It finally happened…I looked outside the window as our plane to St. Louis took off from BWI airport towards the clear blue sky. As Craig sat next to me filming the beautiful scene of Washington, DC, from the air, I sat there staring outside the window thinking that just yesterday I was an ordinary student at the College of William and Mary, and here I was today embarking on a journey that would not only change my life but potentially change the face of history.
When we landed in St. Louis we went to our hotels, freshened up and reconvened to discuss the schedule of the day. Our first assignment was to interview Somalian refugees who had settled in the greater St. Louis area. These were low-income quarters inhabited by Somalians who first went to Kenya for refuge and then flew to America. As Craig, Jonathan, and Frankie were filled with excitement to go on the very first assignment, my excitement was a little inhibited by my hunger and I just didn’t know how I was going to make it through the 13 hour fast on the first day of Ramadan.
Soon after, our car pulled up in an area with old, worn out buildings with a number of Somalian children playing around. A couple of men came outside to greet us. While they were warm and welcoming to Frankie, Jonathan, and Craig, most of them refused to make even eye contact with me. The ones who did look at me, seemed very confused at the image of a Muslim girl, wearing a scarf over her head, stepping outside the car with three white men none of whom were related to her by blood. As they tried to make sense of that imagery, I went inside to their prayer area to say my afternoon prayers. I was guided around the building by a 7 year old girl named Zaynab. As I prayed, Zaynab stood next to the wall observing me. When I finished my prayers, she invited me to visit her home. She told me that her mother was currently making some iftaar (Ramadan meal at sunset that marks the end of the fast). I accepted the invitation and went over to Zaynab’s house where her mother, along with her two aunts and four daughters were making dough and manually grinding up beef.
They all lived in a one bedroom apartment while about 15 children slept on the floor. The decorations of the house and the smell of African food gave the illusion that I was sitting right in Somalia with all of them. Zaynab being her mother and aunt’s translator started talking to me about a little background. Her mother, leaving her father in Kenya, had moved with her children and sister to America only two years ago. She was currently supporting her entire family by housekeeping and picking up trash around the area.
The mother then invited me to roll the beef into what is known as ‘samosas.’ As I rolled samosas into perfect triangles, Zaynab’s cousins gathered around and started talking to me about Eid. I told them that I celebrate Eid by wearing new clothes, jewellery and henna. The word ‘henna’ spread an excitement around the entire room. The girls showed me their palms on which they had drawn henna patterns with a pen because they could never afford henna. Zaynab, staring at me with her sparkling eyes asked me if I could come to their house on Eid and put on henna on their hands. I promised to send them some henna even if I wasn’t in St. Louis. While Zaynab went to spread the news, I started asking her other cousin Mana about America. 13 year old Mana said that the only thing she liked about America was her school. The other girls agreed with her. She said that she does not like living in America because people make fun of her here for her typical Muslim attire. They would ask her why she would wear a hijaab (head scarf) and a dress covering from head to toe during the scorching summer heat. With her gleaming eyes glued to Hannah Montana on the TV she told me that she just wanted to go back to Somalia to reunite with her older sister and friends.
Mana’s mother started explaining to me how the situation in Somalia had worsened over the years. She said that she could see houses being blown away right in front of her eyes. Her family split up and fled in different directions just to assure safety of her kids. She also said that she came to America with the hope that she could get America to fix the situation in Somalia and reunite her with her other kids. These Somalian women served as a symbol of strength. They were all either widows or separated from their husbands during war. They all struggled to keep their families together. I felt very annoyed at myself for not being aware of the situation in Somalia.
I said goodbye to the warmest and most hospitable families of Zaynab and Mana. As I walked back with Zaynab, she told me that her only wish for Eid this year was to wear a matching top and skirt for Eid this year because her old ones had worn out. She asked me to find her something nice for her when I return home. I told her I would try my best. She pulled me down, gave me a kiss on my cheek, and said “I really really love you. I just want you to come back and see me again.” Tears started trickling down my eyes as Zaynab held me tight in her feeble arms for a couple of minutes. That hug changed my entire life around. A few hours ago all I could think of was when I would get a chance to eat next. Now all I could think about was how to fulfill Zaynab’s wish and help these women support their families. I realized that for the first time in 21 years I had truly understood the spirit of Ramadan. The essence of Ramadan and Islam – the word ‘Compassion’ could never have been taught to me in a better light.