When I traveled from Costa Rica to Belgium and began my exchange program there, a refugee camp near the high school where I studied caught my attention. For some reason that I didn’t understand at the moment, we went to visit the camp to provide social aid. There, I met the Al-Aid family.
The first person I saw was Kiffah, the mother, 34, who was sitting in a wheelchair. She spoke only Arabic and almost no English. My two other classmates spoke only French, and I had a basic level of French at the time. Kiffah looked at me with joy and recognition: she thought that because of my brunette complexion and Latina features, I was from Pakistan. She immediately tried to communicate with me.
As I explained to her with my basic English that I was a Latina, she understood that we were both foreigners. With the help of Google Translate, we began speaking.
She explained to me that she had fled Iraq and showed me an old photo of her home, shattered by a bomb, but I couldn’t understand much more. Luckily, her kids were there. I began visiting them frequently. While my French improved, theirs also improved.
The children, Azra, Mariam and Ali, who were five, seven and nine years old, helped their mother and me to communicate with each other. I spoke French and they’d translate it to Arabic. In this way, we communicated with each other for my entire exchange year.
Azra is a very talkative and loving girl. Ali, the middle child, was the one with whom I had more difficulty communicating, because he was very shy and sweet. Mariam complied with her role as the older sister by controlling her siblings with an impressive maturity.
The three children and I came to have a relationship in which I was a sort of babysitter by default; they didn’t have the slightest idea of who I was, just that I appeared at their home to say hi and bring them candies, home appliances and shoes. There was one time when my tutor and I had to buy groceries for the family, and the children came with us with their parents’ permission. I had never seen a group of children as happy as they were at the supermarket, playing in between the goods and sliding over the waxed floors as if they were in an amusement park.
That day, Mariam, the oldest child, told me something I’ll remember forever. She stared at me, smiled and pointed out: “We have the same eyes.”
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That was the way – in between children who exaggerated phrases and got distracted every now and then, and a cell phone with Google Translate – I communicated with this family.
It was not until the middle of my exchange that I got to meet the husband, Mohammed. He spent much of his time outside of his home. I could not speak too much with him, but he did receive me with hospitality in his home every time he saw me.
With Kiffah I developed a meaningful relationship. Even though we couldn’t communicate directly, she once took her phone, spoke in Arabic to it and then showed me the screen. I wanted to cry when I saw the words: You are my best friend.
During my time at Belgium I never discovered the reason that Kiffah was in a wheelchair. I wanted to communicate with her, so I found an Arabic translator who was the children’s religion teacher at school. He was the one who told me that the children paid regular visits to a psychologist because they had night terrors and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. With all the kindness possible, he agreed to translate my questions for Kiffah from French to Arabic, and then translate her answers back to French for me.
Two days before I had to return to Costa Rica, I went to visit her, but she wasn’t home. Her husband, through signs and gestures, managed to communicate to me that she had been taken to Saint-Luc Hospital in Brussels to have surgery. He also told me that she would have to spend a month there in recovery.
The possibility of not being able to say goodbye before leaving made me cry when I received the news. My Belgian tutor, who had also developed an emotional attachment with the family, decided to drive to Brussels with me the day before my return to Costa Rica. I immediately placed a video call to Kiffah and asked her to show me the door of her hospital room. That way I was able to write down the room number; given that the hospital is enormous, I would have never found her without that reference.
She was not expecting my visit. When she saw me, she shouted in excitement.
She explained to me that her surgery had been a success and she proudly stood up next to the hospitas bed. She took a cane and showed how she was given back the ability to walk. She had one more surgery to go, but she was really excited.
Our happiness didn’t last long. I had to tell her that I would return to my country the next day. She didn’t want to accept it. She cried and told me that she wouldn’t be able to be happy. I tried to tell her that I had to return, to go back with my mother in order to feel protected, and that she had to be strong for her children so that they would also feel protected. She cried and talked to her phone.
She showed me the message through the translator and it said: You are my sister. I love you.
We both cried together and she gave me a bracelet and hijab as a gift. I asked for the interview questions; she did not realize until that moment that the questions had come from me. She asked me if I could help her to gain residence in Belgium. I explained to her that I was simply an exchange student, with no power. At least I could do one thing for her: I could take her voice, her cry for help in Arabic, and translate it so that we can all listen to it. We don’t all need to speak the same language in order to understand laughter and pain.
When you have the privilege to get to know a family like this one, full of compassion and love, it’s impossible for me to understand how people would close their nation’s doors to them. Upon my return to Costa Rica, I got the interview back with my friend’s answers. I had to translate them from French to English and Spanish and it broke my heart to read the same answers in different languages: “I escaped because I feared for my life and my family’s life.” “They had no compassion.” “They beat us voluntarily.” “My daughter was in a deplorable state.”
I can’t do much more than just love them from afar, but the multilingual shout is there for all of us to respond to.
After all, we all have the same eyes: some more privileged, some lighter and other more worn out, but in the end, the same.
This piece, translated from Spanish to English by Elizabeth Lang, is published through The Tico Times’ partnership with Contexto, a new Costa Rican digital media community. You can find selected Tico Times content in Spanish at contexto.cr, and The Tico Times will share translated selections from Contexto’s talented community of writers, photographers and artists.
Our sincere thanks go to the author of this piece, writer Lari Quesada, from this story from her time abroad. Are you a Costa Rican who is living outside the country, with a story to share for our series “A Letter Home”? Please write to us at email@example.com.