Atfal by Sarah Marshall

I tapped my foot nervously on the pavement, feeling the weight of the soccer ball against my instep. It was the only thing that was familiar to me. That, and the blazing Tucson heat. I had spent 17 of my 19 years in this town, but I was on new territory here. Kids darted past me, chattering in Swahili and Arabic. Their voices filled the cement courtyard, echoing off the faded apartment buildings that flanked it on either side. I stared up at the cracked windows and the faded stucco that was painted in the characteristic burnt-red of the southwest. I took a deep breath and kicked the soccer ball towards the nearest by-standing boy. He trapped it and looked up at me. We were speaking an international language now. I ran into the fray, calling girls to my side:

“Yella, Yella! ”

This was my first stint interning for Tucson Refugee Ministry, a local non-profit that works with refugee children.  It had been recommended to me by a friend who knew that I had developed a love for other cultures during a trip to Kenya in 2013 and now wanted to learn more about the refugee crisis. It was a steep learning curve – I went through several trainings with the organization that instructed me in the refugee process, the challenges the children faced, and cultural norms for all the major people groups living in the Tucson area.

I loved stepping across the threshold of refugee homes – it was a passport and a plane ride all in one. I loved sitting down to a table full of unidentifiable food and playing a round of flatbread roulette. I loved it when the little Somali girls braided my hair. After a good round of soccer with the boys, I would sit down to the world’s best spa day as the girls worked their fingers through my thick blond locks: ebony on gold. As I carried kiddos and hugged mamas after each visit, I grew to even delight in the aroma of those visits. I can recognize it anywhere – the scent that always seems to surround people from those hot-climate countries. It is the smell of home, that international je ne sais quoi that lies somewhere between fresh earth and incense.

But my favorite part of the summer was comprised of one blissful week in late July, when I had the opportunity to be a group leader for TRM’s Kids Kamp. Kids Kamp was the brainchild of TRM’s culture-conscious director Cheri, and Amy, our mocha-haired Assistant Director. She had the smile – and the personality – of a first grade teacher. The result was a beautiful blending of the best in elementary educational activities and cultural contextualization: our crafts, songs, and games revolved around well-known Arabic stories and used Arabic terms, as most of our kiddos were from the Middle East.

We set up shop in a middle school on the south side of town – our facilities were far too small for the army of kids that signed up for camp. I eagerly awaited the arrival of my first campers. I had the blue group: 9-10 year olds. I couldn’t wait to meet my atfal.

“Hello!” a sweet voice called out.

I turned around to see my first two arrivals – a pair of boys. My team leads and I examined their name tags.

“Hello, Ali,” I said. “Hello, Radwan.”

Ali had the look of a Lebanese Arab, with amazingly thick, dark eyebrows and a head of glossy black hair. His eyes were dark half-moons of joy that crinkled when he smiled, which was often. Radwan was all angles. His dark hair – close cropped on the sides and thick on top – his slender arms and legs, his finely drawn nose, and small, delicate brown eyes all suggested a fragile creature. But fragile he was not. Radwan quickly became my biggest challenge. He was scrappy, probably hungry, and – much like his home country of Iraq – at war with himself.

I once saw a production of Taming of the Shrew where Katherine expressed her rage by doubling over and releasing an unholy sound that was somewhere between a grunt and a scream. It was rage captured in a single human utterance. It was also usually the preamble to Katherine aggressively tackling one of her stage-mates. The first time I saw it, I laughed out loud because I knew exactly how it felt to be in the middle of that scene: I had lived it. Radwan was a real shrew. He was incited to a boiling rage during the most benign of activities: freeze tag in the courtyard, gluing cotton balls on construction paper, or listening quietly to a story. Most of the time, I wasn’t able to find out why he was angry – I couldn’t get that far.

I posted myself next to Radwan so I could keep him from stirring up any more mischief as we led our group between classrooms. When we got inside, I was glad to be relieved of Radwan duty by my teammate, who took over so I could help some of the girls in our group with their crafts. Most of them were Sudanese and Somali, with coffee skin, almond eyes, and brightly colored hijabs. African girls tend to wear their hijabs long – past their shoulders – so they are swathed in layers of fabric. Some of them were still learning how to use scissors, so I helped them hold the paper steady and cut, cut, cut slowly.

Mastering the scissors at age ten was something that they and they alone could delight in – the news likely wouldn’t make its way back to their families, who were otherwise occupied with the important business of surviving.  

As the craft time ended, Ali ambled over, holding his project out to me with pride. I examined his work.

“Well done,” I said, “Tamam. ”

Ali was still learning the scissors, too, but his strokes were deft. I looked at the detailed etching of his edges, the places where his scissors had deviated from the outline. They were small, just like his hands. Ali was considerably shorter than the lanky Radwan. His diminutive stature and gentle nature put me in mind of a smallish bear with a fondness for honey. Ali carried all the charm of the Hundred-Acre Wood in his heart, managing somehow to be at once Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin. His craving for the sweet taste of the comfortable battled his unfailing curiosity and natural intelligence.

