I lived in a tent for a month. Not a refugee tent, though I am an immigrant from a war-torn country. But no, this was a dark-blue camping tent pitched in the middle of the living room, because I didn’t want to have anything to do with my boyfriend. And yet, I couldn’t leave him. I didn’t have a voice back then. So I gave myself a tent.
I loved that tent. You could hang a flashlight from the ceiling and stay up all night reading. When my boyfriend, Marco, came home from work, he’d try to get me to come out. “There’s chicken and rice!” he’d call from the kitchen. “No, thank you!” I’d yell back. When I knew he was asleep however, I’d sneak out like a thief and eat the food.
Marco wasn’t a bad guy. He was kind and had a lucrative job, was a sharp dresser, ran regularly, had handsome Latin features and a great sense of humor. He used to say that if you look good and eat well, good things will come to you. I liked his optimism and started exercising regularly with him. But no matter how much I worked out, I still felt unhappy.
“I came to America to make something of myself, to be free!” I cried to my supervisor, Nafissa, one day at work. “I’m still trapped. Maybe there is something wrong with me?”
“It’s not too late, you know,” my supervisor said.
“Too late for what?” I asked, but she just smiled.
Then one day, our lives changed forever. As the morning light crept into my tent, along with my cat, Pishi, who woke me up with her meowing, I remembered I’d forgotten to buy her food. Marco was still sleeping in the bedroom, so I got dressed and walked down to the deli.
As I was leaving the deli with cat food, everyone on the street twisted their necks around, like a flock of birds staring up at the sky. “Plane! Plane!” someone screamed. Then there was a boom and the plane opened up a huge hole in the tower. “We’re under attack,” someone else screamed. A single syllable formed on my lips: WAR. I’m in the middle of war again.
I ran as fast as could back home and I went into Marco’s bedroom. He was shocked.
“You haven’t been in this room in weeks,” he said.
“We’re at war,” I said. “Get up. We have to go to the towers and find out what’s going on.”
“Atash, what are you talking about?”
“Just come to the window,” I said, and jerked up the blinds. The sun streamed in and the tower stood before us, like a breathless messenger trying to say something before it expired. Then it collapsed, folding into itself and falling into a pile of dust.
I dragged Marco down to Ground Zero. There was already a white film settling on the cars, like the first snow of winter. Half-burned papers were still sailing through the air. Bits of so many things I couldn’t decipher. A few blocks from where the towers had stood, we heard another boom as another building fell. The earth shook beneath me and seem to open up. My legs were weak. I felt like I was being swallowed by a vast black hole. I had nothing to hold onto so I stopped resisting and childhood visions of the Iran-Iraq war came into focus.
“Atash, we have to go back,” Marco said. “This is crazy. We don’t know what’s going to collapse next.”
But I couldn’t leave. Childhood memories flooded back. Sirens, smoke, destruction, chaos. I was back in Iran watching our lives falling apart. Missiles sliding across the rim of the sky, strangely quiet at first, then a deafening roar. Rotten, chemical smells hanging in the air. I know that smell, I thought. Human hair on fire.
“ATASH, THIS IS NOT FUN.” The way Marco said those words was strange. How could war be about fun? I thought. I let him pull me down the street, away from the white ashes. But I didn’t want to go. This is my life, I thought. You can’t drag me from it.
“Atash, this is a crisis! You can’t just stand there watching it like a TV show.”
“Don’t tell me what a crisis is,” I said. “Do you realize I went through this for eight years? Every single day.”
“Yeah, but this is happening in America!”
I hated that he said that. In America. As though my experience was only real now, not before. I realized how far away from him I had drifted.
Back home, Marco sat down in front of the TV and didn’t move for the next week. I went back to the safety of my tent. I would hear words like TERROR, ISLAM, and ISLAMIC TERROR coming from the news all day and all night.
One day, he came home with an armful of American flags. He put one outside our front door, and one in the living room, just outside my tent flap. I would bump into it in the middle of the night. He started talking all the time about “the threat to America” and “Muslims.”
“You know my family is Muslim, right?” I said one day. I had decided to sit outside of my tent for a bit. “And I’m also American. I love my life here. I became a woman here. I got an education here. This is where I belong.”
I told my supervisor that Marco was the only stable thing I had in the world. “Each day I come to work and counsel immigrant and refugee students from war-torn countries,” I told her. “But then I go home, and he’s just sitting there on the couch, drinking Coronas and grumbling about Muslims.”
“It’s not too late, you know,” she said again.
But I couldn’t leave him, not yet.
I started going to a lot of anti-war demonstrations and coming home with peace pamphlets. I’d put the pamphlets on top of Marco’s copy of the New York Post, which usually had some headline about bombing Afghanistan. When I went to work, he’d put the newspaper on top of the pamphlets. Then, when I got home, I’d put the pamphlets back on top of the newspaper.
There was a Sikh student in our school who was a great dancer and won all the hip-hop dance contests! But some white kids jumped him on his way home from school, thinking he was Muslim because of his turban. He ended up in the hospital. Other kids, Muslim and non-Muslim immigrants, came to my office and told me they felt unsafe walking down their own blocks.
I called a meeting in the cafeteria. Seeing them all gathered together like that, I began to cry. All these young, hopeful souls asking for help, trying to bring change to their lives. And all I’d been doing was running from my past. I told the kids to stand in groups, according to their zip codes. Within minutes, they had made agreements to watch out for each other and walk home together after school.
That night, when I got home, I packed up my tent, along with my other possessions. As I put my clothes into duffel bags, I was thinking of one of my Bengali Muslim students who had said to me that day, “Bad things keep happening to me in this country, Atash. Do you think it’s because I’m bad?” I remember feeling like that as a child, thinking: No one is protecting me. It must be my fault.
“Of course you’re not bad,” I said to her. “Just because the people who should be looking out for you don’t doesn’t make you bad. But it’s your responsibility to look for where the real love is now.”
The next morning, as I walked to the door, I realized I was carrying the same duffel bag I had carried out of Iran. I remembered my grandmother standing with tears in her eyes, offering me a book of prayers to keep me safe on my journey. I looked up, but Marco was standing by the door, not my grandmother.
“I’m sorry, Atash,” he said. “What I said about Muslims. I’ll try to be more open-minded.”
“Good,” I said. “It’s not too late, you know.”
I'm a licensed clinical social worker with two decades of experience working in New York City public schools and providing social and emotional support for urban youth, immigrants, and their families. I'm Director of Wellness and founding member of Harvest Collegiate, a progressive public high school in Manhattan, where I also train social workers. In my private practice, I treat adults through a mixture of psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, and Reiki. In my spare time I write literary nonfiction.