Gisèle Lewis is a native Bostonian transplanted to sweltering Florida. When not ferrying her children to extracurricular activities, she spends every free moment writing or reading. Her secondary passions include architectural design, synchronized swimming, cocktail inventions, and teaching her daughters to curse in French.
Bio photo credit: Elizabeth Riefler
Driving with Refugees
The litter-strewn sidewalk leads Alissa through a warren of tenement apartments until she spots the Syrian woman and young man waiting outside number 537.
Alissa triple-checks the volunteer spreadsheet provided by the Refugee Resettlement Program: Qamar and her son Adnan. They arrived in Tampa only four days ago. Muttering an inspirational phrase to herself, Alissa heads toward them. This is her first day driving refugees—her first day of atonement.
Alissa waves, and the mother’s expression brightens. She releases her son’s hand and smooths the wrinkles from her abaya.
This distracts Alissa. She wants so badly to rejoin their hands.
Qamar shifts from foot to foot and looks to her son.
“Good day,” he murmurs.
Lisping syllables, Alissa imitates greetings memorized from a YouTube tutorial—“Learn Arabic in Three Minutes!” Mar-ha-ba. Eh-salam—then titters at her own ineptitude.
They nod, diligently polite.
She guides them to her minivan and mimes how to clasp the seatbelts. Once they are secure inside, she accelerates out of the housing project.
Qamar casts sideways glances as Alissa changes gears, navigates a rotary.
Maybe women aren’t allowed to drive in her country, thinks Alissa. I can teach her.
At the charity pantry, Qamar takes her time, sorting through bins of nonperishables as benevolent church employees gossip and drink coffee. In the end, Qamar picks soup cans, Twinkies, and Sunny D, declines quinoa and banana chips.
After the traffic-clotted return drive, Qamar and Adnan invite Alissa into the apartment for coffee. At her hesitation, they plead, and she cannot say no.
Three or four more grown sons ramble around a gray-skinned, wizened man (the husband?), all grinning welcome.
Qamar whips off her hijab once the door closes and shakes out mashed bleach-blonde ringlets. They complement the peachy freckles that dapple her cheeks, now round in smiles.
Bareheaded, this woman looks as American as anyone.
Crossing and uncrossing her legs on the stained sofa, Alissa struggles not to wrinkle her nose. Viscous produce spills from grocery bags onto the kitchen linoleum and wafts a stench throughout the apartment. I will buy them a proper trash bin.
There is no shower curtain in the bathroom, either, but the espresso glasses are filigreed in gold fantasies, as if painted by fairy fingers. The family gathers around her with the pride of expert hosts.
Alissa sips, swallows guilt.
Alissa taught Jeremy to drive where he learned to bike as a five-year-old: the town cemetery. Its garden beds sprouted lilies from soil as dark and pure as coffee grounds, and the tree-named roads nourished peace.
The previous night’s rain yielded a lustrous spring morning, and bottlebrush blooms smeared the minivan’s windshield with matted, red tassels. The minivan crushed them into a carpet along the avenue and dispersed their lemon mustiness.
When the minivan fishtailed, Alissa braced against the dashboard. “Take your foot off the accelerator!”
Beside her, a belly laugh rippled out of Jeremy, his sure hands resting on the steering wheel. He was as tall as Victor by then and filled the driver’s side. His tee-shirt read Slay All Day. “Calm it, Mom. I already know how to drive.”
She tutted. “It’s not funny, Jer.”
Wasted words. Her son was the kind of boy who mistook dares for goals and dove from nail-biting heights into unplumbed lakes. Who snuck into his girlfriend’s bedroom window (invited) and risked her father’s buckshot. Joy and riot fueled everything he did. Her Huckleberry boy.
A kamikaze squirrel darted into the street, and Jeremy wrenched the steering wheel hard right.
Plastered to her seat as the minivan swerved, shards of terror gutted Alissa. “Brake, Jeremy!” Her hands shot to the steering wheel and gripped it.
The car lurched to a halt on the tassel-cluttered grass, inches from a monumental headstone. The squirrel scampered up a tree trunk.
Eyes closed, Alyssa slumped back against her seat.
“Shit, sorry.” Breathless, her son was real and whole and struggling in the best way.