For reasons that I was still puzzling out, Ali and Radwan were best friends. They went everywhere together, always buddying up during free time and sitting next to each other during crafts. They would pass markers across the table, Ali smiling softly as he concentrated on his picture, and Radwan glancing up furtively as he sketched out an abstract piece. It was the only time Radwan was docile.  

After observing them a while, I began to realize that their friendship was much like that of Cory and Shawn from Boy Meets World, or Riley and Maya from Girl Meets World – its more recent incarnation. A scene from Girl Meets World rang in my mind as I watched them on the playground:

“Riley, what would you do without Maya?”

“I’d never unfold my hands,” Riley said, keeping her fingers tightly clasped.

“And Maya, what would you do without Riley?”

“I’d never come back,” Maya said, looking at the door.

Radwan helped Ali, in some small way, to unfold his hands. Radwan’s fire pulled the meek Ali a little bit more out of his shell. And Ali made Radwan come back. He tried like anything to keep Radwan from going in the first place, but often he wasn’t successful. I remember watching them one day during free time, right before we went inside to our groups to sing that morning’s songs. I was drawing on the sidewalk with some Somali girls, but it was really a way for me to keep tabs on Radwan. He had hurt someone the day before, and we were evaluating whether to keep him for the rest of the week.

I had lost Radwan for a moment and was searching the crowd when I heard his characteristic growl. My eyes flicked to the center of the cement court, where Radwan and Ali were standing together.

“No, Radwan, don’t do it!” Ali wrapped his arms around Radwan. He looked like a tiny sailor clinging to the mast of a reeling ship. “I said, don’t do it! We musn’t hit people, Radwan, we musn’t!”

Radwan growled with fury. He broke from Ali’s grasp and set off across the cement court, prompting me to sprint after him. I was hoping they would work it out, but alas – Radwan’s fury ran too deep. I captured him before he pummeled another kid and brought him back to the retaining wall that ran along our play area.

“You need to stand here with me until it’s time to go inside,” I said sternly.

Radwan glared at me and crossed his arms. I was fairly sure he wouldn’t last the week.

It was a rough day for Radwan. If I recall correctly, he got in trouble in every single activity, and twice in the hallway between classrooms. In crafts, he tried to throw supplies at the other kids and sullenly refused to complete his project when he was asked to stop. In story time, we got him to put on a costume and help with the skit, but as soon as he got his robe on, he zoomed around the room and started pushing other kids. We were about halfway through the day, and all of our team leads had leaned back against the doorframe with a sigh. Chasing after Radwan was hard work, and we were exhausted.

“I’ll take Radwan for the rest of the day,” I offered. “I’ll work on keeping him out of trouble so you guys can focus on the other kids.”

They all nodded.

I posted myself next to Radwan and refused to let him get away with anything. When he tried to roughhouse in the hallway: “Don’t grab Mustafa’s arm.” When he took off after I kept him from tackling Mustafa: “Radwan, no running.”

As I stumbled out to my car that afternoon, I contemplated the violent resistance that Radwan had put up every time I tried to discipline him. Technically, I had won – he had faced time-outs for his disobedience, and no one had been hurt – but I felt beaten. My body was exhausted, and my mind was weary from six hours of quick-strategy thinking. I shifted the car into drive and sped down the road, already contemplating my bed though the unrelenting Tucson sun was still high in the sky. I wanted Radwan to get the benefits of being around adults who cared about him – I was beginning to get the feeling that he wasn’t accustomed to that.

The next day, a kid who looked a lot like Radwan came up to me and waved shyly.

“Good morning,” he said sweetly.

“Good morning,” I replied, wondering when Radwan had acquired a good-natured twin.

He grabbed Ali’s hand and ran towards an unoccupied soccer ball. I did not have to discipline him once that day. I kept my eye on him, though, waiting for the inevitable reversal of his behavior. As I watched him, I noticed the way he watched me, that smiling curiosity in his eyes. He seemed almost bashful. But he was studying my every move. During craft time, he presented his project to me.

Tamam,” I replied. He nodded, seeming satisfied.

Radwan repeated his good behavior the next day without incident. As he was getting ready to leave for the day, he came up to me and – unprompted – gave me a hug. As rare as this is in American circles, it almost unheard of in the people group Radwan was from. Female volunteers were never allowed to initiate any physical contact with kiddos of the opposite gender (except for the necessary tackling), so I treasured this unwarranted display of affection, mind-boggled at how much Radwan had changed in just two days.

On the last day of camp, all the volunteers met to prepare the last day celebration, which featured some parent participation. We discussed how to direct families to their children, how to help them participate in activities, and who would be translating what languages and where.

As I packed my team’s water bottles in ice for the last time, I turned to Amy.

