Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan: an Illustration of the Resiliency of Refugee Children

Say You’re One of Them | Author: Uwem Akpan | Genre: Fiction

Paperback: 361 | Publisher: Back Bay Books (2008) | ISBN: 978-0-316-08637-0

“It was a time just to be a human being and to celebrate that. What mattered now was how to get people to lay down their weapons and biases, and how to live together.”

Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan, page 254

This book is not at all what I thought. But it had Oprah’s Book Club sticker on it, so I should have expected it to pummel my heart to pieces.

In a collection of 5 short stories, Akpan guides us through an emotional journey of life as an African child in the trenches of war and conflict, running and genocide, slavery and street life. Told through the perspective of children, Akpan places us in kid shoes walking through adult situations.

In a genius, moving work, Akpan has fictionalized some of the most real, complex conflicts plaguing the African continent. In doing so, he has placed us directly into places we only see in clips on a screen or read brief headlines about.

For those of us who are hundreds and hundreds of miles away, he has made these situations real through the art of storytelling. And I both hate him and love him for that.

A Writing Style That Honors His Culture

Akpan has a unique style, and each page flows poetically. His stories have given me a higher caliber for the fiction I read. Some of the most recent ficion I’ve gotten into suddenly feels lame compared to the way Say You’re One of Them reads.

Also, if you’re interested in world languages, this one is for you. Akpan has written true to the language of the people in his story. The dialogue can be tricky to follow, as its written in broken English and certainly doesn’t follow an accurate grammar. But, the speech is true to what we might actually hear if speaking to a nonnative English speaker.

Plus, Akpan has sprinkled in plenty of phrases and words in the heart language of his characters. Which certainly makes for a more interesting read, but is also more difficult to follow at times. I love that he has chosen to honor his fellow Africans by letting us into their own language.

I Expected Happy Endings

I guess I thought this would flow through one cohesive story, or at least that each chapter would relate to one another in one way. I was several pages into the second “chapter” before I realized that there was no connection between that “chapter” and the first.

Instead, I had just read a story. And the ending to it surely didn’t feel complete. I was still looking for the ending from the first “chapter” while I was reading the second, which I eventually realized was not a chapter but a whole different story in and of itself.

This was hard to grapple with. Man, I love a good happy ending with some kind of resolution. However, this book did not deliver that. In fact, none of the stories have an ending that you’d hope for.

But I can’t blame Akpan for that.

He is simply telling us about real situations on the African continent. As hard as it is to stomach, we have been waiting for innumerable conflicts to find closure for generations; they just haven’t yet.

I Left Feeling Both Completely Built and Torn

As a Westerner living in a developed world, reading through a lens of nearly uneducated children living in total poverty was hard.

I was inspired by the resiliency of the kids, but also emotionally depleted to witness their struggles. Their innocence reigned brilliantly, and though I celebrated that, it was heart-wrenching to see that same innocence violated.

I rooted for the kids, and felt a sense of pride when they succeeded in a small victory. I soon realized that these small spurts of victory were always quickly followed by a harder to defeat.

I was amazed by the conditions in which these families live in – huts, limited food, no shoes on their feet or vehicles to drive – and felt challenged to live on less too. But then I felt their loss when what little they had was taken away. I saw what riches can do to a person, especially a poverty-stricken person, and was confused about it.

Especially in the Largest Refugee Crisis in Modern History…

As a person who works with refugee families every day, I have to say: this book is profound because of the perspective it gives to the background of a refugee.

A refugee is a person who has fled their home based on well-grounded fear of persecution, war, genocide, or natural disaster. Usually because of things out of their control, such as race, ethnicity, religious or political preferences. It’s easy to skim through that definition, until you let it sink in, and start really considering what the journey of a refugee looks like.

Especially as the U.S. commits to bringing a record low number of refugees into the States this year, I believe reading the stories of fleeing is more important now than it has ever been. I don’t have to clarify this, but I will: there is a gross misunderstanding of who a refugee actually is.

