Chapter 7: The Mexican from Africa

Dear Tadi,

Aurelio Teen (23)

Where do I even begin? I want to express how I’m feeling lately, but all I can come up with are dumb clichés, like “a fish out of water,” or “a visitor from another planet.” Well, whatever. You get the point.

I’m starting to think that I’ll never fit in in this country.

It’s not just that I miss our lives in Africa. It’s that everything here is so…different. Bizarrely different. It’s nothing like I thought it would be when papa used to tell us all those stories. For starters, people here are not all rich. Sure, some people are rich – filthy rich. They drive slick cars and eat steaks and live in houses as big as our village. But most of the people where I live are poor. Well, by American standards, anyway. In this country, even most poor people have food to eat and toilets that flush and electricity and stuff. But Tia Karina and Tio Jaime say that we live in a poor neighborhood, which means we have to double lock our doors and look out for muggers when we walk around the city.

Aurelio Teen (20)

Every day, I take a big yellow bus to my high school. It’s an enormous brick building on the outside, and on the inside, a maze of classrooms, stairwells, and thousands of rowdy kids, sneakers squeaking as they shove their way down crowded hallways, clanging shut metal locker doors.

I kind of have a group of friends I hang out with. They used to tease me a lot when they found out I grew up in Africa. “Look, here comes the African!” they would say, jostling each other and smirking. “Say something in African, Jungle-boy!”

City Teen (23)

I always sighed and rolled my eyes. “You know, Africa is a huge continent, with a lot of languages,” I would start, but the other kids wouldn’t listen. In the end, I would spit out a bunch of words in Oromo, and they thought it was the funniest thing in the world. Then they found out that I spoke Spanish, too. After that, everybody at school called me The Mexican from Africa, no matter how many times I explained that my papa was from Colombia.

Whatever, I guess.

City Teen (40)

Kids in my neighborhood are also really into basketball. Have you ever even heard of that sport? It’s kind of like soccer, in a way. But instead of dribbling the ball with your feet, you bounce it with your hands. And the nets are attached to tiny hoops on a high pole. It seems like every boy in my school wants to be a famous basketball star someday, just like Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Well, not me. Let’s just say that I found my best position in basketball – on the sidelines.

basketball (1)basketball (6)

I don’t mean to say that everything about America is bad. My Tio and Tia are really nice. I’ve also befriended this old homeless man, who I call Professor. He says that he was once a professor at a great university, but now he is out of work and down on his luck. I caught him once rummaging for food in a trash can. So now, I bring him peanut butter sandwiches, and we talk. About Africa, about my future, about everything. He keeps recommending that I read all these big books that no one has ever heard of. So now, I spend a lot of my free time at the public library, filling my head with Kafka and Tolstoy and Arthur Conan Doyle.

City Teen (65)Aurelio Teen (5)

“You must expand your mind,” the Professor likes to say. “Broaden your world view.” I’m not so sure I should keep taking my advice from some guy who lives under a bridge, eating other people’s scraps. But it’s reading books or basketball, so I guess I’ll keep reading for now.

Your friend,



Chapter 6: Peaches and Wine

Dear Leon,

My last memories of Ethiopia are not happy ones. It was like you had been the sun, shining so bright that I couldn’t see the darkness all around us. But then you left so suddenly, taking your light with you. And all that remained was a filthy camp packed with desperate people, driven from their homes during the uprising. There was not enough food, or water, or medicine. Every day, more mothers arrived with haunted faces, clutching starving babies to their dried-up breasts. Every day, the angel of death visited the camp. And one day, he took my baby brother, Fisha, with him.

After that, there was nothing but darkness. The darkness lasted a long, long time, until the day that God had mercy on me and sent an angel of light to take me away from that place. I knew that she was an angel, because she was pale with yellow hair, like in one of your father’s illustrated Bible books. Her eyes shone blue like the sky, as blue my own. She spoke to me in a language I did not understand, then slipped her hand in mine. Together, we left behind the camp, and all of Africa.

