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The Traveling Refugee

My perspective of the Black experience, and discovering what it means to be viewed as the other outside of your normal day-to-day life.

Photo credit: Nadia Bormotova
16 min read

The Traveling Refugee.
She watched her ancestors burn and hang.
In the land of the free.
In the land of the brave.
They have known many graves.
Unwilling to be 6 ft. under.
She travels 6,000 miles abroad.

I was fully prepared for my trip to the grocery store. I grabbed my black shopping cart, picked up my keys from the small counter in the even smaller one-bedroom apartment, and headed out the front door. The slapping noise of the wheels against the stone staircase always bothered me, I always imagined how annoying it must’ve sounded to my neighbors on the second and first floor. I’d clench my fists, one tightly wound around the cart, the other shoved into the pocket on my skirt and dash down the steps as fast as I could. Reaching the bottom and anxiety relieved, I began the short walk from my sandy brown apartment complex, barren of any grass and riddled with stray cats, to the Super-Sal grocery store just a couple of blocks away.

The giant cracks and broken cement on this side of the city never made the task of pulling the cart any easier. Be’er Sheva, one of larger cities in the south of Israel, had two sides to it. The shining New City, where houses were freshly painted white and khaki brown, trees lined the sidewalks, and there were no broken or cracked sidewalks. The Old City where I lived in 2017, was home to those who couldn’t afford the New City lifestyle. African and Arab Refugees who looked like me, it sometimes reminded me of my childhood years back home. Old buildings with small businesses inside, tiny apartments with large families fighting for more space to think. I’d walk past bread shops, taking in the aroma of freshly baked pita, whole loaves of wheat bread, and sweet pastries with chocolate swirled about them. My cart went over a huge crack and slammed down so harshly I almost dropped it. I was glad I did not have my groceries yet, I made mental note to avoid the jagged spot on my way back. The cart began to glide on the smooth pavement, the rumbled thumping sound of the cart sounded soothing in a way, and I began to fade away into my thoughts.

In 2013, a year before I arrived in Israel for my first trip, African refugees began being harassed by rioters who were against letting them into the country. Members of the Knesset began holding rallies in the streets of Tel-Aviv, urging citizens to demand the deportation of the Asylum seekers who’d come there trying to escape the very violence and hatred they once again found themselves in the middle of. The rallies encouraged citizens to become aggressive with refugees on the streets, screaming at them to “Go back to Africa!” “Go back home!” Racism outside of America was a foreign concept to me; when I left America to visit my family in Israel for the first time, I had no idea the kinds of things happening to people who looked just like me, who were seeking a home, a place to feel safe, a place where they could be at peace. Deep down I wanted to believe that things were better for us outside of America. When I arrived that next summer, I was told by my friends to always have my passport with me, and to never let them (Israelis) run over me.

 

There were two empty lots full of overgrown grass and weeds on my block. There’d be old candy wrappers, and juice bottles riddled in between the curb and the street. In 2008, back in Chicago, my trips to school were often unremarkable and routine. I’d pass by the corner store owned by a white family who didn’t live in the neighborhood. They’d speak to us (their pre-dominantly Black customers) in a way that seemed rudely familiar, using our slang, our AA English colloquialisms as if it was their own. But would just as quickly call the police on any suspicious-looking Black teenager just trying to grab a snack before school. Next to them there was a WIC store, for low-income single mothers to utilize for food. The store was quite sad looking, an ugly crème colored brick wall, and the shades in the store were always pulled low to give the mothers privacy while they shopped. I always wondered if it helped them feel more comfortable or made them feel more ashamed.  I’d cross an alleyway, where I learned very quickly to be mindful where I stepped because sometimes there’d be used needles discarded and riddled in specs of reddish-brown blood, laying in between the broken glass and concrete. Finally, I’d cross the street on 43rd and King Drive to walk to the bus stop, where sometimes there’d be a homeless person taking shelter under the metal and glass structure stationed on the northeast corner. Grayed from dirt and time, they’d steal sleep on the short and narrow bench before a police officer drove by to tell them to move. I’d always stand outside of the shelter, partly because of the smell, but mostly because I didn’t want to intrude into someone’s home.

No, there were no bread shops in my neighborhood growing up, a few corner stores that sold candy, liquor, and overpriced toiletries, but no bread shops, no sweet aromas to trigger happy memories, no Black-owned businesses. I walked inside of this thought, pondering why my home never really felt like home, just a place I lived, a place I survived, a place where people who looked like me, often didn’t.

In 2014, Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old African American young man, was shot and killed by former Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke. He was shot 16 times; the first shot hit him in the back, knocking him to the ground, and as he laid on the cold street of 41st and Pulaski, Van Dyke fired 15 more times, emptying the clip of his weapon. Van Dyke was not charged until 4 years later and received a six-year sentence. This had not been the first case of police misconduct in Chicago and would not be the last. African Americans have faced police discrimination, police brutality, and unjust murder by cop for centuries. These same brutalities are what drive refugees from their homes, when a peaceful life isn’t possible. When those who are tasked to protect and serve you, your community take up arms against you and deem you public enemy number one.