Refugees are not the enemy. They are the targeted, the unwanted, the hated, the ones pushed aside for the selfish, horrifying gain of others. They are, really, people born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Refugees are the vulnerable, making decisions from a place of survival without the time, energy, or resources to consider thriving.

And when unprotected children are placed in this number of chaos and terror, and when we read the story of kids running away totally alone from something they don’t even understand, it creates a different kind of compassion within us.

It’s a compassion that moves with an urgency to see justice against their enemies (who are really our enemies too), and a passion to bring them into a fold of protection. To guard them, and restore them back to believing that they are valuable and welcomed. Have some of the world’s children ever heard that?

No, I can’t solve all the world conflicts and I can’t help all the millions of refugees displaced from their homes now. I can’t even help the thousands who will flee their homes today alone. I don’t mean to be rude, but I doubt you can either.

But, what we can do is seek to understand their story and make it known. I can tell the stories of people who have courageously left, and made impossible decisions just to take a few more breaths. I can tell you about the resiliency of the most vulnerable people in the world today, and through their journeys, show you just a glimpse of their passion for life and desire for safety.

Sometimes the most powerful, and honest, form of advocacy is storytelling.

In Short: Read It, but Read with Wisdom

The dialogue and language barriers will force you to read this more slowly. Be okay with that. Honestly, it’s a blessing because these stories are too emotionally difficult to rush through.

Every story shook me, some more violently than others. Akpan spared us many details, but still painted a picture of what it feels like to ride a refugee bus or to watch a sister fall into prostitution. He illustrated what could possibly lead an uncle to sell his family into slavery, and what it truly feels like to be a Muslim on a bus full of Christians and wizards.

We think we know about these things; we don’t have a clue.

I left each page feeling emotionally spent. When I finished the last story, I was grumpy. I gave Travis short and snappy responses, and was acting like a brat for at least an hour on a road trip with my family. Then it clicked: I have to process this. I have to give myself time to settle these feelings, and to recover from this book.

It was a hard read.

But, it’s important too. I applaud Akpan for giving us a glimpse into lives we can barely imagine. Say You’re One of Them is beautiful, stunning, awe-inspiring – it’s all of this, and more, because of the voice it gives to the unheard voices and the untold stories.

And these small – yet not so small – voices unify us with a passion to create a safer world for children to live in. I’m going to meet my own refugee kids at after school today a little more gently and compassion filled, because Akpan has told a story of their history that they’ve yet to understand. The journey to that realization is not easy, but it’s a worthwhile pursuit that has changed my perspective.

I thought I understood the journey of a refugee, but I didn’t have a clue. Thank you, Uwem Akpan, for penning these hard words. I am better for it.

Exhaustion and These Late Nights

You don’t realize how late you work until you schedule a meeting an hour after you’re supposed to be off. But that’s the time that the mother you need to meet with comes home from her 12 hour shift, so you commit. Not necessarily because you want to, but because it’s the only way to step into the lives of these people you want to know.

Even so, it doesn’t stop you from soaking up the way the light of the setting sun makes everything golden as you’re walking to that meeting, knowing it’ll be dark when you trace this sidewalk and pass these cars again.

I knocked on the door at the top of the stairs at least 3 different times before it opened. One thing I’ve learned in this line of work is the necessity of patience and persistence. That’s what I need most day in and day out.

One of the daughters greeted me, and in typical African fashion, motioned for me to come in. “Welcome,” she said, opening the door wider as she announced my arrival to the others in the room.

I stepped in and sat on the seat the family motioned toward. As I found my place, I locked eyes with the one I’d come to see. I put my hand out toward her, the mother.  “I’m happy to meet you,” I told her, asking for her name and sharing mine too.

I felt bad. Honestly. This was the first time I’d ever met this woman, and I had come to tell her about her daughter’s difficulties in our after school program. But, I stepped in with the gentlest smile and voice I could offer. I’m getting better at these conversations, but I haven’t quite mastered how to not have an awkward start to bad news. The start feels so awkward.