“The celebration seems so cool – I think the parents are going to love it.”

“Yeah, I’m glad the parents get to see what their kids are doing.” Amy hefted a bin onto the table. Her mocha hair swished as she checked the craft supplies for that day.

Kids. Sometimes we needed to make this distinction. Especially in meetings, it was difficult for us to remember to separate those smiling faces from the political and economic associations that were attached to them. Sometimes we forgot: they were just atfal – just kids. Just kids who liked to color with a box of crayons. Kids who chased bubbles around the courtyard, giggling and jumping as high as they could. Kids who wanted to know that someone would be there to give them a snack and a hug and hold them back from a fight. Just kids. In this classroom, there was no Syrian war, no unemployment rate, no geopolitical drama. No diplomats to toss their heads and insist that they knew best – just kids, writing kind words on little bands of paper that would be delivered to prisoners later that day. The classroom was quiet except for the subtle scratch of moving pencils. Ali came up to me.

“Excuse me,” he said in a voice that somehow sounded both professorial and childlike.

“Yes?” I replied, bending down to see what he was handing me. It was one of the strips of paper. I held the faded red paper gingerly in my hand.

“I need help with the spelling,” he murmured.

“Well, what are you trying to say?” I asked.

“I want to say – I want to tell them that – not to be afraid because God loves you.”

Just kids, who were maybe nearer to the truth than we thought.

A week after Kids Kamp, I was mixing into the crowd of kids gathered outside Ali and Radwan’s apartment complex for a neighborhood playtime. I had been out on the field earlier that day, trying to play with Radwan. He looked shrewish again, avoiding the other kids until someone provoked him and he tackled them. He looked at me strangely and slunk away before I could get to him. And by strangely, I mean exactly that – he looked at me as though I were a stranger. I was scanning the edge of the field, seeing if I could get a lock on Radwan in the midst of the scores of children playing on the grass. Suddenly I spotted him, crossing the west edge of the field and heading towards the parking lot. I sped through the crowds of jump ropers and hula hoopers, keeping Radwan in my sights. Dusk was falling, and all around me children were laughing under the streetlights as they played without a care in the world. Radwan’s shoulders seemed heavy to me. What was he carrying? I had almost caught up to him by the time he reached the sidewalk in front of the first row of apartments.

“Radwan,” I called out.

He turned over his shoulder and looked at me. A cold fire burned in his eyes. His lips were tight shut, but I felt like he was about to tell me something. Just then, a voice broke through the gathering darkness. It boomed down the stairway of the second floor apartment in front of us.

“Radwan!” a woman’s voice, by the sound of it, and she was angry. “Radwan!”

Then came the angry chattering in Arabic that, despite my training, I couldn’t understand. I knew its tone, though. I had heard it before from my own parents – that threatening, near-hysteric shouting that proclaims: Something is wrong, and it’s all your fault. So you’d better get up here before things get worse.

Radwan turned on his heel without a word and walked toward the apartment. I watched him shuffle along the sidewalk, the darkness swallowing him as he ascended the staircase. I wanted to call after him, but my mouth was empty. The shouting that continued once he arrived in the apartment told me that I was not likely to be invited in if I went up and knocked. I know I acquired the knowledge later, but it is all categorized in my brain in that one moment as I watched him ascend the staircase: Radwan was a boy with a father who was often absent. When his father was home, he was cruel and demanding. Radwan’s mother could not control him, and she was at her wit’s end. Shame was her only tool, and she used it often. Yes, though I acquired the facts later, I think that even then I knew: Radwan was a little boy who was being swallowed by the darkness. And unless something changed, he would not get out. So many refugee families make it through their hellish days and recover enough to make a better future – a good future – something that touches on ethereal. But some don’t, and it’s hard to watch.

When I think of Radwan, one of the first things that comes to my mind is that still picture of him on the staircase. He is fixed in my mind that way: frozen in mid-stride, half in and half out of the darkness. I can see his tangled story, wrapped up in generations of resentment and harsh words.

The realization hits me in small waves, and I draw my breath: I wanted to help someone who was just as inscrutably complex and broken as I was.

They were people. Richly messy, fractured, complicated people. And I was, too.

Sarah Marshall lives in Denver, Colorado where she spends her days studying English and Economics at university and her nights writing about the things that intrigue and fascinate her, from Africa’s growing gig economy to the humanity of Hamlet. You can find more of her writing here.

Issue Contents

Issue 15

From the Editor

Two planes

Our feet hovered above water as they dangled from the decrepit pier bruised by a hurricane from nature’s last season of wrath. I wouldn’t feel the sun’s angry impression on my skin for hours, but its intensity would keep me awake for several nights, eventually removing a layer of my epidermis, leaving my skin patterned like a doily.

Before the burn, there was this moment of beauty on the pier’s edge, my husband’s body at my side, his leg pressing into mine, my hand in his. Morning had been spent skimming...

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