 

BEEP, BEEP! Crossing the street, a horn blared at me, and even though I had the light to cross, I apparently was moving too slow. Israelis, I’ve come to learn are very impatient people. I continued on toward my final destination. I passed small dress shops with garments of every yellow, blue, green, red, and purple one could imagine. Laces and lingerie hanging from old manikins, faceless, white, and bald.

I waved to the pharmacy owner, he was short, stubby, and tanned. His hair was white and close cut, and when he’d sweat you could see his scalp shine underneath. His glasses sat on his nose and I never really think he looked through them rather over them even though his brown eyes showed signs of cataracts. The crow’s feet surrounding his sockets looked like deep claw marks every time he’d squint to see as he held up your prescription to fill it. “Shalom,” he shouted as he waved his thick tanned hand, “Shalom” I replied less confident but friendly, nonetheless. His smile, warm and genuine, he watched me until I was well past his small shop. I began to sink back into my thoughts.

There were no pharmacy owners in my neighborhood, my friends and I would walk down Martin Luther King Drive from 43rd to 35th, where the nearest Walgreens was located. The only pharmacy available to us. This was before the Mariano’s sprang up with promises of providing the neighborhood of Bronzeville with jobs for all. This was before the new condominiums were built, cookie-cutter town homes and newly married couples buying up old buildings and renovating them on Tv for profit. This was before the rent skyrocketed, and the low-income families were forced to move out. This was before the gentrification.

We never walked past kind old men, no, there were men we dared not speak to or make eye contact with, they too watched us but with less genuine intentions and kindness. All we had was Walgreens. We’d buy our snacks, pick up prescriptions for our parents or grandparents. There were no polite conversations between us and the people that worked there. We were just customers, nothing more, nothing less.

 

“Would like a coupon? I have many pretty dresses inside.”

“Oh, no thank you,” I responded to the Arab woman who owned the dress shop the next street up from the grocery store.

In this part of the city, you’d find mostly Arab families and business owners, their skin not much lighter than mine, and there were those whose skin matched my own, if not darker. One could look at the Old City and say it reminded them of a slum or ghetto, but in my eyes this part of the city was authentic, they weren’t trying to be anything other than who they were born to be. Children would play on the sidewalks, yelling and screaming full of excitement. Women dressed in their Hijabs, shopping for shoes, sheets, fabrics, perfumes, and makeup. They giggled with their best friends and flirted with the young men working in their parents’ store. A nostalgic feeling, I cherished in such a foreign place.

Pulling my cart around the corner of the last block before the old bus station, I’d swing right into the entrance of the medium-sized grocery store. There’d always be someone mopping, but the floors were always dirty and dusty. There was always a thickness in the atmosphere, mainly because the summers were always an oven on high. The cool air conditioning felt like heaven, a mere few minutes in the Israel sun felt like a draining hour. Even though this part of the city was mostly occupied by Arabs, you’d find people of all ethnicities and backgrounds in this store. Israelis shopping for lunch, stopping in to grab olives, cheese, cold cuts, and beer to satisfy their taste buds. There’d be the tall and ever-attentive Russian women, looking over every item meticulously making sure it was exactly what they needed. Families from the Philippines, small in stature but kind in spirit, spending most of their time in the produce or foreign foods aisle. The various shades of Brown and Black Sudanese, Ethiopians, Nigerians, and other people from countries throughout Africa moving as one unit, sisters, brothers, husbands, and wives gathering food for the collective. This was a gathering place for refugees from all nations, searching for a small reminder of home in the form of a rare fruit, some cooking spice, alcohol brand, etc.

Super-Sal carried items other stores didn’t have and remained opened long after other stores had closed. The produce section was first and I’d always grab two small cucumbers and 3 tomatoes, their vegetables were pea-sized compared to the stuff back home, but there was a guarantee that chemicals hadn’t been a part of the growing process, and some family farm, if not several,  provided the store with the fresh produce every day. Tucked not far behind the produce section laid the meat counter, it smelled of raw flesh and smoked fish. Small old women with hunched shoulders and gray hair waited for the butcher to fill their orders. I’d pass by them all, ignoring the stares, I’d become accustomed to them and began telling myself they’d never seen someone as pretty as me. My hair coiled and defied gravity, my skin glowed and soaked up the sun’s rays, it did not burn and turn red to an ugly peel. So, the looks, and the gaping’s became flattering after a while, I’d greet them with a smile and continue on to the frozen food section. I’d pick out the overly processed meat-alternatives, in their lime green packaging, careful to take my time to read out the word TE-vO-ni (טבעוני) the Hebrew word for vegetarian.