I thanked her for letting me come over after a long day of work, and asked her about her job. She told me she does housekeeping for a local hotel. I told her my brother works at a hotel too. She brightened some and said, “Oh. Housekeeping too?”

I stumbled and told her no. In some weird way, I wanted her to be encouraged that there’s no shame in working at a hotel. Many people – African or American – do this, and do it well. But as I started talking, I realized how insensitive I sounded by telling her that he’s actually the boss of the housekeepers. I let that topic quieten, wishing I hadn’t brought it up in the first place.

Immediately I knew she was a gracious woman and that despite the weird start, talking to her was easy. She turned off the TV, and leaned closer on the couch to listen. I spoke slowly and clearly, enunciating words I don’t usually. She listened and nodded her head as I told her about some of the habits and concerns I had seen. I told her about a specific incident that had caused me to ask her daughter to take a break from the program for a few days.

When I finished, she looked toward her daughter reflectively. There was a pause, and I broke it by asking her what she thought. She turned back to me briefly to tell me she was going to talk to her daughter, before looking toward her again and speaking in their native tongue. She spoke quietly, slowly, gently. Her daughter sat, eyes on her hands as she picked at her nails.

This reminded me of my own mother, as I listened to the tone of voice and watched the way the woman gently reprimanded her child. Sure, I hadn’t a clue what was being said as these two shared an intimate moment together. But it sounded like a familiar voice I’d heard before – not in Swahili, but in English. I remembered back to when I was much younger, and I heard my mom’s own voice as she called me out, teaching me better ways. It was never easy, and it took me years to understand the why behind some of those talks.

As strange as it sounds, witnessing this conversation between this mother and daughter pair gave me comfort. I think in some ways, being reminded of my own mother filled me with memories that I never thought I could look on with warmth.

I waited for them in my own quiet, resting in the reminiscing. I’ve seen this in my own life, in my own mother. We had these conversations 8, 10, 12 years ago. Times are different, and my mother and I and this woman and her daughter all bear different skin colors, names, and stories. But the piece that makes us human – the need to love and be loved, to teach and be taught – outruns differences we thought we could pick from the outside.  

“But the piece that makes us human– the need to love and be loved, to teach and be taught– outruns differences we thought we could pick from the outside.”

When it was quiet again, the mother thanked me several times. She even went so far as to ask me to bring my other staff members to her home, so she and her daughter could apologize to them too. The concern and thankfulness in her eyes was understood without words.

This student had a bad day, but she’s going to make it. As long as her mother is there to unashamedly call her out and lead her out of wrongs, she’s going to be fine.

From the time I stepped through the doorway to the end of our conversation, barely 40 minutes passed. I was ready to go home, and was just about to rise from my seat when I was stopped by another question.

“You need food?” the mother asked me.

“Please,” I told her. Culturally speaking, I didn’t want to run the risk of my “no” being misunderstood, nor did I want her to think I wasn’t grateful for the offer. In times like these, I just say yes. Yes to all the food. Even if I need to go quickly, I’ve learned that it’s better to eat fast than to decline an invitation like this. It’s easier to scarf down food and pay thanks to the cook, than it is to leap across cultural and language barriers to try to explain your “no.”

And that’s how I came to accept that it would be longer before I got home, and found a seat at the wooden kitchen table.

She offered me different juices to drink, and set a steaming bowl in front of me. She came and sat beside at the table too, but I was the only one with food. She filled our juice glasses as I immediately started eating, and we spent the first few minutes of my meal trying to figure out what I was eating.

“This is a green banana,” she said, “Not a yellow banana. We cook green bananas. We eat yellow bananas.”

I think it was a plantain. We never quite figured out the meat. The mother went through great lengths and arm motions to show me that it wasn’t ground meat, like we eat in America. This was straight off the bone, and definitely not pork or beef.

