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Today is #WorldRefugeeDay so I'm gonna tell you what being a child refugee is like. This might be repetitive. It's very definitely triggering. But most importantly: it's really about who you are and how you react when you see a child who has been ripped from his homeland.
I was only 5-6 when I had to leave Afghanistan in 1989. When I say "I had to", what I really mean is that the adults around me decided that if I was going to live, I had to be moved (they were right). A child has ZERO choice in where they get to go. No one asked me.
No one even TOLD me. I don't remember a conversation with a parent or grandparent. They didn't sit me down. They didn't explain anything to me. I just started hearing the name "Pakistan" over and over again. I didn't know what it was. This is a typical child refugee.
You start hearing words you can't really conceptualize, yet. "Home", "country", "citizenship", "people", "travel", "immigrate". I heard these words. I just didn't know what they meant. No one sat me down to explain them to me. Nor did they explain why they couldn't explain them.
Of all the words I kept hearing, the one word I knew was "war". The majority of the world's refugees are driven out of their homes by war. I imagine that's one word all child refugees know. Why did we have to move? Because at the age of 5, I knew what violent death was like.
If there is one thing you can expect many child refugees to know, it's killing. Bullets, bombs, rockets, jets, blood, guts, bodies... And graves. So many graves. Ppl dropping off around you like flies. All the time. "Where's my cousin?" They point you towards a mound of dirt.
The adults stop watching TV. They stop listening to music. This is even before you are a refugee. They are up late at night. Talking. Seriously. With sadness in their voices. They whisper until they think you are asleep. But I don't even know what you're talking about?
"We must leave..."
You cannot imagine the sadness those three words encapsulate when you hear your mom or dad utter them, in the pitch black of night, while you're hiding under a blanket, pretending to be asleep.
"Why is dad never happy ever?"
"Why is mom so quiet always?"
I've heard children who had to escape drug lords and killing squads from Central America describe the exact same scenarios, too. The exact same moms and dads. Sometimes only moms. Sometimes only dads. Sometimes, uncles and aunts because mom and dad weren't there.
And then you wake up one day and it's that day to leave!
"WHERE ARE WE GOING?!"
"To a better place."
"WHY!?"
No answer.
People picking up super ordinary things and then staring at them for a long time. Deciding whether they need grandpa's books. Or grandma's dishes.
You can't stay. You cannot make your parents let you stay. But you also can't take the rabbits with you. Nor can you take the cat that comes over once in a while and purrs around your legs. The fig tree will also stay. You will dream about climbing it for the rest of your life.
Your mom keeps crying. Your dad is also crying, but he's hiding his tears. They keep hugging you. They keep staring at walls. I never knew walls could make you cry. I still haven't seen walls make people cry again. But the day you become a refugee, you will see it.
They lock the door when you are all out. Your belongings haphazardly tied together.
"Why did we not have an organized departure?" Years later, I asked my mom.
"We never knew WHEN we were going to leave. Just told to be prepared at a moment's notice."
What did we take with us?
Clothes. Spoons. Grandma's medication. Mom's jewelry. Some religious books. That's it. Never saw anything we left behind again. I know kids whose families just had to lock up the door and leave. With nothing. Some picked the kids up with no shoes.
You are a child refugee in a car. Sitting on a crying parent's lap. Your older siblings are crying about having to leave their friends. Your youngest sibling is crying because she's a year old and needs milk. Your grandma is crying because of the pain of the bumpy road.
You see other cars. Filled with crying kids. Crying moms. Crying grandmas. Dads crying. Babies crying. Years later when I heard the term, "Trail of Tears", I knew EXACTLY why that's what they called it. What else do you call it? What else CAN you call it?
Days turn to nights which turn to days which turn to nights which after a while all just look like one long expanse of incalculable time you can never forget, but can't quite remember either. It all becomes a painful blur of hunger, sadness, pain, silence, fear and longing.
You start seeing things you had only heard about. Or hadn't even dreamed of. Snows. Mountains. Rivers. Deserts. Plains. Forests. Wild animals. Your first experiences of the wonders of nature is through the worst they can offer you. Heat, cold, thirst, mosquitos. SO MANY mosquitos
Then one day, you get to a place with a HUGE number of people gathered in a small place. Families upon families upon families. Your crying caravan also parks there. Hours... sometimes days. You're there. Waiting. The adults are talking. You have no clue. "We must go through!"
Then you see guns. Lots of them. People in uniforms. Men. Angry looking men. Everywhere they go, people cower in fear. They ask your dad questions. He shows them a tiny notebook. You didn't know he had notebooks! It has pictures in it. WHAT'S IN THE NOTEBOOK!?
You wake up. It's all dark. The adults are talking. They are scared. Wait, we are in the car again?
"We have to go around them. They won't let us in."
WHERE ARE WE TRYING TO GO ANYWAY!?
"I just hope they don't find us."
WHO!? Why are they after us? Is it because I was crying?
You are going towards the unknown. A scary unknown. Some "things" are after you. They want to get you. Are they the monsters that hide in my closet? The one that lives in the out house at night? PLEASE DON'T LET THEM GET ME!
You hide in your grandma's arms. She's scared, too!
Then you hear the words,
"I think we made it!"
GREAT! Can I please go home now?

