At the Gallery students gather to read their creative writing. They arrive early, meeting for dinner first, parents coming later. They are fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. The girls wear their hair long, mostly. They move together, tight knots of nerves as the starting time approaches. The boys, fewer, keep to the fringes.
Parents arrive. We are no longer the youngest, but not the oldest either. Well-coiffed professional mothers sit behind retired hippies whose long grey locks reflect the pink streaks in their daughters' hair. We bring a little sister, and she seems to be the youngest in the room.
Poets speak their words, telling stories of parents who divorced, aunts who are dying, exploited workers overseas, refrigerator magnets and unicorns running softly over fields. Our boy hurriedly reads the beginning of a stort story and leaves us wanting more.
Then it is Ekrim's turn. In this group of mostly privileged white children she stands out with her dark skin and head scarf. Her offering is a memoir, illustrated with posters. Her life began in Somalia. By the time her family reaches Nairobi, mothers weep openly. Two friends help with the posters. They hold up a picture labeled "Sadness," which pictures a beautiful little girl in a colorful dress, arms outstretched.
Ekrim sometimes stumbles over her text, but as she tells this part of the story she hesitates not because she has trouble reading what is written but because what is written is unspeakable.
"People were so poor they had to give their babies–"
Her voice breaks. She stops and tries to collect herself. She begins again and stops again. I wonder where the teacher is? Then I see her in my peripheral vision, walking calmly to the front of the room. She stands with Ekrim, whispers something to her, wraps a consoling arm around her shoulder.
"People were so poor they had to give their babies away.The parents left their babies in the street because they could not feed them. They dressed them up as beautifully as they could so people would want them. We saw the babies crying in the street until someone took them."
Her family went on to live seven years in a desert refugee camp before escaping to the U.S. two years ago. Every day of her young life contained fear: that the men in her family would be killed, that the girls would be taken, that she would be separated from her mother. Teachers in the refugee school beat children for being late. Police abused rather than protecting the helpless. When her family's cottage caught fire, they feared going out into the camp at night. Fire held less terror. All this she told us, but she cried only when she remembered other people's babies.
After each reader, good or bad, we all applauded, but when Ekrim finished her story, filled with gratitude for her life here and hope for a future including college and creative pursuits, we rose to our feet while her friends embraced her.