The first time I meet Ruqaya, shes wearing a muddy-colored hemp abaya that covers her entire body from her neck to her toes. Over her head, she wears a hijab in the same subdued color. It’s impossible to know her age from behind her clothes and her solemn expression. Her downcast eyes and slumped shoulders give me hints about her recent past, before her arrival in America. She walks gingerly. There is no sound to her footstep; it's as if she doesn’t yet belong to this world. Ruqaya is a refugee. She is without a home, without a birth certificate, and without a connection to this bustling American city. I learn that she is seventeen and has not been able to attend school for the past four years while her family lived in Kilis, a refugee camp that lies along the Turkish-Syrian border.
Today, she wears a light grey dress that falls just below her knees. Under it, she wears a white long-sleeved turtle neck, jeans, and high-top sneakers that she removes as she enters the apartment. A red hijab brings color to her cheeks, and I sense a smile forming across her lips.
“I happy today, Nova.” She blushes and glances around the room hoping no one else is listening.
The family is occupied. Anar is cooking chicken on the stove, Majid flops on the couch watching the TV that is always on, and her father is on his cell phone searching for cars. The father looks up at me and says, “ Call this man and ask how much for the car.” He hands me his phone.
“You have a car, Sahid. The price is $7,000. Do you have $7,000?”
“No, but tell him less — for refugee.”
“Okay, later, Sahid,” I say, and hand him back the phone.
Sahid is always asking me to do things for him that I know he will not or cannot follow through on. I suppose he has nothing else to do since he is out of work due to an injury. He goes back to his search.
Ruqaya glances around the room and whispers in my ear, “I got my report card.” She slides it out from between other papers in her backpack and hands it to me.
“You got a 3.0, Ruqaya. Do you know how good that is?” I call out, “Sahid, Ruqaya did very well in school. She is very very smart.” He looks at me and shrugs. He turns back to his phone.
Being a mentor for this family has educated me about the beauty that exists in the middle eastern culture, but there are many things that frustrate me. The lack of celebration, especially for female accomplishments, is one of them. I know I’m sensitive to this as my own parents, being first-generation Italian celebrated the boy's accomplishments, and cared less about mine. Certainly, things have changed a lot for women in America, but inequality still exists. When I look at the al-Jamal family, I am reminded of this. Although I know better than to judge from my upper-class American perspective, I often do. Naively, I sometimes try to re-educate them about Islamic doctrine.
Ruqaya and her family arrived in the US less than eight months ago, not knowing a single word in English other than hello. I’m super impressed that Ruqaya has been able to do this well in school, and a tidal wave of pride is rushing inside of me (as if she was my own child).
“You deserve a treat, Ruqaya. You’ve worked so hard and I’m very proud of you. What would you like?”
“I want to go Wal-Mart,” she says. “I like to buy dress.”
“Now,” I ask? Wal-Mart is the last place I want to go on this frigid night in Colorado.
“Yes,” she says.
So we go. Majid jumps up. He, like the rest of the family, loves going to Wal-Mart.
The first person we see inside the store is a middle-aged man with a scruffy beard, dirty jeans, and a faux leather jacket. He is staring at Ruqaya in a way that is unnerving. His eyes send out a wave of hate-filled doctrine that floods the space between us. I usher Ruqaya and Majid away from the man, toward the women’s clothing area. We’re standing surrounded by undergarments; Majid is looking at the floor. It is unacceptable for a fifteen-year-old Muslim boy to be looking at something that may stir up sexual energy. I nudge him and point to the boy’s department and instruct him to go look for jeans.
“Alone,” he asks?
“Yes,” I tell him, but he hesitates. They are never alone, and until recently none of them would go anywhere without the entire family.
Ruqaya is tall for her age and every dress we see is too short. She finds a frilly one with pink flowers that fall below her knees, but it's sleeveless and low cut. She frowns.
“Can you wear a shirt under it,” I ask?
She shakes her head no and walks away discouraged. We move toward the jewelry department, but there are too many choices and she can’t make up her mind.
“Maybe you want a watch? Or a new purse?”
We’ve been here over an hour and I”m getting antsy. It’s late and I want to leave.
“What a purse?” she asks puzzled.
Like this,” I say pointing to mine.
“That a backpack, isn’t it?”
We go into a long discussion on the difference between backpack, purse, tote, and wallet. She looks confused. Now we’re both frustrated and I don’t want to answer any more questions. Majid finds us and says he can’t find any jeans. We wander around the store, and I get the feeling that they feel as lost as when they walked through the desert away from the war. Finally, Ruqaya decides upon a six-pack of sports socks.
The night, like many of our outings, has not been the celebration I had hoped for. There is just too much choice in America.“Okay, let’s go,” I say. “Yalla.” Yalla is one of the few words I have learned from them and I use it often. They laugh.
I hand Ruqaya two five-dollar bills and tell her that tonight she should try to pay. She doesn't want to, but I insist, assuring her that I will be right by her side. As we stand across from the cashier, I look to my right and see the man in the faux leather standing close to us. He’s still staring, searing holes into the back of Ruqaya’s head as she fumbles with the money. I glare back at him, silently berating him for his prejudice. Ignorant fool, I think to myself. He doesn’t notice me; his mouth is hanging open, and he sees only the hijab, a symbol of his hate. I imagine that he may start screaming for Ruqaya to leave Wal-Mart and his country. Quickly, I grab the change from the cashier. Ruqaya is moving too slowly.
“Get the bag, we need to get to the car,” I say too forcefully.
The man is following us out the door. His pace is quickening. Ruqaya seems oblivious. her steps are even-paced, she glides like a holy person approaching a temple. Her feet still make no sound, her big brown eyes float like puffy clouds under the blue scarf she chose for this outing. I grab her arm and tug on her trying to get her to move faster. Majid, whose clothing reveals no nationality or religion, is keeping pace and asking why I’m walking so fast. My entire being is silently shouting at the man back off buddy! As I turn my head to look back at him, he seems to finally notice me, and our eyes meet. We ricochet hate bombs back and forth under the fluorescent lights
Outside in the parking lot, I swipe my finger across the car handle, thankful for a touchless entry. I usher Ruqaya into the car. Majid has already climbed into the passenger seat. The women are always relegated to the back; another thing I am trying to re-educate them on. (Damn Americans and our judgments about right and wrong.) My heart is pounding, I lock the doors and back out pressing hard on the gas pedal. In the rearview mirror, I see the glow of Wal-Mart lights fading. Snow is gently falling.
When we get back to the apartment, I pull over to the curb and say, “Ruqaya, I didn’t like how a man was looking at you. It frightened me. I’m sorry if I tugged on you to move fast.”
“I saw him look me,” she says. “It happens lot to me, like when I wait for bus to school.”
“You did, you noticed? I’m sorry that happens to you, Ruqaya. It’s not right.”
“When I see person look at me like that, I just smile inside so they know I am good person.”
“Ruqaya,” I say, “you amaze me. I was glaring back at him with the same expression he had towards you. Do you know what glaring means?”
She doesn’t answer but says, “I try live my name.”
We sit in the dark of night, talking baby English about hate and bigotry. It’s a sweet moment and suddenly I feel like the child next to this girl who has seen how intolerance can ravage bodies and souls.
At home, I google the name Ruqaya. Ruqaya was the daughter of the prophet Mohammad. I’m stunned when I read the meaning of her name. Ruqaya means to rise above, to charm, to cast a spell that will arm you against sorcery.