I was honored to receive a National Gold Medal for my poem Refugee this year from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Writing poetry is not only a source of pleasure for me, but a way to express larger ideas about the world around me and build empathy.
Both times I have entered, first as a freshman and this year as a junior, the contest got my creative juices flowing and reminded me of why I love writing.
While I had written some short stories and pieces as a sophomore, I did not feel confident enough to submit anything and I was focused on other commitments such as furthering UN Women’s GirlUp Dallas and volunteering to help special needs children in my community. This is a reminder to me to be confident in my work, remain a committed writer and never stem the tide of creativity no matter how different or weird my ideas may seem.
Refuge. Noun. Something providing shelter.
I cannot breathe. My sister’s hand slips from mine. The sky is a scavenger — hungry crows coalescing into a stretch of night. I hear gunshots and my world tips and slides and lurches violently. The Burundi border. Rwanda. An airport terminal, a city that moves too fast and people alternatively too patronizing and too wary of me, the girl with the hair in locs that must smell of patchouli oil and surely too damaged by war to ever sit still and be filed away.
Genocide isn’t a pretty word for poems.
I trust prose more than poetry, the straightforward, artless writings within barely opened textbooks over the haunting and elegiac, the needling and the saccharine that necessitates dog-eared pages and cracked spines because it draws you back in and drowns you.
You would too if you’d seen what I’d seen.
There should be no beauty in bodies left to bleed out in a river, heads bobbing like a string of pearls ripped from a thin filigree chain, guiltless children feeling culpable for being helpless and swallowing “whys” till their throats ache.
I was six, six and the world I inherited was corrupt and broken and the Red Cross trucks were white doves but still more red would seep from skin and spill onto dirt.
They called me a refugee.
Seeking refuge in their arms, safety in a crinkly Rice Krispie wrapper and underneath stars and stripes.
The taste of blood flooded my mouth as I bit my tongue, rusty and warm and salty.
I was ornery when meant to be ornamental — held up as a token, to play my role in the tale of survivor and savior, to be the poor ebony key on an ivory piano — and silent when asked to speak of unspeakable things — my dead sister like I could ever accept it, Africa like a mythical land and not culture and war and urbanity.
Do you need help? What can we do for you? They wanted to teach me, to shape me.
I wanted to teach them. I didn’t run, I didn’t flee danger for a safe haven. I was still there, my mind ravaged by memories and the white of the moon glistening in a bloody river. I was just relocating, rebuilding.
Now the memories run through me, grief clogging arteries and my roots — in a country lush and dangerous and powerful, in hair that dances and crackles with magic and electricity and will never lie flat — are capillaries and I can finally breathe.