City Teen (16)

And now? Well now I know that the woman’s name is River, and that she is not really an angel. But she brought me to a place so wonderful, that some days I am convinced it must be Heaven. We live on a green and beautiful farm, named Rainbow Acres, somewhere in America. (America, Leon! Imagine!)

Tadi T (31)

“This is your new home, and we are your family,” River told me when we first arrived. She and her sister, Spring, cleaned me up, sewed me new dresses to wear, and taught me to speak English. Soon, I was just like the other girls, who, according to River and Spring, were my new sisters. There was Belinda, who was funny and not afraid to speak her mind. Then there was dark-haired Megan, who was sweet and shy, and rarely without a smile. Finally, there was Leslie, the daydreamer. I was so mesmerized by her strange, bright red hair, that for the first time in my life, I understood why people of our village had found it hard not to stare at me when I walked past.

Tadi T (20)Tadi T (24)

My sisters and I were mainly responsible for two things – the vineyard and the peach orchard. Day after day, we tended the crops and picked grapes and peaches until our hands were sore and cramped. Then, when we had finally harvested enough, we set to work, smashing the grapes and fermenting the juice, until it tasted bitter and strong, like the medicine old women in Zewedu used to cram down the unlucky throats of their fevered patients.

“People spend a great deal of money for our wines,” Spring explained when I expressed my distaste for the drink we were bottling.

“The trick is to drink at least three glasses of it,” Belinda whispered to me later. “By then, you’ll be too drunk to realize how bad it tastes.”

The other thing we produced on our farm was peach jam and peach preserves. It wasn’t too hard to make, once I got the hang of it. And I can promise you, I’d take sweet, sticky peach jam over wine any day.

Tadi T (86)Tadi T (88)

When we weren’t working on the farm or making jam and wine, then my sisters and I would relax in the parlor, sipping herbal teas and listening as Spring read aloud to us from all kinds of books, from philosophy books to medical guides. I didn’t understand many of the big words she read, but I imagined they must be very important, so I tried hard to listen. Megan says that Spring is very smart – she went to school all the way until ninth grade!

Tadi T (48)

Megan and Leslie sipping tea while Spring reads to them from a book.


I want to tell you more, but I’m out of time. It is nearly six o’clock, and we are all getting ready for the return of The Teacher. And who is The Teacher? Well, he is the most important person at Rainbow Acres. He is the one who blesses the fruit and makes it grow. He is our master, and the center of everything. I promise that I will tell you all about him in the next letter.

Tadi T (94)




Chapter 5: Coming to America

Dear Tadi,

Remember all those stories we used to make up about America? In America, everybody was so rich, they slept in golden beds and dressed like kings. In America, everyone drove shiny new cars, and nobody walked anywhere. In America, no one ever went hungry, because everybody ate six meals per day.

Well, we were right about the cars, anyway.

It wasn’t my choice to leave you. One day, some important-looking people showed up at the refugee camp. They asked me my name, then a bunch of questions about my parents. They told me that I had to come with them; that my family was waiting for me. My family! I was so excited, that I rushed to get into the car. I would see Mama and Papa, and then we would come right back to the camp to get you and Fisha.

But when we got to the big building, my parents were not there. “Of course not,” said a woman in an impatient voice. “Your parents died in the attack on your village. We are sending you to live with relatives in America.”

b (158)

I stared at her, not wanting to believe it. Then inside of me, some last strand of hope unraveled. I would never see Mama and Papa again.

As I stood there, bawling like a little boy, the woman gave me an awkward pat on the shoulder. “You’ll be fine,” she kept repeating. “It will be different, but you will adjust.”

Three days and one very frightening airplane ride later, I met my mama’s brother-in-law. “Call me Uncle Jaime,” he said. “Your Tia Karina can’t wait to meet you.” He drove us to his home – to my new home, which was a large brick house in a city named Detroit.

Tadi T (7)

How can I begin to describe such a city to you? Imagine buildings taller than the tallest tree you’ve ever seen. Imagine so many lights that the city glows like the sun, even at night. And the cars – everywhere you look, there are cars, like herds of metal animals, growling and hooting and puffing dark smoke from their tails.