The Ethiopian boy slices the air with his hands when Alissa offers a child’s car seat. “I, Bini—fourteen. A man.” Alissa had mistaken his slight frame for that of an eight- or nine-year-old. He shoves the offending booster into the cargo space of her minivan.
A diaphanous, white scarf encircles his mother’s delicate, angular cheekbones and pointed chin and follows the contour of a ballerina-worthy bun. The woman tangles with her safety belt until Alissa reaches across her slender lap and clicks. Both chuckle.
Alissa has never driven a client to this doctor’s office and obeys the GPS instructions across town. Soon the device advises a right turn onto Hillsborough Ave.
Bini gives a shout. “Wrong!” He stabs left, waving an iPhone model more recent than Alissa’s old Samsung. As she continues with her own GPS instructions, he purses his lips and bounces.
Alissa glances at the mother. Placid eyes on the road, she seems unconcerned that her son hollers commands at a stranger. Perhaps knowing Bini will grow up in a safer place makes her indulge his tyrannical behavior.
I am here to help, to repair lives.
It’s not his bossiness that nips at Alissa’s nerves. She chews the flesh inside her cheek and peers at the bantam boy in the rearview mirror. A child of that weight should be in a booster seat.
Jeremy loved hiking, orienteering, mountaineering, off-road biking, riding ATVs—he was born for the Army. He liked filling out the Dream Sheet.
Alissa did what so many mothers do: hold fast the net as fear flops and gasps. Pride came in spasms. Victor kept her steady.
The evening before Jeremy’s flight to Fort Benning, they celebrated over sashimi and sake at their favorite restaurant.
“Steph said goodbye,” he told Alissa and Victor. “Goodbye as in over. Dumped.” Jeremy’s eyes were red-rimmed, or perhaps the restaurant’s dim ambiance made everybody appear strung out.
That was how Alissa’s eyes looked as she and Victor drove home after delivering their only child to the airport.
The night of his deployment, Victor held her on their queen-sized bed as she sobbed into dawn.
Alissa adores Qamar. Her once-timid eyes have turned jolly. Sprightly blue owls cover her hijab.
“What do you like the most about America?” The question, in English, takes more than two minutes for Alissa to convey and Qamar to digest.
“Sh,” Qamar points at the traffic jam that pins them where the I-4 blends into the 275. “Sh, quiet. No—” She emits an obscene honking sound that makes her sons in the backseat guffaw and snort.
Alissa envisions patchwork cars and mopeds hurtling along narrow, dust-plumed streets, jockeying among unmarked lanes. A cacophony of horns louder than Manhattan’s.
“And wood doors,” adds Yassin, her oldest boy.
Jeremy looked good when he returned at the end of it all. More solid across the shoulders, his eyes as solemn as Victor’s. She had forgotten how immaculate his teeth were or the bristle-softness of his tawny hair. God, he was beautiful.
Twenty-four years old, two deployments, a medal. But he could not work. Something to do with open spaces or how many people inhabited a public area. He could not enter a crowd, he said, or bad things would happen. He needed a significant furlough.
An invisible presence gripped him, and Alissa waited for him to share. During meals, his conversation was bright. He lingered in his boyhood room, however, never joining them for TV shows.
“Did he kill anyone over there, you think? Did he watch friends die?”
Victor blinked, massaged her hand. “Give him time.”
“I am so proud of him.” Alissa shook her head vigorously, really meaning it. Her son had rescued soldiers from a disabled vehicle during a skirmish.
Jeremy’s dinner-conversation responses grew faint over the coming weeks. When they ate together, he often scanned the room as though tracking something she couldn’t see.
Alissa lay awake at night and strained to hear a cry. Itching to comfort, she waited for his nightmares. Experts said bad sleep was typical for those who could not unsee the most gruesome acts.
No nightmares came.
“The American Blacks are crazy,” bellows Mohamed, the Afghan man in the minivan’s passenger seat. His ghost of a wife hovers over two small ones in the back. “Stupid!”
Alissa tuts. At last, the Program has matched her with an English-fluent client—a Pashto interpreter for the U.S. military—but his bombast sends her cringing against the steering wheel. He floods the minivan with explicit tales of assault in his homeland, and now this opaque racism.
