From Average White Girl to Rohingya Princess

Rohingya Reunions, USA Chapter

“Oh my, Teacher Sophie! We must make you look beautiful again! Come, come, I will help you!”

While this wasn’t the initial greeting I was expecting, I decided to go along with it.  One thing I’ve learned about my Rohingya friends is that they are brutally honest. It’s kind of refreshing, actually. Sometimes it’s less refreshing when you’re told that you need to become beautiful again…but I guess beauty is fleeting, right? So it’s only fitting that they help me find my beauty.

In doing so, I was put into the most glamorous, hot pink, bedazzled Burmese outfit she could find. She brought out all of her best makeup; lipstick, white powder (because my face clearly isn’t white enough), liquid eyeliner, all the essentials.

Hazara

After we got dolled up, Hazara and I embarked on a girls’ Tuesday night out. We went straight to the food court Wendy’s in the nearly-deserted mall. In my bedazzled pink Asian outfit. I received plenty of judgmental stares from people who must’ve been thinking, “Clearly this white girl needs to face reality and accept the fact that she is not Asian.” Then we walked around Macy’s and she bought me high heels that I didn’t even want, much less need. But she justifiably said it will make Teacher Sophie beautiful again, so it’s all good. Then she proceeded to jump on those coin operated kiddie rides and snap a bunch of selfies. Never a dull moment with my Rohingya friend, Hazara.

I went along with all of this because I was still in shock at the fact that I was suddenly reunited with one of the most significant people in my life. A girl who I thought I’d never see again. I finally got to see Hazara again, the 19-year-old refugee I befriended at a temporary shelter in Thailand.

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The last time I saw her, we made a promise that we would see each other again. The odds were definitely not in our favor. She was stateless in every country, confined to a temporary refugee shelter in southern Thailand. I was heading back to the other side of the world, ready to pursue my university degree. I shouldn’t have made that promise with her because I knew I would never see her again. But I had a nagging feeling that it might be true; we might just see each other again.

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I never thought I’d be wearing a hot pink bedazzled Asian outfit while walking through the streets of Clarkston with one of my students from Thailand. So yeah, that was pretty cool.

It’s always interesting to be part of the transition of refugees relocating to the States. Some view their resettlement to America as a second chance at life; an opportunity to start over. They make the most of every opportunity with a hunger for success, constantly pursuing their own version of the American Dream. In theory, this is how we believe every refugee responds when resettling to the United States. That’s not always the case.

I’ve talked to refugees in other countries who dream of coming to America. They believe that all of their problems will be erased once they set foot on US soil. In their eyes, America is the country where dreams come true and the impossible suddenly becomes possible.

The harsh reality hits them when they arrive here. New problems arise, expectations are not met, perspectives are changed. When this happens, their reaction goes one of two ways: they could either take what they have and run with it, making the most of every opportunity…or they could slip into a depression, longing to go back to a place that is familiar to them, despite the hardships they endured in that place.

Hazara fell victim to the depression that is so common with newly resettled refugees. I received a phone call from Hazara’s husband about 2 months ago. He told me of Hazara’s arrival and resettlement in America. He told me of her depression, anxiety, and refusal to go outside or eat anything. Hazara’s husband asked me to come out and visit. Maybe having someone familiar to her in this foreign country could help her. So I decided to come.

It broke my heart seeing Hazara, one of the liveliest, happiest girls I know, fall victim to depression. While I’ve dealt with my fair share of depression, it surprised me to realize that someone like Hazara would have the same thoughts that I once had for myself. It’s easy to let depression take over your own life. It’s difficult to watch it take over someone else’s life. It’s even more difficult when you’re viewed as the cure to their depression…or at least that’s how Hazara’s husband viewed my visit. He told me that I was the answer they’ve been waiting for…maybe the one who can end her depression.

Yeah, ok, that’s a lot of pressure to put on a person. Definitely not something I can accomplish either. But if Hazara needed a friend, I wanted to be the one to help. When I arrived in Clarkston, Hazara’s family welcomed me into their home. There were about a dozen people waiting in her apartment for me. They set up an extravagant straw mat with dozens of countless dishes filled with different curries, fruits, everything you can possibly imagine.

They fed me…constantly. To the point of death. Have you ever had someone shove a chicken leg in your mouth despite your desperate pleas of “NO” and “I’m not hungry” and “I can’t eat another bite”? Yeah, you think it’s funny…but when you’re literally at the point of tears because your stomach will explode with another bite, it’s really not that funny. But alas, my Rohingya friends never cease to amaze me with their obnoxiously extravagant hospitality.

Cooking is the main way Rohingya people show their appreciation. If you think of it in that way, every pound I gained was just a heart-filled pound of sheer appreciation and gratitude. Their gratitude stemmed from their belief that I was the solution to Hazara’s depression. They thanked me constantly for coming to visit her, for befriending her in Thailand, and for just being there for her. They Facetimed their friends in Burma, Malaysia, and Thailand and shoved my face in the camera to show that “Teacher Sophie finally arrived.”

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While I was honored to be appreciated and loved by so many strangers, I hated the fact that they viewed me as the one who can change Hazara’s state of mind. No matter how hard I try, I can’t be the one to change Hazara’s life. They viewed me as the one who will save Hazara. The one who will change everything. I have no idea why they would put so much faith in me. I’m just a random white girl who enjoys singing Burmese songs and wearing Asian princess dresses while eating chicken feet.

Sometimes we think that the solution to our problems is something we don’t have right now; something new and exciting that’s always out of our reach. We think that if we could just find that solution, all will be fine. I know I’ve fallen victim to the mentality that I need to travel to a certain place, work a certain job, or study a certain degree to find the solution to my problems. The grass is always greener on the other side. The solution is somewhere far away, something I can’t find right here. To these refugees, the arrival of Teacher Sophie was the solution to Hazara’s problem.

What I’ve failed to realize in so many instances is that the support I need has been there for me the whole time. The people around me, the relationships I’ve built, the family that’s stuck with me through it all. That’s what really matters. I can keep chasing solutions in seemingly greener pastures, but when it comes down to it, it’s really the people around me who will help. This week helped me realize that when I saw Hazara’s family. Teacher Sophie may be able to help Hazara for a time, but the true help is the constant support and love from her family and friends right in front of her.

I spent my visit trying to help Hazara’s family realize this. Harder said than done, especially with the language barrier. I tried communicating that they’ve been there for her when I wasn’t. She’s one of the few refugees who has relatives in the same country, so it really is a miracle she has them during this transition to the States.

I hope that in time, Hazara’s family realizes all that they’ve done for her. They may think that I have a huge impact in her life, but they’ve made an even bigger, more permanent impact; something I could never do. While I may have been a friend for Hazara during a time when she needed one, they’ve been there for the entire journey. That’s what Hazara and I have in common. From Myanmar to Thailand and from Thailand to Georgia, Hazara’s support has been right in front of her the whole time. I hope that one day she realizes this.

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