Aurelio Teen (13)

b (166)

“It ain’t much,” said Uncle Jaime, who had a funny way of speaking English, “but it’s home.” He opened the door of our house, and I stepped onto a floor so soft, I wondered if people slept on it.

I gazed around in amazement at the fancy furnishings and cloth-like covering on the walls. “It’s beautiful,” I said.

A round woman with twinkling eyes threw back her head and laughed. “Ooh, I think I’m going to like you!” she said. Her smile was so much like Mama’s that I couldn’t speak anymore after that.

Uncle Jaime and Tia Karina were stricter than Mama and Papa. I couldn’t run around barefoot, and had to be reminded a lot to lock the doors, and to look both ways before crossing streets. But they were kind and loving people who were patient with me as I adjusted to life in Detroit.

Aurelio Teen (17)

They had a dog, too – a big, hyper, scary-looking dog named Raj, who decided from day one that I was going to be his new best friend. And before long, I was.

b (171)

Tadi T (116)

It was a very different life than the one I had always known. People are different here. Everything moves at a faster pace. Sometimes I think that I will never catch up. But I keep trying to adjust. Who knows? Maybe by the next letter, I will have adjusted, and I’ll be such an All-American kid that you wouldn’t even recognize me. Maybe.

City Teen (20)

Your friend,


Chapter 4: The Night of Fire

Dear Leon,

I still get nightmares.

Although the soldiers had been there for days, all was still calm in our little village. No one sensed what was coming. No one was prepared.

Remember the Night of Fire? I woke up gasping for air, choking on the thick smoke that filled my family’s hut. My eyes stinging, I crawled for the door, bumping into something small and soft along the way. It was my baby brother, Fisha. I scooped him into my arms, and together, we fled our burning home.

The night sky was ablaze. Everywhere I looked, the homes of our neighbors were in flames. The rattle of gunfire split the air and mingled with screams. People ran through the streets in panic.

b (85)

b (63)

I spotted Teacher Hosanna racing in my direction. “Run, Tadelech!” The terror in her voice made my knees weak. “The soldiers are attacking. You must flee!” I didn’t think. I held Fisha tight and ran away from our home, away from the burning village. We took cover in the darkness of the bush, not fearing the attack of some wild animal, but of bad men with weapons and fire.

b (33)

When morning came, we dared to approach the now silent village. A few huts still stood, but most had been burned to the ground. Some were still burning quietly, as though no one remained to extinguish the fires. Fisha and I stared at the blackened rubble where our hut had once stood. Where our parents had been sleeping. Tendrils of dark smoke still rose from the ashes. Something sour rose in my throat.

b (60)

“Tadelech!” someone said. I spun around. There stood Emebet, the mother of two of our schoolmates. She glowered down at me. “You,” she said. A wild light blazed in her eyes, like flames. “This is all your doing!”

b (125)

b (119)

Alarmed, I took a step back. Emebet shook her finger in my face. “You brought this misery upon our village. Ghost! Devil girl!” She swung her arms, shooing me like a dog. Again, I fled, taking Fisha with me. I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know what to do. And then I saw you near the river.

I cannot tell you what it was like to see that you were still alive. I half-laughed, half-sobbed, clutching onto you as though I were drowning and you were a floating branch.

“How did you survive?” I asked.

“Teacher Hosanna led me here in the night,” you said. “She waited until morning, but she had to go look for her family. She said we must go up the river to the camp.”

b (57)

“And your parents?” I asked. But I already knew by the dull look in your eyes, and the flatness of your voice. We were stones, you and I. But deep inside the stone, a wet, dark grief was hiding, waiting to be exposed. Hand-in-hand, the three of us trudged up the river, not talking about the night of terror, the soldiers, the things we had seen. At last, we arrived at the refugee camp, which was crowded with people who had survived the atrocities of the soldiers. Very few were from our village. My parents were not among them. Neither were yours.

We were alone, all alone in the world, except for one another. You squeezed my hand. And the rock split open.

b (146)

That is all I can write for now, dear friend. My tears are already smudging the words I have written.