I first met Sorayya – a teen refugee from Afghanistan – on a warm and sunny March afternoon. A few months earlier, my husband and I had decided to co-sponsor/mentor a refugee family through RefugeeOne, a resettlement agency in Chicago. At the time we signed up, we didn’t know when we would be matched with a family, or with whom. Four months later, we were matched with a family of five – a single mom and four children – from Afghanistan.
After enjoying a homemade, authentic Afghan meal during our first introduction meeting, we sat in the living room getting to know each other. They all liked swimming and Turkish movies. The brother loved kickboxing and muay thai (a kind of martial arts). The youngest sister loved Pandas and the color pink. The middle sister said she wanted to be a doctor one day. And Sorayya – the only one who spoke fluent English at the time – told us how she wanted to help women in Afghanistan, how she wanted to help victims of domestic abuse.
I stared at her, blown away. When I was 16 years old, I was obsessed with colored jeans, "Saturday Night Live," and Boyz II Men. My biggest worries were my swim meet the next weekend, whether I could stay out past midnight on a Saturday night, and if any girls were gossiping about me. Honestly, I’m not sure I knew the capital of Afghanistan back then, much less details about the terror the Taliban rained down on Afghans and the decades-long wars waging there.
Over the past seven months that I have gotten to know Sorayya and her family, I have been continually amazed – not just at the resilience the family has shown in spite of the tragedies they have endured, but also the grace, poise and maturity of young Sorayya. Because of her life in war-torn Afghanistan and her experiences as a refugee, Sorayya has grown up more quickly than most. And as the oldest child in a single-parent household, in many ways, she assumed the de facto role of co-parent. It’s easy to forget that she is just a 16-year-old teen, especially when I contrast the girl in front of me with memories of myself as a selfish and stubborn teen.
Did this high school sophomore really walk from Afghanistan to Turkey under cover of night, while my biggest complaint was my curfew? Is this teenage girl translating information about rent payments and Social Security ID cards the same age I had been when arguing with my parents about cleaning out the garage? It doesn’t seem fair.
Because it’s not fair.
But despite the differences, there are threads of commonality. A playful giggle, or dancing to “Despacito,” or watching her pose for a selfie makes her childlike innocence shine through. She is, after all, still a child. Albeit, a growing teen who has had to endure more than most in their lifetime, but a child nonetheless.
For the past year or so, as I saw images of Syrian children pulled from the rubble and read about the refugee crisis that has been raging for years in Africa, one phrase keeps running through my brain: there but for the grace of god/luck/universe, go we all.
This could be me. This could be my kids. This could be any of us.
The fact that we are born where we’re born into the family we’re born into is a giant stroke of luck, and while there is some level of personal autonomy, much of our lives are out of our control.
So despite the seemingly obvious differences, maybe that’s the best thing we can do for refugee families – the parents and the children of all ages – is to remember this could be any of us. Because despite the stark differences between their experiences and our own, the common bonds of humanity bind us together. They could be us. We could be them. We are all each other.
When I hear Sorayya giggle or fret about a difficult homework assignment, I can see myself as a teenager. I can hear the hopes and dreams of every child, despite having grown-up in truly horrific conditions.
Maybe we aren’t that different, after all.