The air dripped this week in the Midwest. Finally summer, the first week of June, and I remembered how heavy it becomes an hour before a storm, the sky growing darker as clouds pregnant with rain prepare to fall.
In the midst of impending rain and thunder, I took my 3-year-old son to the park, anyway. Winter had been long this year, and we were desperate for the sun on our backs and the sight of other people who we didn’t know, revealed to one another underneath our down parkas and wooly hats.
I took my son to a park at the crossroads of America. Our city’s most affluent suburb, a park frequented by mothers in Polo dresses and nannies pushing $2,000 strollers, occasionally dads dropping by after work in ties and rolled up shirtsleeves, boat shoes on the weekends.
They were all white, like me.
But the park butted up too against an apartment complex, whose residents were predominately people of color and, sometimes, refugees. We coexisted here, in the park together, in the few months of the year when we go outside together, to a place that’s free for everyone to go and the social lines that divide Americans so often, don’t exist, for an hour or so.
Still, the dividing lines often kept us apart, anyway. The white preschool moms stuck together, as did the nannies. Next to the park, a large picnic shelter next to a lake often hosted parties and gatherings of large groups of people, many of whom were first or second-generation immigrants from Central and South Asia. Often I smelled the tantalizing barbecues and heard music, minor melodies unfamiliar to my ears, wafting down the hill from the lake and the picnic shelter to the park, where kids played, if not together then at least side by side, knocking into each other at the bottom of the plastic slide and taking turns on the zipline.
This week the park again was integrated, crossing racial and ethnic and socioeconomic lines, but again the adults kept to themselves, for the most part. The kids, though. The kids gave me hope.
Little girls in brightly colored dresses and glittery sandals stood around my son in line for the zipline, dashing and diving and jumping up and down.
“It’s my birthday party and my sister’s birthday party, too,” one of them told me, squinting and smiling into the sun.
“I’m 4,” her sister said.
“I’m 6 – I mean 7,” the original girl said. “I almost forgot!”
I helped the younger girl off the zipline and handed it to my son.
“I’m almost 4,” he told her.
On the other side of the park, older boys wearing baggy pants cut above the ankle and wide-cut jackets supervised a group of younger boys, one of whom was trying to take a phone from another. They broke up the fight and patrolled use of the phone. The younger boys were deferent, respectful.
A girl in a dress and a headscarf laughed delightedly as she played with the sand-mover, manipulating its metal arms and tossing sand into the air. My son walked over, and two little girls asked if I’d lift them up to hang on the spinning wheel with my son.
“Ahhhhhhh!” the three sighed together.
We went back to the zipline, and the sisters were still there, discussing glittery sandals with a little white girl and her dad.
The original girl looked up at me.
“We’re having a party,” she said. “And we’re all from the same country.”
“What country are you from?”
I realized, with a start, where I’d seen their outfits and the boys’ haircuts before, where I’d associated the unfamiliar strains of music. Often children wearing clothes like these stared up at me from pages of magazines or newspaper articles, about famine and violence, about lack of education and children begging with their mothers in the streets.
The child mortality rate, the number of children who will die before they reach age 5, out of 1,000 live births, in Afghanistan was estimated to be 110.6 in 2017, according to the CIA World Factbook. In America, it’s 6.5.
According to UNICEF, 62 percent of children under age 5 in Afghanistan will be taken to a health provider with suspected pneumonia. Forty-six percent will receive oral rehydration salts due to dehydration and digestion problems, often caused by unsafe water. Just 39 percent will receive the full measles vaccine. Twenty-nine percent of children ages 5-17 were engaged in child labor in Afghanistan, and 35 percent of women ages 20-24 were married by the time they turned 18. Just 2 percent of Afghan kids have children’s books at home. Forty percent will be left under inadequate supervision, due to parents and families living in poverty. Just 54 percent will complete their primary education.
Only 32 percent of Afghanistan’s population, according to UNICEF, has basic sanitation services, and just 12 percent have piped water.
Certainly Afghanistan, like everywhere in the world, has its wealthy people and its success stories. But the statistics above are grim for children like the ones I met at the park.
They looked much like the Afghan children I’d seen in the news, except their eyes were brighter somehow. They were safe. They had time to play. Their parents were available. They didn’t have to listen to bombs by night and live in uncertain housing situations, their lives at the mercy of political stress and religious extremism.
Here, they were free – not immune, of course, from racial and ethnic and religious and sexual discrimination – but shielded to a point from violence, disease, and early death. And given a sunny afternoon at the park even as the clouds, pregnant with rain, threatened to burst and unleash a torrent.
I realized something, playing with these girls and watching these boys and listening to the music and smelling the food cooking with the adults, in the picnic shelter nearby next to the lake.
The America where they live: where they’ve been welcomed as refugees and yes, supported by my tax dollars, is the America where I want to live. I cannot imagine my park only populated by one type of people, mostly white and occasionally African American or Asian American, well-off and isolated from the larger problems of the world. I long for the confluence that happens here at this park, where worlds collide and children play and American hope endures.
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Last week, I went to New York City for a book signing. We ate dinner at a Laotian restaurant, in the shadow of a statue that reminded us that America is great only because all of us live here together. America is great because of the hope she offers for those of us wretched here and there, for those of us transformed by newfound freedom, for those of us homeless in body or spirit. America offers a chance for resurrection and new life on the shores of New York Harbor or the Rio Grande.
This is the America where I want to live. Not a pristine, scrubbed, rich utopia that charges admission at the door. No, the America where I want to live is the America where Afghan refugee kids shove rich white kids in line at the zipline, and brag about their birthdays, and grow up together at the neighborhood park.