Obscured American: Melissa the Iraqi refugee

With their vast parking lots and chain stores, strip malls may appear generic, impersonal and characterless, but each harbors an intense web of social interactions, with an infinity of stories to tell, but to even state this is redundant, for there’s no man, woman, child or dog who isn’t, by his lonesome, asshole self, a thousand-page novel.

In Scranton recently, I was daily dragged by Chuck Orloski to the Dunkin’ Donuts on Washington Avenue. From its beauteous and ample plate glass window, I could espy the wondrous China Moon across the street, and Dollar Tree, Rite Aid, Brick Oven Pizzeria, Pro Nails and PNC Bank were all within rifle shot distance.

Chuck knew just about everybody in Dunkin’ Donuts but the guy sleeping in the corner, with his head on the table. He introduced me to Andy, Hoppie and Melissa. Behind the counter was Ashley.

Ashley’s husband, Brian, did a good deed two weeks ago. When the temperature dipped into the 20s, Brian went to check on Jimmy, a homeless guy who always slept outside Weiss, the dead supermarket. It’s a spot the native Texan liked because it fully caught the morning sun. This morning, Jimmy’s teeth were chattering, and it sure didn’t look like he could survive the next several days, all forecast to be sub-freezing. With another Dunkin’ Donuts buddy, Brian took Jimmy to the West Side Hotel, two miles away, and gave him three nights, at $150 altogether. They also gave him a bag of donuts and breakfast sandwiches.

Ten days later, Brian was $50 short for his gas bill, however, so Chuck lent him $43, all he had in his wallet.

When Chuck moved into Lighthouse, a charity home run by a blind Carmelite nun, Hoppie gave his friend an 8-inch TV, for he was certain Andy Griffith, Columbo, X-File, Gunsmoke and the Philadephia Eagles could divert Chuck from always thinking about his many woes.

Sitting across from Hoppie, I could see that he was very pleasant, if a bit senile. Next to me was Melissa, an Iraqi refugee. Two of her kids were also at the table. Hearing about her difficulties, Hoppie would exclaim, “God bless you,” or, “I’ll pray for you.”

Turning to me suddenly, Hoppie blurted, “Welcome to America!”

Before leaving, Hoppie pleaded to Melissa, “And please, pray for me too, for I need your prayer.” Then he got up and did a lurching jig on the open floor, to the mild amusement of the cashiers. They had seen it. Encouraged by their grins, Hoppie kept dancing for a bit too long.

Melissa has been in the US for 2 years and 7 months. With no husband here, she must manage six children, aged 18, 16, 14, 11, 8 and 5. Her 16-year-old daughter, Melina, wants to be a cheerleader, but that’s not going to happen, Melissa said.

It’s her 14-year-old daughter, however, who’s giving Melissa the most trouble. Mina has discovered sex and at least marijuana. Melina told me Mina would disappear for days, and once, drove Melissa’s car away and stranded her mother.

Yes, I know Melissa is not yet an American, but she will be one soon enough. Moreover, by wrecking her native country, America has caused Melissa to be here, so she is very much an American product.

On Melissa’s left arm was a heart tattoo with a dagger sticking out of it. Her eyebrows had also been tattooed on. Her head was uncovered.

I never sleep enough. Like, four hours, five hours. That’s it.

I work at Dunkin’ Donuts, from last year, October.

We have three thousand pound of dough. Sometimes three thousand pound. More! They pay me 11 an hour. I work hard, hard, hard.

You know the jelly? I fill that. Yesterday, I fill 62 baskets. Too much, 62, too much. My neck hurt all the time. Then, I take the sugar jelly. Yesterday, 68. You’re killing me, man.

If you work from 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, four hours, they give you 30 minutes. I take overtime, so nine hours, 30 minutes. And they don’t pay you, you know. Other companies pay you.

People who work five years, they give them 12.

I want to change this work. Horrible.

I work at TJ Max. Was bad. Because I work just two days. I have to watch my baby. Saturday and Sunday, because my kid home, I can’t work.

He in childcare. The bus pick him up every day, 7:50. I give my baby to the bus, then he come back 3:30.

Sometime, they told me, “You have to work at 4 O’clock.” I have to take my baby, then I have to go to the other school, for my daughters.

I never sleep. Never. I told you. I can’t sleep.

Sunday off, Monday working, Tuesday off. They don’t give me two days off. Fuck it. No problem. “Because we don’t have the people.” Of course, you don’t have the people, because everybody left. One day, everybody left. Too much. Good people quit.

Spanish people, they steal stuff. I just finish my work. I see beside the car, a bucket. They say, “Mommy, don’t touch it.” It’s heavy. I think about telling the manager. I afraid.