You will be saying those words for years. First to your parents. Then to yourself. Then to the system of corporations, ideologies and states that ensure you remain a refugee. Then, the universe.
You start hearing ppl talk. In a different language. Your car changes. Sometimes you are being carried by a parent. One time, one of the people with guns starts beating up one of the men in your caravan. He is lying on the ground crying. All the kids cry. The men with guns laugh.
You dad is clinching his fists and biting his lip. The people with guns in uniforms come to him. They push your dad. They push everyone else around. They drag the guy on the ground away. If you are lucky, you get to keep moving. To more men with guns. More beatings. More pushing.
By now, you have stopped asking questions. There are too many questions and ZERO answers. Besides, when you ask your parents questions, they start crying. That just makes you cry even more. It's been weeks. You start tuning out. You become quiet. You learn to be a refugee.
See, at the core of being a child refugee despite everything is this tacit acceptance of your fate. In order to live, you make a bargain. You accept the pain, the wandering, the lack of answers and the constant pushing and shoving. So that you can live. It's that basic.
That's fundamentally what being a child refugee is about. You go through a journey so alienating, so completely unimaginable and one you are so absolutely unprepared for that from that point on, you will forever be in survival mode without ever knowing anything different.
That's why when after months, you get out of the cars, the walking ends, the horses, donkeys and camels disappear and you are allowed to lay on the ground by your grandma, you stop questioning where you are or why you were brought there. You're just grateful the journey is over.
That's why when after weeks of trying, you finally learn the language the new ppl around speak, and learn that the words they keep telling you mean, "GO BACK TO WHERE YOU CAME FROM," you don't go back. You don't even think about it. You know it's a hellish nightmare of a journey.
It makes my heart hurt when activists try to stop the use of the phrase "illegal alien" and promote the word "immigrant" and "refugee". I grew up with people calling me a "refugee". It was the worst slur imaginable. Because it's not the word that hurts. It's HOW people say it.
But even that doesn't faze you. "REFUGEE! Why don't you go back?!"

You know exactly what that word means. R-E-F-U-G-E-E.
It means, you are:

1. Unwanted
2. A burden
3. Responsible for your plight
4. A parasite on the new society
5. The cause of all crime
6. At age 5-6
The adults say it to your parents. The kids say it to you. Sometimes, the kids say it to your parents. And sometimes... sometimes, even the adults say it to you. Sometimes, they say it out of anger. Sometimes, they say it while laughing at you. You are hilarious. A refujoke.
If you've ever looked at a child refugees eyes you've just met, you will know a strange look. It's not surprise. Or apprehension. Not even curiosity. Those things quickly diminish and are replaced. It's a sort of blankness. They're not dead. They're just not there. Tuned out.
Dad never smiles the same way again. Mom gets lost staring into the distance whenever she is alone. Grandma dies soon after. Your siblings and you become closer. The kids in the new place never accept you. And never forget to remind you you don't belong here. EVER.
That word... is always just under the surface. "Refugee!" You know the second you piss someone off, that's what they will call you. But remember, you are a child. You didn't live long enough to have a concept of "Home" in your country. Home means the house you left behind.
You dream of that house. Grandma is alive. Dad smiles. Mom laughs. You can still climb the fig tree. The cat runs towards you instead of running away. The rabbits feel so soft. The walls don't make anyone cry. No, they embrace you. In a child refugee's dreams, walls have arms.
Then you wake up. And you are a refugee. You know you should hate yourself because everyone else hates you, too. But that's okay because at least you are alive. You never tune back in. Remember when you were on the road and decided you couldn't take it anymore? That's the moment.
From that moment on, the moment you accept your status, as a refugee while trying to escape, you can never tune back in. Your journey never ends. You never go back home. In fact, you can never go back home. Because home is that state. That state of not having a home. Forever.
A lot of us refugee kids have the word on our bios and profiles everywhere. This isn't necessarily because we might not have citizenship somewhere. Or might not be back in our home country. No no. Being a refugee as a child isn't a status. It's life-defining moment.
Once you become a refugee at that young of an age, you can never be unrefugee'ed. Those experiences cannot be erased. Once you tune out on the journey to live at any cost, you can never tune back in. Years of therapy and medication help. But they cannot fully heal.
Now try HEALING when you live in a country that has child refugees forcibly taken from their moms and dads. Put into cages. Denied medication. Called "bodies". Yeah, US border guards are not calling refugees "bodies". Because "illegal alien" just doesn't sting as much anymore.
Try HEALING when the news tells you about Italy fining ppl fo rescuing drowning refugees at sea. Try HEALING when corporate fascism is DESPERATELY trying to start a war on Iran, which you are absolutely certain will results in 100s of 1000s dead & millions of more like you.
I have lived long enough to see words like "Afghan", "Syrian", "Somali", "Congolese" and "Guatemalan" become slurs because we dared to escape and tried to live. Because so many of us became refugees. We are the causes of all your problems. Are Iranians next?
But that's not a question I'm asking today. No. Questions like that are every day for me. And you must understand: they are for every child who is a refugee. We may have tuned out from the way you live your life. But we haven't tuned out of the lives of other refugee children.
You may have the luxury of seeing a child in a concentration camp and thinking, "Well, let me read an article about the semantics of 'concentration camp' to fully understand what's going on!"
I don't have to, so I don't have that luxury. I wish you could see through my eyes.
I wish you could see through my eyes and you could see that that kid, in that cage, from Guatemala, has so many questions to which no one has given her answers. That her hellish nightmare once begun, will never end. That she, too, dreams of a home she'll never get back to.
If this #WorldRefugeeDay, know that you can do something about this. You can fight to stop wars. You can work to welcome refugees. You can help integrating them into safer places where they can try to at least dream of a home - even if they can never have it. Now you know us.
(P.S. If you liked this thread, please consider donating to Gender Health Center in Sacramento (@GHC_TransHealth) in the name of Roxsana Rodriquez, a trans refugee who died in ICE custody after being denied medication last year.) thegenderhealthcenter.org/donate.htm
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