Madina Dhahir Haji became a U.S. citizen last year, 12 years after emigrating to this country with her mother and four younger siblings as refugees from a Kenyan refugee camp. Dressed in flowered hijab with the ends tied stylishly around her neck, the former refugee posed for the iconic naturalization photo with a judge, an American flag behind them and Madina beaming with pride. Today, however, her smile has dimmed.
“Maybe they were reacting to my covered head,” she says, recalling the vicious obscenities yelled at her recently as she sauntered up the driveway of her Essex, Vt., home, just one mile from mine. “I don’t know. I was scared.”
Although Madina has been on the receiving end of hateful behavior before, being told “you smell” and “go back where you came from,” the climate of intolerance that has surfaced during the past year has left her angry and confused. “This is not the America I thought it was,” she says.
Madina and her family came to Vermont’s largest city, Burlington, as Somali Bantu refugees in 2004. My husband, toddler son and I waited at the airport as Madina’s mother Zahara, a stoic woman wearing colorful African dress, came through the arrivals door with a baby knotted to her back and four other youngsters, ages 3, 5, 7 and 9, trailing behind in oversized Keds supplied by the resettlement agency. At the last moment, Zahara’s husband opted to remain in the refugee camp where Zahara bore each of her children. So she came as a single-mother to Vermont, a name that meant nothing but a safe land where her children might know a better future.
The family carried a few handbags containing everything they owned, including a couple of pieces of jewelry and some clothes. As their hosts, we offered them bananas and mangoes, recognizable food and gestures of friendship, and communicated through exaggerated hand signals for the week they lived in our home. The first night I descended the stairs of our finished basement to check on the family, I found all six asleep on a queen-sized mattress, legs and arms intertwined. The other beds in the room were untouched.
We later helped them settle into their Burlington apartment and outfitted each one with a coat and boots for the coming winter. I envisioned my primary relationship with Zahara, but it became clear that 9-year-old Madina would be the bridge. She was wiser than her years, functioning as her mother’s translator, caregiver of siblings and family navigator through this strange new world of grocery shopping, doctor appointments and being on time. When sub-zero winter temperatures wafted in under a broken front door, it was Madina who called me for help to deal with an unresponsive landlord.
Through the years, she would become a beacon for me, teaching me about human dignity despite all odds. While her mother focused on survival, Madina came to this country with a spaciousness of soul ready for friendship and engagement. She delighted in aspects of U.S. culture such as trick-or-treating and birthday parties, while also honoring her African Muslim roots.
About a year ago, Madina and her sisters plotted the former refugee family’s move from their under-resourced school district to the town of Essex, where we live. My son Liam and Zahara’s son Sharma, the babe tied to her waist 13 years ago, are in the same class at school. Zahara has remarried, has two more children, and works the overnight shift at a local department store.
Madina, now in her senior year at the University of Vermont, is studying education to become a middle school teacher working with English language learners new to this country. She wants to give back. She balances a full course load while working 20 hours a week for a government agency helping new Americans understand their rights. (Her siblings are at various stages of their education and each one gets a job at age 16 to contribute income.)
I can hardly imagine my life without this enriching relationship. Madina shows me what persistence and resilience look like. I think of the adolescents she will guide in her classroom and how fortunate they will be to tap into her knowledge of the immigrant journey. Our nation will be a richer, more compassionate place because of the generous gifts she has brought to its altar.
Featured Image: Madina Dhahir Haji (red jacket) and her siblings posed in front of a Christmas tree in 2005, a year after coming to Vermont as Somali refugees. Now Madina is a U.S. citizen. (M. Redmond/U.S.)