We have buckets of vanilla, chocolate. Expensive buckets. More than 30 dollar. Used to be nobody take this stuff. They take the glaze. They have friends with stores, so they sell it.

We have 24 people. American, Spanish, anybody. Just me, Araby.

In my country, the men work. The women watch the kids, the house.

In 2003, I live with my mom, and my dad, in Baghdad. When my mom die, when my brothers die, I be married, this time. So I live with my husband, in Kirkuk, then, terrible with that family, so I move back to Baghdad. I live in Baghdad nine years.

My father is a farmer. He grow vegetables, fruits, apples, lemons. One day, I stand with my father outside, and American trucks, four! come. We see my brothers come home from fishing. Two, three American soldiers jump from trucks, shoot, tat, tat, tat, tat! They kill my brothers, so we get their bodies, you know. We have a good life, but they break it.

Al Sadr, he die, but his son, his son maybe fight with the American. They shoot them. They just want to be, like, a hero, you know. They don’t care for the people. I say, “Man, what are you talking about?! The American have this one, guns, different. What are you talking about?! You have, ah, ah, Kalashnikov? What do you have? They know where are you. The American, they have everything. Why you kill your people, man? You know, when you make all this stuff, the people are killed. They’re destroyed. The people be die, like, for no reason.”

2014, I pay money for visa. Around 90,000 Iraqi. Six hundred dollar. Me, and my babies. Then I leave from Baghdad to Kirkuk. We stay on the bus for 44 hours.

Monday, we come to Turkey, and just sleep the night. I wake up with my children. We sleep in the hotel. It’s not hotel, like apartment? I wake up at 5:30 in the morning. Just take my children to United Nations. So, I just told them, “I want to get out of here, man. I want to get out, because I have the kids. My life is hard in Iraq. My life is difficult, too difficult. My kids, every day, I’m scared to death, you know. When my kids go to school, oh my God, every minute I hear boom! boom! My heart is like this, all the time, every morning. When they come home, I’m scared somebody come and kill them. My kids, you know?” So I just told them, “Please help me!”

They take my name. They take my children’s names. So, between there and there, I don’t have a house, I don’t have enough, so I go to my cousin. He was in Turkey. My husband’s uncle, before me he go there. So my cousin, he help me to find house. Five days, I stay with my cousin. I find a house. The Turkey people, they help me. Too much. They bring some stuff. I buy some stuff to my kids. I just stay in the house. My husband, he work. He send me money, to pay the rent.

My husband used to be coming with me, but he, “No, I can’t. I have to work here. La, la, la, la, la . . .” I told him, “No, you have something going. Why you don’t want to come with me? You lose me, man.”

“No, I’m coming behind!”

I think he has another woman. Yeah. Exactly.

I stay in Turkey almost three years. After three years, he forget. When he forget, I’m looking for another husband.

I was, want to go to Estraly. You know Estraly? Yeah, Australia! There, they take care of the people. Here, I see different stuff. It’s hard. The work. One day, you’re not working, you can’t do anything. It’s hard.

Australia, they pay you for one year. You have to study, study in the school to learn. You have to, every day, go. If not going to school, they don’t give you your food. Smart. Then, every day, every night, they give you three times, food. It’s nice. Here, it’s difficult.

So, I was, want to go to there, Australia.

When they told me, “United States,” I told them, “Let me take time. Let me think it,” because my husband, he don’t want me to go to America, because, I don’t know, he has a friend. They told him, “The life in America is hard. The life in Australia or Germany, it’s nice.”

The people, they told me, “You’re lucky, girl! You’re lucky, girl! You’re fast! There are people who wait seven years! To get out Turkey.”

When I come here. The social service, they give me 5,000. They rent the house for me, six months. I do not find a job, five months.

They have ESL classes, but I don’t go there. Man, I don’t have time. I go one day a week, but I don’t like. I already know this stuff. One month, two month, three month in America, this stuff is easy.

I sing. I love to watch music. Everything, music. I love Limp Bizkit. I love Future. Adele. Ali-A. I listen all the time. All the time. Make me forget everything. The music give you . . . happy.

I don’t dance. Not too much. We don’t have the time to dance.

I watch American music when I, a child. I watch almost 80%, from all the movies, American. American. I love American music.

You know Saudi? Arabia Saudi? They have one channel for American movies. They translate the movies. I love Indiana Jones. Rocky. I love Fast and Furious. Paul Walker, he die. Jackie Chan, I love.

Look at this, man. Abu Dhabi. Police cars. Lamborghini. Uh huh. Exactly!

