Rosa works at the food court with me. The first day I was introduced to her, she was jokingly called ‘the dishwasher’. Throughout the semester, as I adjusted to changing variables in the new world, Rosa became my friend washing, rinsing, sanitizing dishes, sneaking out food and covering each other’s backs. As a pair of friends, this was as odd as it gets. She spoke in a pidgin English, remnant of some African tongue, I spoke in a just-learning-american-accent English. I reverted to Indian English in her company and found that we understood each other better. Rosa was Sudanese. She told me of her life in south Sudan, daughter of a local chieftain. Testimony to the turbulent times we live in, and to Africa’s forever changing clumsy dynamics, strife broke out in Sudan and their possessions were reduced to nothing. She recalled how she and her husband decided to flee one night. Pregnant and penniless they boarded a barge on the Nile, northwards to Egypt. As Rosa rested in Alexandria, her husband scoured the Sudanese diaspora to bail them out. Another barge ride southwards to Cairo and heavy bribes later (Gold. “I am bereft of all my trinkets now” she sighed) husband and wife found themselves like millions of others before them, at the gates of liberty. New York City on a cold winter morning welcomed them as she delivered her son.
Today, seven years later, they have added 2 daughters to their family. Rosa managed to sponsor her brother and sister’s children all of whom she supports. While her children speak in clipped accents, she longs for the desert and the mountains.
Another semester later, I am employed in an office. As I write code in ungrammatical languages B Beng calls me to join her for lunch. B has got food from Taco Bell. I am very happy. B is another page of the same book, different chapter. A different time, Southeast Asia in the late 70’s. Surviving Pol Pot’s holocaust in rural Cambodia, B’s father was a member of the army, unable to resist the government, unable to participate in the massacre. Mrs Beng, managed to sneak her children out in the dead of the night to nearby Thailand. B grew up in Bangkok unmindful of the horrors just miles away. Aged four, B and family came to USA, abandoned Buddhism and found elusive peace. B’s mother still has nightmares of terrible times, her husband finally succumbed more out of mental anguish than anything else. My name means ‘flower’, B says. Today she drives a Civic, funds her family and is a proud American. “I am frustrated with the way things are in Cambodia. We are reduced to peddling artifacts of Angkor Wat” she says and proudly shows off her name, tattooed across her ankle, in Khmer.
Two different places. Two women. It would be childish to call them brave. Foolish to praise them. Fortitude and Hope, they define. My salaam to Rosa and Mrs. Beng.