With nothing but a couple of belongings in her hand, a cerulean color diary, and her favorite stuffed animal, a pink and white-colored giraffe that her grandmother gave her a few years ago, 10-year-old Tania boards a plane with her mother, father, and six-year-old sister. On June 10, 1979, the family says goodbye to their relatives, friends, and home country to flee Iran because of the Iranian Revolution. Closing her eyes to prevent tears from spilling down her flushed face, Tania thinks about laughing with her best friend during recess, running outside in their beautiful garden with her sister in the sweltering heat, and eating three scoops of the best dessert she has ever had: creamy ice cream with pistachio, saffron, and rose water. Tania does her best to push the memories that are flowing through her mind, as she knows that soon, everything will change. Along with her family, she will start a new life in the United States, one that does not include immense and ceaseless worry for her safety and well-being.
“Tania, I’m scared,” says her little sister, with a glossy layer of tears covering her eyes.
“I know, me too. But it’s going to be fine. I promise,” says Tania, while caressing her sister’s face.
Tania never really kept the promise she made to her sister. It was not exactly “fine.” It was scary; it was frightening. With limited English and little knowledge of what to expect, Tania, her sister, and their parents entered a new stage of all their lives as foreigners in a new land.
At this time, Tania is pushed into a cage. There is no way out; there is no escape.
As her older sister chases her across the grass, Sophene runs as fast as she can in circles. The yard is well-groomed and has long, healthy, green grass.
“I’m going to get you!” yells Sophene’s sister.
Turning her head around, Sophene looks into her sister’s eyes and shakes her head back and forth repeatedly.
“No, you’re not!”
Suddenly, the sprinklers turn on, and Sophene and her sister become soaked in water. With droplets of water on their faces and their clothes completely drenched, they continue playing. They are having too much fun to stop.
The two sisters continue playing outside until their faces are a deep shade of red and covered in sweat. When they return inside their home, two plates full of their favorite meal: chicken, broccoli, and pasta are waiting for them in the dining room.
As they shove big spoonfuls of their meal into their mouths, Sophene begins to giggle suddenly.
“Why are you laughing?” asks her sister.
This only sparks more laughter.
Soon, Sophene’s sister joins her.
The reason behind Sophene’s laughter is unexplainable. It is not that Sophene’s sister said a particularly funny joke. Simply, Sophene is happy. There is no reason for her to not be. Her life is filled with joy, as she is cared for, loved, and protected.
Sophene has never been put into the cage; she has never even thought about the cage.
All Tania wants is to leave the cage she is trapped in; she wants to feel free. For most of her childhood, Tania’s parents have one main concern: surviving. When Tania’s mother and father work tirelessly every day to support their family, they are trying to survive. When Tania and her sister are sent to school with peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwiches on white bread, without the crust, instead of their favorite dish, dolmas, grape leaves stuffed with vegetables and meat, they are trying to survive.
SURVIVAL = BLENDING IN
Tania grows up seeing her parents struggle with several issues. She wants to make them proud, and so, she dedicates her high school years towards this goal. Her parents constantly remind her that she needs to be successful, that she needs to accomplish what they never had the chance to do.
“You should be a lawyer or a doctor!”
These are words she hears over and over again throughout her adolescent years. Tania does not have the freedom to have dance lessons or to be on a soccer team; she does not have the freedom to pursue her passions and dreams.
In seventh grade, Tania is walking to class when one of her classmates stands in her way. Immediately, a group of other children surrounds her.
“Hey, how do you say three?” asks one of the kids.
The children laugh hysterically. They call her “stupid” and a “fool.”
Tania’s mind is flooded with hundreds of thoughts and questions. Are they right? Am I stupid? Am I a fool? Why can’t I be like them? Why can’t I say the words right? Why do I have to be like this?
From this point on, Tania keeps her head down and stays quiet. She cannot risk being made fun of again. She sits in the back of the classroom and does not raise her hand, even though she knows the answers to all of the teacher’s questions. During lunch, she eats by herself away from her classmates. She does this to survive.
By concealing parts of her true self and altering her identity, Tania hopes to fall under her classmates’ definition of “normal.” She hates being associated with the words “weird” and “strange.” Tania never has the freedom to be Tania, the real Tania.
The cage becomes smaller, suffocating Tania.
During every step, Sophene feels the earth under her. She feels her shoes absorb the rainwater from the grass, and she feels the sunshine on her back.
Her teammate across the field passes her the ball, while people on the sidelines cheer and yell. The goal is only a few steps away.
She kicks the ball in front of her, and she runs after it. After taking another good look at the goalie and her position, she shoots.
And she scores.
Her teammates crowd her like she is a famous actress, and they give her high-fives until her hand feels numb.
Sophene has always been supported by her parents to do anything she wants to do.
On the drive home from the game, Sophene looks out the window, intensely staring at the dancing trees. The only thing crossing her mind is how beautiful the scenery is. She has no other worries.
Unlike Tania, Sophene has the opportunity to be a child, to preserve her innocence.
The cage continues to control Tania, and as a result, it stunts her growth and development. She makes decisions that she thinks she is supposed to make. After attending college and law school like her parents hoped she would, she gets a job, marries her husband, and has two children.
The cool water slaps Tania in the face when she jumps into the pool.
“Mommy! Mommy! Watch me!”
Instantly, Tania turns around to find her daughter doing a handstand in the water. Her legs are sloppy, one of them leaning towards the right side and the other one leaning towards the left side.
She lifts her head out of the water and quickly rubs the water off of her eyes.
“Was it good, mama?” she asks.
“It was wonderful!” exclaims Tania.
Tania’s eldest daughter is swimming on the other side of the pool. Her legs kick against the water repeatedly.
Splash. Splash. Splash.
The heat reminds Tania of the long days she spent with her sister in Iran. It does not feel scary or frightening anymore. Life is not what she expected, but now, she feels more free. The cage has become less and less robust over the years. It has started to fall apart and be less constraining.
“Sophene, let’s play with the ball!” says Tania excitedly.
Sophene’s eyes get big and she grins from ear to ear.
Sophene knows one thing about her mom: Tania sacrificed being true to herself for most of her life so that she could survive and now give the best life to her daughters, a life without restrictions.
Sophene is free and will continue to be free.