As I continued eating, I asked questions. She returned her own answers and questions back to me. She wouldn’t admit it, but her English was very good. Imperfect, yes. But possible for the most impatient speaker to follow.

“Did you study English in Africa?” I asked her.

“No. Only in America,” she said. I followed up with asking when her family came to the States. She pinpointed an exact date in summer 2017. I stared in amazement at her at the realization that she had taught herself enough English to carry on a wonderful conversation in barely 2 years.

“Learning English is hard. We need to learn, but there is no time. I work 6 AM to 6 PM. There is no time to learn,” she said. I understood more why she was so adamant in helping her daughter straighten up. She knows what her 10-year-old daughter can’t fully grasp right now: that she has an opportunity to structured education and a support team of people to help her succeed even beyond her school day. She gets to practice and learn English. It’s her only job right now, and it’s free to her. That’s a huge deal to a refugee family rebuilding.

We kept talking. I learned that her husband was a school principal in Africa, and now works at a factory. She told me about how she came from the Congo, but it was a country of war. She told me about how her family sought a country of peace and made their way to a camp in Tanzania.

“When did you leave your country?” I asked.

“1996,” she said simply. It was over two decades ago, but I heard the way she talked about her home – the place where was born, was raised for a few short years, and still thinks about today. I heard her voice when she called the Congo her home. She had left when she was 8 years old, but I knew she remembered it every day.  

When my own mom called me while I was still eating, I silenced the call and explained that my family is on vacation right now. The mother I shared the table with praised God when I told her about my parents’ wedding last weekend, and I wish you could have heard all her questions about the engagement and marriage traditions in America. She listened intently, laughed and said wow. I understood her surprise more when she told me about how African marriage traditions are very different.

“How much does a man pay a woman’s father to marry her?” she asked me. Her jaw dropped when I told her nothing. He just asks for permission.

“That’s it? And what if the father says no?” she continued.

“Hm, I don’t know. I guess the man probably just marries the girl anyway,” I told her. We laughed more, recognizing how different both of our cultures are. And we just kept talking until the clock neared 9:00.

“My friend, thank you for dinner,” I told her as I got up to leave. My purse sat on my shoulder, and I carried a sandwich bag of my leftover food. I always think that stepping into these homes is the most awkward part, but actually, I think leaving is. It’s hard to say goodbye. It’s hard to leave, knowing that you might be the only American to sit and talk with them all week.

“It’s hard to leave, knowing that you might be the only American to sit and talk with them all week.”

I’m always the one to pipe up and say it’s time to leave. None of the families I’ve ever sat with have told me it’s time to leave. I’m always the one who says it, and every time, I catch a glimpse of their eyes shifting. To disappointment? To sadness? To feeling lonely again? I can’t name it, but I can see it and feel it. And every time, I feel a twinge of guilt for leaving.

My prediction was right. As I waved goodbye and stepped back over the threshold, I was met by darkness. I walked to my car under the streetlights, feeling the weight of exhaustion compound with every step I took. I sent my usual message to let Travis know I was coming home to him and had some food. I sent my boss a quick update text regarding the conversation with the family, assuring her it had been successful. Then I put the car in reverse, backed out, and started for home.

Sometimes I get tired of these late nights. Leaving most mornings knowing you’ll be ready for bed when you get back is hard. Honestly, even missing the little things feels like a sacrifice. Like watching the golden glow from the back porch, listening from your kitchen to the slow traffic on I-24 and hearing it gradually speed up as the evening gets later, and greeting Travis at the front door.

I miss those moments when I don’t have them, but hold them close when I do get them. I’m always grateful for the times I get to rest and be at home. I’m an introvert, and that’s what we do. But for today, I’m okay with holding onto what I get to do instead. The conversations and the people are worth my time – anyone’s time, for that matter.

Missing sunsets is a small cost compared to the worth of listening to their stories and getting to be the one to tell them, “You are strong and you are loved.”