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American Girl


Rasha’s mother had the right to call her son regularly, and she always counted down the days until she could hear his voice again. But for reasons that were unclear to Rasha, on this day the counselor brusquely denied the request. Rasha’s mother walked out of his office in tears. Her daughters asked why she was crying, and then returned with her to the counselor’s room. Eventually he relented. But Rasha could feel the acid bubbling in her stomach because of this man who made her mother cry for no reason.

They could receive mail at MDC, and after about a month, Rasha got her first letter from Gaby. She read it over a hundred times, even though she knew it by heart after seventeen readings. Gaby sent more letters, along with pictures of them from high school. Rasha still has all the letters. They gave her “a feeling that I’m being remembered. You can imagine—well, no, you probably can’t imagine—but it was a feeling that somebody knows I’m here.”

Then, as abruptly as they were taken, Rasha and her family were released. One morning in early May, Rasha heard her name called by one of the corrections officers, then her mother’s, and then her sister’s. They were told to collect their belongings. They were free to go. Skeptical but hopeful, Rasha gathered her letters. Once she walked through the metal gate of the women’s section with her mother and sister and saw her father and brother waiting for them, she thought, Oh my God, it really is true. We’re finally out!

The entire family was set free at the same time, including Wassim, who came home from Pennsylvania that day. An immigration official was present at their release. He looked over their file and remarked to Rasha’s father, “You know, you have grounds for a residency petition here.” No one knew how to balance gratitude with resentment.

As soon as they were beyond MDC, Rasha fell to the ground and kissed the pavement. She looked up. She hadn’t seen sky for almost three months. It was the same sky, and it looked gloriously familiar.

They entered their own house like strangers. Everything was just as they had left it, except for the moldy food in the fridge and the dust all over the furniture. Rasha felt numb and dislocated. It was hard to believe that the nightmare was over. She watched Munir disappear downstairs and heard him calling his friends, and then she too began plotting how she would surprise Gaby and Nicky and the rest of her friends. Surprising them became the only thing to look forward to at that moment. She didn’t want to think about the past, only the future.

The family had a quiet night. Rasha’s mother cooked a simple meal. Over the meal, Rasha and her siblings exchanged a few stories about their experiences, but her parents were mostly quiet.

The next morning Gaby ran into some of Munir’s friends on her way to college, and they told her that Rasha’s family was finally home. “You’re lying,” she told them. “You’re lying!” No, it’s true, they said. She blew off her first class and made a beeline for the house, with a pit stop at a corner store for a gift: a potted plant she tucked under her arm.

The sound of the doorbell was bizarre to Rasha. In her pajamas, she opened the door, and standing there behind a pot full of leaves and flowers was Gaby, already crying hysterically. As soon as she saw Gaby, Rasha burst into tears. “Oh, man!” Rasha stomped her foot. “The surprise is ruined!”

“I’m sorry,” Gaby said, sniffling. “I didn’t call first! I’m so sorry!”

“Get in here,” Rasha reprimanded, but the two girls stayed where they were. They just couldn’t stop hugging and crying.

Rasha’s parents sold the house. They were behind on the payments, and Rasha’s mother was convinced that the place was cursed anyway. Rasha also had to deal with the row of F’s on her transcript, having disappeared from the world for three months. She calmly explained her situation to her dean, who listened sympathetically but then asked if she could provide some documentation to prove what she’d just told him. “What kind of sick person would tell you that she’d spent three months in jail to get excused from her grades?” she asked.

“You’d be surprised,” he said.

Right after her release, Rasha felt freer than she ever had in her life. Normal things like riding the subway had never before been so exciting to her. But everywhere around her was the constant talk of 9/11. She bit her tongue repeatedly, wanting to scream at people, “You don’t know what you’re talking about unless you’ve been in a situation like the one I’ve been in!”


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