It was a chilly December night. The full moon was giving “new beginning” vibes, and that alone was enough to convince me I was doing the right thing.
It had been two months since my family and I had moved to the US through the UNHCR relocation program. I thought the neighborhood was a bit creepy when I first got here. The cold air, tall trees, and deserted streets gave the place a gloomy feel. The perfectly green grass in front of almost every house was a nice colorful touch, though, and when the streetlights came on in the early evening, it was beautiful. Emigrating to this place, after years of sacrifice and toil, had cost us everything. I was supposed to feel some kind of relief when I thought of the fact that we had “made it.” But somehow I always found myself trying to suppress a feeling of anxiety. Fitting into this entirely new society where literally everything was so different kind of scared me. I was scared because I had spent almost my entire life in transit, constantly moving from one place to another, in the hope that one day we would reach the “final destination” all refugees dream of. Now that I am finally here, instead of being excited, I feel scared. Scared that maybe I will never really fit into the Western world where traditional African cultures and beliefs are irrelevant. But tonight was my reinvention. Tonight I decided to break free from all those silly psychological chains, to let go of the old and embrace the new. And anyway, I’d never really done anything rebellious, I thought as I closely examined my features in the mirror. What would be the big deal if I explored a little?
My thoughts were soon interrupted by my mother’s voice shouting my name from the living room. “Dunia! Uko wapi?!” I rolled my eyes. It was annoying that my mother insisted on screaming in our native language, Swahili, instead of practicing and encouraging us to speak English at home. It’s not that I don’t like our language, but I am rather tired of standing out in every neighborhood, every school, and every place we stay as “the foreigners.” For once, I wanted to remain discreet about our background. When I didn’t answer, Mom came into my room, still in her dry cleaner’s uniform. She looked so tired. “Uko na fanya nini?” “I am just tidying my room, Mom,” I replied, as I scrambled to hide the makeup that was scattered all over the dressing table. She briefly gave me some instructions and duties to perform tomorrow, which included doing the laundry, helping my siblings with their homework, and grabbing some essentials from the grocery store. I immediately agreed, trying not to draw any attention to my made-up face, but Mom was too tired to notice and left my room as quickly as she came in. I let out a sigh of relief that she hadn’t noticed the clothes laid out on the bed or that my hair was styled. Happy that I had succeeded, I continued preparing myself.
A while later, my phone rang. It was Agatha texting me they were parked outside. Agatha was a friend I had met at my new school. She is fun to be around and with her I never feel left out. Agatha was a mixed-race student on an exchange program. She was pretty wild for a girl with a Kenyan mom. I guess I always assumed African children were all, well, like me. Reserved. But when I met her, my entire perspective changed. I liked her because she spoke Swahili too, and her Kenyan accent made me giggle. Her time in the States was limited, and I always assumed that’s why she was an outgoing spirit. Or maybe it was the fact that her father was Irish? A while ago, I would have looked at girls like her and cringed at the way she dressed, exposing too much skin, and the way she spoke without a filter. But it wasn’t long before I caught myself thinking it was all normal. Sometimes I’d sit and marvel at how much I had changed in a very short amount of time, and I pictured my Dad’s very disappointed face the day he found out I was living a double life. But sometimes I’d think, I’m only getting older, eventually I’ll have to find my own path… right?
So when Agatha invited me to join her and “the guys” to a party, I didn’t refuse like the past hundred times. I took a last glance at myself in the mirror, practiced a few facial expressions, and was ready to head out. I noiselessly opened my bedroom window, grabbed my purse, and tried to sneak out as quietly as I could. Luckily my room was on the ground floor so it was easier than I thought. I was greeted by the chilly night air. I took a deep breath and reassured myself once more that I was doing the right thing and sprinted across the yard to where the car was parked. I got in and was warmly greeted by Agatha and the guys. When we took off, I looked back at the house in concern and uncertainty. Maybe I shouldn’t have …?
There was loud Naija music playing and everyone seemed so happy singing and laughing as ciders were passed around the car. Jackson offered me a sip. I shyly declined, mumbling that I didn’t drink. He chuckled lightly, exposing the brightest teeth and a perfect smile that mesmerized me. He had a perfectly structured face with a square jaw and dark eyes. When he offered again, he told me that cider was hardly alcoholic and that it was just like a tangy fruit juice. He handed me the bottle and this time I took a sip from it. The liquid was sweet and sour at the same time, and it warmed me up almost instantly. He smiled again with a quirky expression on his face and then chuckled at my reaction to the drink. Trying to lighten up, I took a few more sips and felt my tense muscles relaxing. The mood in the car was just as I had imagined: a bunch of teenagers singing along to good music, laughing and sharing drinks as we headed to the party. We all laughed at each other’s horrible singing and how we all knew the lyrics to Burna Boy’s songs. Finally I was having fun. I rolled down the window, stuck my head out, and closed my eyes, letting my braids sway in the wind and enjoying the cool breeze on my face. I tried not to think about home, because as soon as I did, I felt a bit guilty.
