Delicately my friend sets a well-used plastic shopping bag in front of us on the floor. We’ve been sitting for a while on a piece of folded old carpet and drinking strong tea out of miniature glasses. The plastic bag is stuffed with old photographs.
Most photos are loose in haphazard disarray. Others are ordered in small hand-held photo albums. She gingerly rummages through the bag to pull out various pictures.
They are the summation of her “previous” life – raising kids, vacations at rivers and lakes. There are pictures of them in their home, beautifully decorated. Toddlers playing on spotless tile floors.
The pictures start becoming little windows into her life.
Her husband excitedly joins us. She pulls out more pictures onto the woven plastic carpet on her tent floor. There’s one of a teenage daughter playing trumpet in an all-girls’ marching band with spiffy uniforms. Both mom and dad are now telling me about the event. Their eyes shine with parental pride.
They had once lived a life – a normal life. A civilized life.
The next picture is of a relaxed smiling young mother standing in the sunshine holding a toddler. The mom is dressed in blue jeans with a colorful shirt. Her rich brown hair is loose, thick and flowing in waves to her waist.
“That’s you!” I blurt out in happy surprise. “Your hair is beautiful. . . You are beautiful!” My friend smiles broadly at me.
I really am surprised by what I see. We had slowly gotten to know each other over three years. In that time she always wore a modest scarf covering her head and neck and a loose printed polyester floor-length gown.
Only briefly had I ever seen her without her scarf. Her hair is now salt and pepper and generally matted unevenly against her head. The bad-hair-day look is the result of head scarves worn during hot summers and highly limited water supply in her refugee camp. At most she is able to wash her hair over a bucket once a week.
This picture of her in front of me was 30 years ago but looks like it came from another lifetime. I’m realizing that this one bag of memories is all she was able to grab when they fled the war in her country. I am honored that she is sharing these memories with me.
With shame I also realize that my view of her has been unjustly limited. I had been seeing her as a worn-out refugee woman. I had not even stopped to consider that she might have ever dressed differently or had gone on picnics. With these pictures from her bag, my own picture of her is filling out.
It seems that the war forced her life as she had always known it into the same kind of disarray as the photographs in that old plastic bag. Yet, as she places the pictures in organized sequence, I learn to see my friend more like she really is on the inside.
About the Author: Christine is an IDEAS Associate and community health professional in multiple overseas locations, working among refugee communities. Read more about Christine's work: The Selfless Love of a Refugee Boy.