When we come to America, we stay a couple hours in New York, then they put me in the car, and we’re leaving to here. Social service, they connect with this people. Yeah, so they found the house. They bought the food. They already made everything for me and my children. Just open the door. Stay here.

Even the bed. The beds for the kids. They made food. They made everything, so we just open the door. Stay here.

They help me, a couple months, then bye!

The government gave me, I think, five thousand dollar, so they found, for me, bad house. The church, they found, for me, bad house. Bad, bad, bad house.

They pay the rent for six months, from my money. They pay for me the stuff, for the house, beds or something, the sofa. Stuff, from my money, so they told me, “Ah, we pay this, we pay this, we pay this, we pay this, we pay this!” They bring a receipt. I just look at it. Then they give me one thousand dollar.

They tell me, “This is what we have now, OK? You have to go to the bank. Open your, this one. Here’s a thousand. Maybe you’ll need it.”

It’s not enough to do anything. “Keep the money! Keep the money!” I tell them.

The people, they understand how they play. They bring bad stuff, and they take all my money, you know? Even the shampoo, they bring for me the cheaper one, you know, that blue one. Bad, bad, bad stuff, they bring my house. Why you spend this money, man? They steal it. Yeah!

If they’re just working for help the people, so how everybody, like, have a good car? Yeah, they steal the money from the people!

I don’t have a cousin here, nobody in America, so I’m, like, blind.

What the heck. If you wish, don’t buy for me nothing, the people will help me. When I live my house, after three days, the people bring for me stuff, you know. Jama, the mosque. The mosque send people. They bring for me everything, everything, so why don’t wait?

The social service, they know the system here. Why you steal my money already, before I come? I lose the money. My stuff is bad. The people help me, so I lose the money, you know.

The mosque. Saudi Araby, the people when they study here, in America, so they have a mosque. Some people, like, students, Maghreb, like, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Araby students. The people, they’re nice people. They help.

I go to the mosque three times, on the holidays.

So I have to bring something to my children. You know, they want something different. They tell me, “I can’t eat that food.” It’s difficult, because it was other culture, so my kids, “Oh mom, I can’t smell that. I can’t smell that food. I can’t.” I tell them, “You have to eat it. No choice. You have to eat it,” then one day, two days, they like it. They eat it.

My daughter, this week, she’s not coming home. Four days. Last week, I call the police. I lose the girl. You know, when I told the police, “My daughter, she’s not coming home, three days.” I told them, “I don’t know where she is.”

She smoke. Weed.

She beautiful, taller than me, beautiful girl.

Yo, man, she’s a smart girl. She smart. When I leave the house, she behind me, but she not coming.

My son, the big one, he told me, “Mom, I put Mina in the basement.” I say, “No, you don’t want trouble, baby. You get in trouble, for what?”

She not call me. I cut her phone, you know. I cut the line, last week. I told the police, “I cut her line, to stay home, but she never stay home.”

I’m just thinking, “If I cut the phone, she stay home. She can’t connect with anyone. She just stay home, and watch her homework,” but she outside for four days. She don’t ask about me. Before, she call me, “Mom, I miss you.” I told her, “You miss me. Come home.”

My son, he good boy. I say, “Your brother is your brother. He can’t take your blood. No. Even if he scare you, or something, it’s for a reason, right?”

The Arab people different from other people. Like, they accept the girl outside anyway, but she have to respect the house, respect the mama, respect the dad. That’s it.

I know what’s going on here. She stay with her friend. She take her around, around, around. They smoke weed. When she finish with that, she come back to the house.

The Jordan girl buy. My daughter just smoke. Sometime, my daughter stay with the Spanish girl.

I don’t know what she want, man. I don’t understand her. Everybody home. All my kids home. Why she always outside?

Sometime, she go to school. She come home after 12 O’clock. She don’t find nobody open the door. I give her the key. She lost it. She sleep outside.

I was working. She call me, “Mom, I make my nails. I have no money. I finish now. You have to come now, now! To give me money!”

Fast, I go outside, because they don’t give me half an hour or something. I give her the money. She tell me, “Take me home.” I have to go back to work fast.

When she talk to my son, she eat him like crazy, “No, don’t talk with me. You’re not my father! You’re not my mother! So why you talking with me? I call the police for you, OK? You touch me, I call the police.”

What he do? He stay in his room. He tell me, “Mom, I go to my room.” I tell him, “OK, baby, stay away from her. I don’t want to lose you together.”

He see his sister outside all the time. He think I give her everything, to be outside. No.

This week, my car almost break down. I need new work. I need to move, man.

Linh Dinh’s latest books are Postcards from the End of America (non-fiction) and A Mere Rica (poetry). He maintains a regularly updated photo blog.

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