When I pulled my head back into the car, I was just in time to see the horrified expression on Agatha’s face as she screamed “WATCH OUT!!!” Before I could see what she was referring to, I heard a loud bang, and before I knew it, the car was rolling downhill, shaking violently, the windows breaking, and before I could wrap my mind around what was happening, there was a louder crash, and unconsciousness swept over me like a warm blanket.
I slowly opened my eyes. It was dark and quiet, and the air was filled with smoke. I tried to find the strength and voice to call out, but I was almost stifled by the smoke. I was upside down! My eyes slowly started to adjust to the dark, allowing me to make out some silhouettes. Every part of my body ached when I tried to move. I was still coming to, trying to grasp what had just happened. I looked around in fear and realized I was still in the car, small pieces of broken glass everywhere. I tried to move, but the seatbelt held me tightly in place and refused to unlock. My fingers searched around for a sharp object to cut it. I found a piece of sharp glass and cut through the strap. I fell to the ground which was actually the roof of the car, crawled my way out of the smoking vehicle, and attempted to stand up, but I shrieked in pain the moment I put weight on my foot and fell down again. I looked around in desperation to find any source of help, but all I saw were small flames burning pieces of material from the vehicle and a lot of smoke coming out from the damaged, upside-down vehicle. I could hardly see anything inside. My heart was thumping and a cold sweat trickled down my face as I tried to muster up the courage to go back to the car and find the others.
I started to crawl, or rather drag, myself forward but stopped dead in my tracks when I heard a weak “help!” I looked to my left where the voice had come from. I was relieved that I was not alone, but I was also scared of what I might discover when I found the voice. Was it Agatha? Was she badly injured? Not wasting any more time, I dragged myself, paying no mind to my injured leg, to where the person had called from. I soon saw a figure lying down, struggling to move and breathing heavily as if in a lot of pain. I got closer and, by the light of the moon, saw Jackson’s face. He looked weak and desperate and in pain, but most of all he looked scared. I got closer and was shocked at the stunned expression on his face when he saw mine. Tears welled up in his eyes as he stared at me. His voice was a bit broken as he said, “Dunia… what happened to your face?” I didn’t understand what he was spooked about, so I lifted my palm to my face and touched my right cheek. That’s when the pain shot through me. I stared at the blood on my hand in utter horror and despair and once again fell unconscious.
What felt like forever later, I woke up to find myself in a hospital with the sound of beeping and the smell of detergent. As soon as I moved a little, my mother’s face came into view. “Dunia!?” I felt a sense of relief to see her. She looked so tired and her eyes were red, but the expression she gave me was the kind a mother would look at her newborn baby with. That alone made me feel safe, and I smiled back. Mom called a doctor who explained that I had suffered a fractured leg and some bruising on my face—“nothing that can’t heal,” he said. When he left, I started wondering where my siblings and Dad were and whether Agatha, Jackson, and the other guys were alright. But before I could ask, I felt I owed my mother an explanation. With teary eyes, I told her everything I’d been going through ever since we first got to the States. I expected her to yell and ground me and probably promise me a good spanking as soon as I got better. But to my surprise, Mom just said, “Dunia, juanini auku ongeya na miye tuu?” She asked why I didn’t just talk to her. And for the first time, I felt like my Mom really saw me. She understood me, she didn’t judge or rebuke me. That afternoon, Mom and I had a long talk about the changes in our lives, how the new environment was affecting both of us differently. She even tried to lecture me about the birds and the bees. Her discomfort bringing up that topic was hilarious. I looked at her and thought, she was here all along and not once did I ever try to build that friendship. In just an hour or two, I felt like I got to know my mother. I thought, this life and its transitions are crazy enough as it is. But the situation wasn’t wrong, my approach to it was. I pushed everyone and everything I knew away instead of embracing the difference, and today, in this little hospital room, I finally understood that I didn’t have to go through any of it alone. I turned to look out the window. The sun had just set and the moon was beaming gracefully. New beginning vibes indeed, I thought, as I drifted off into a deep sleep.
25 May, 2023