As I finished my shopping and headed toward the checkout line, I noticed a family of women together, also Black, also beautiful, waiting their turn in the line like everyone else. They were clothed in long hanging garments with beads dangling from the ends. They spoke in their native tongue, and when they smiled or laughed their beautiful white teeth looked like fresh cream being poured into coffee. I always enjoyed seeing people of color happy and thriving in a place where they are viewed as the other. Where I was viewed as the other.

In 2013, Oprah Winfrey, one of the wealthiest African American media moguls of our time, was snubbed in Switzerland for essentially being Black. In a handbag shop, Winfrey had asked to see a bag worth $38,000, to which the shop attendant replied, “That bag is too expensive for you”. This incident while shocking to most who read about it in the following weeks, was just another common occurrence for those of us with less fame behind our name but just as much melanin in our skin. Imagine being seen and unseen in the world, a threat one day, poor and unworthy the next. Your personality, history, and family, of no meaningful value because your skin is the only thing people judge you by.

Suddenly, and very abruptly, an Israeli woman, blonde with age spots riddle about her arms, legs, and face, casually walked past the women and began placing her items on the checkout belt. The short, 10 items or less line wasn’t very long, and the woman had thought enough to ask the Israeli family behind the women if she could go ahead of them, pointing to her cart and gesturing to show she had very few items. Maybe it was the language barrier, maybe the woman thought the women weren’t in line, or maybe the woman just didn’t care to ask.

Ain’t I a human?
Do I not bled and speak as you?
When you pinch me, I scream.
When you tickle me, I laugh.
Does my melanin offend you?
Is it not flesh? Like your flesh
Is it not skin? Like your skin?
Ain’t you a human? Yes?!
So why ain’t I?

I learned then that as loud as my melanin was, to some, it made me silent, invisible, small and unseen. This rang true for the women as well. Everyone saw what was happening, but no one said anything. Before I could think about what to say, I heard myself yell out from the next line over, “STOP!”

The women, who were just moments before smiling from ear to ear, were now humbling themselves and allowing the woman to get away with her abrupt rudeness. I must’ve yelled louder than I realized, because every eye in the store now stared at me, some with shock, others with mild curiosity, and a few with compassion. I walked out of my line and toward the women. The Israeli woman who had started to place her groceries onto the belt watched me walk over to her before stopping completely. In Hebrew, she asked me what the problem was, I answered her sternly in English, I knew she would understand one way or another.

“You cannot just jump in front of them, they’ve been waiting in line before you.”

The spotted lady stood there mouth agape, and as badly as she wanted to pretend to not understand me, we both knew better. Before I knew it, I was taking the woman’s groceries off the belt placing them neatly back into her cart. To this day I don’t know what came over me, but in hindsight, I realize how much I left America to escape the mistreatment and disrespect of Black people, and in that moment, it appeared before me, blatantly and outright. It made my blood boil and I wouldn’t stand for it.

The spotted lady began asking me in her broken English did I know the women, were we related? “No,” I responded, as I held my arm out to direct the family of women to the front of the line where they belonged. They nodded their heads toward me in a thank you motion and finished their shopping trip.

Refugees come to a country seeking help and a new life, and looking back I realized that I too was looking for something better, or at least that’s what I thought. But the more I traveled to places where refugees were present, the more I realized that I could not run away from the fact that I myself am also a refugee in a way. That is something I will always carry with me. African Americans have been displaced for over 400 years, and just like our brothers and sisters fleeing war-torn countries in Africa, we are searching for our home, our place in this world. We just want to be seen, heard, and treated like the human beings that we are. We are fighting for equal rights, and equal treatment when life is already our birthright.

As I type this in my living room, listening to music on a narrow city street in Chicago, I own being the “other” or what I now call being the Traveling Refugee.

My people may not know where they come from, but it is up to us to decide where we go and what experiences we have in life. We must remain aware, that no matter where we go in the world, we will always be judged by our skin color FIRST and then our character, but we mustn’t let that deter us from writing our own story, from determining our own path. Our history may be broken chunks of time, incomplete memories of unknown languages on talismans and tapestries, but it is up to us to fill those gaps. We must take what we have and learn. We may never truly fit into places around the world and that’s perfectly okay, we do not require their approval. But we must demand our respect, our right to life, the right to defend our people, the right to defend ourselves no matter where we are in the world.

Believe that your
Life matters
And you can
Change the world
Kings & Queens

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Alexandria Taylor

Alexandria Taylor is a native Chicagoan and a current graduate student at Columbia College in the Creative Writing Fiction program. She also holds an M.A. degree in TESOL (Teaching English to Students of Other Languages). She has a few years of traveling abroad under her belt and tries to bring a fresh perspective to her writing about the experiences of African American women, whether it's describing their everyday experiences or spicing it up with magical realism or Afro-Futurism.