarely the hero of any story was a ten-year-old Vietnamese girl. This was too bad since many girls like Ly and Trinh were heroes and deserved to be recognized. Also, it helped all girls see themselves reflected in that great mirror of life, the television. Being represented signaled the girls that their story mattered. As I watched Trinh become animated, I realized how badly she needed to hear that message.

We need to hear refugee stories; they are more interesting and hopeful than many of the stories we do hear. We Americans watch more movies about space aliens and serial killers than we do about Vietnamese children. But today Trinh blossomed. She spoke for the first time in class. She said, "That little girl looked like me."

As the children left, I handed out lisi, the special red-and-gold packets with dollar bills. Grace was smiling. I was temporarily cured of my seasonal affective disorder.

February 16, 2000. Abdul arrived wearing a new blue-and-white checkered shirt. With his creamy skin and big, liquid eyes, his appearance was perfect, but his psyche had been damaged. The pathology of the world had injured this boy. How different the Gulf War must have looked to Abdul than it had to me.

In fact, all the historical events these kids had experienced seem different to me now. I am much more aware now that many Vietnamese paid a terrible price for being our friends during what they call the American War. The wars in Croatia and Bosnia seem much sadder now that I know children from those countries. Now, every war has a human face. Nothing is abstract and faraway anymore.

This week the spelling words were about feelings. Grace read a book entitled, What Would You Do? The first question was, “What would you do if you went home from school and were locked out?” Pavel said, “I would break in.”

This led to another animated round of robbery stories. The kids thought that in America all robbers were African Americans. Grace worked to dispel this myth, but there was a big issue here. Fatima said she had seen blacks stab people on television, and Abdul said his parents were afraid of blacks and wouldn’t go out at night for fear black people would rob them. This fear came mostly from watching television and movies where so often African Americans are portrayed as criminals. Images become beliefs.

Grace explained 911 and also what to do if your parents are not home after school—look for a Neighborhood Watch house sign in a window, go to that house, and call the police. The kids were clearly skeptical. Many came from countries where the police were associated with violence against ordinary people.

We moved back to the word “sad.” Deena felt sad in Bosnia whenever she heard gunfire. Mai said, “I felt sad when my mother died.” Grace hugged her and said, “I am glad you told us that.” Khoa said, “I would feel sad if a dog barfed on me.” Everyone laughed.

Pavel said, “I am sad when kids pick on me.” That led to a discussion of bullies and prejudice, which all of the kids had experienced. It was hard to sort out which were usual school bully stories and which were stories of prejudice. These kids, like the African Americans they feared, were sometimes unfairly pegged as having a host of undesirable qualities.

Grace talked about prejudice, about how it came from fear and ignorance and about how it could hurt people’s feelings. She asked the class to promise her they wouldn’t be prejudiced and hurtful of others. They solemnly nodded.

She said that if the kids were picked on, they should tell a teacher. Abdul made his fists like boxing gloves and said, “I would fight the bullies.” All of the boys loudly agreed. Ly said, “I don’t think a teacher would help.” Silently, I had to agree with Ly.

May 23, 2000. My last day I walked past the sycamore, with its crown of new green leaves, and entered the school. Some things hadn’t changed. Khoa was still a troublemaker, but he had learned English. Trinh wore the same clothes, but with Deena’s help she had crawled a little ways out of her shell. Trinh was quiet, but she smiled at me twice. Mai was better, too. She no longer scratched herself, and she talked more positively about her stepmother and baby brother. She was reaching out for love, and others were reaching back.

Deena was more confident now. Helping her own family and Trinh had given her courage and maturity. Still, I worried about all the school Deena missed while she translated for her family. I remembered a line I’d read: “No one gets ahead in America without leaving people behind.” Deena wasn’t leaving anyone behind.

Grace handed out a word puzzle based on summer words. Abdul asked for my help, and I sat down beside him. He told me he had helped paint some of the pipes in the basement of the school. As we worked together, I remembered our first meeting, how he had turned away from me so that he wouldn’t have to work with me. I realized he was trying to tell me he was upset I was leaving. I hugged him and said, “Don’t worry. I will see you again, Abdul.” I wanted to believe that all was not lost with Abdul, that given enough time and love, someone could connect with him and he could be a mainstream student and a healthy person. Maybe next year we could love him into relationships with us and with other Americans.

Ly had blossomed. She had a big smile and her hand was always up with answers. She was wise, loving, and confident—a Willa Cather heroine. It speaks well for our species that we can produce a Ly now and then.

To say good-bye, Mai gave me a shy wave. Abdul didn’t hug me, but he stood almost on top of me. I hugged him and said, “I will miss you, Abdul.”

Deena carefully put a sticker tattoo of an American flag on my arm. She used her own spit to wet it and pressed it warmly against my skin. Deena’s tattoo stayed on my arm all day. It was hard to scrub off in the bath. Even the next day I could see its shadow on my skin. Whenever I looked at it, my heart ached.

Adapted from The Middle of Everywhere: The World’s Refugees Come to Our Town, copyright © 2002 by Mary Pipher; published by Harcourt, Inc. Reprinted by permission. See sidebar for links related to this story.

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