“The Blacks are always drinking. Why?” He is genuinely asking her, leaning into her side of the car.
“They have been treated very, very poorly. Are treated poorly,” she stammers. “We had a civil war, not all that long ago in the scheme of things.”
She predicts Mohamed will scoff, given he has seen soldiers’ limbs explode. Instead, he rears back, pinches his chin in earnest reflection. “Ah,” he says in rumbling tones. “No, a man must not be treated poorly.”
The mother remains enigmatic, her face hooded by the black hijab. Any more deeply, and she’ll resemble a melancholy grim reaper. She feeds the toddlers a steady stream of Skittles. Shame floods Alissa for judging, so she focuses on changing lanes.
After the WIC appointment, she returns them to their featureless housing development. Two parked cars—a sparkling, chameleon-green donk and a plain Camaro—jounce out mumble rap. A young, African-American man wiggles a wedge beneath the Camaro’s emblem while his friend lounges in the passenger seat, smoking. They pay no notice as Alissa and the mother unclick the little children from the car seats. The woman’s long skirt catches in the door hinge.
Mohamed openly stares at the young men. It is not a hostile look, but Alissa’s insides squirm just the same at such intrusive curiosity. Perhaps Afghans consider gawking inoffensive.
Sirens electrify the air a few yards from them on the heat-buckled pavement. A squad car zooms past at a disastrous speed. A second one slows. Not enough for communication, only for the cop to make pushing gestures toward the apartment entrances.
The Afghans look expectantly at Alissa. Her pulse thunders at the base of her skull.
“That means get inside,” says the man with the wedge.
Alissa admires his casualness. Neither Black man moves to leave.
“Keep your children safe,” drawls the smoking car-lounger.
Mohamed, grinning, bows his gratitude to them before he leads his family to their door. Even with the rap music reverberating from the cars, Alissa can sense the apartment door’s bolts grind into place.
A third squad car races past.
“Thanks,” she tells the smoker.
His chin jerks in acknowledgement. His eyes meet hers fleetingly.
Alissa’s breath runs shallow and fast until she turns onto six-lane Fowler Ave.
She gave Jeremy time, just like Victor told her to. And one morning, her son sat down beside her where she worked at the computer.
He and his unit had driven beyond the spiraling barbed wire of their Paktika compound. Alongside them, Afghan fighters—the good kind—guided them toward caves for search and destroy. Their fingers hovered over triggers.
In a village not far off the highway, someone pelted their vehicle with small-arms fire, the percussion like popcorn kernels in a steel pan. Al-Qa’ida, Taliban? Then an IED of nails and shards.
When their vehicle exploded—thank God Jeremy was already out—he saved two friends. In bloody symmetry, two friends were lost.
The village lost everyone. In the decimation that followed, even its goats fell. Their tattered corpses polka-dotted the drought-cracked earth.
Jeremy waded among razed families of herdsmen, firewood haulers, and construction workers. He gazed about the village. A woman, wide-eyed where she lay, grasped a half-eaten apricot. A pair of men crumpled against a market stand. These were not insurgents. These were the guiltless, now denizens of an impromptu, open graveyard.
What seized Jeremy, what would shadow him henceforth, was the vacuum of space no longer occupied by the living. Where beings had traipsed across streets, loitered in tree shade, or filled cars, only incongruous vacancies remained.
Now when he walked along his own neighborhood sidewalks or entered a grocery store, Jeremy told her, voids haunted him. He must calculate how many bodies can squeeze interstitially, into three dimensions. A sphere, a cube—shapes defined by death’s potential.
“The week before, we had distributed candy and toothbrushes to children.”
The children moaned their mothers’ names as their voices dwindled.
Their voices dwindled in Jeremy’s head still. He did have nightmares.
The Rwandan teen sisters, Wilhelmina and Royal, refuse to smile. They speak no English, no French, not even Swahili. Royal, seated in back, shakes her head no as Alissa motions for her to buckle the seatbelt, then frowns as Alissa straps her in.
The Program should have coached them in wardrobe, considering that this appointment, at the Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services office, might secure them desperately needed jobs. A fishnet sweater tops a spaghetti-strap negligée (at least, so it appears to Alissa), and a micro miniskirt bares Wilhelmina’s long, long legs. Yes, Royal wears a suit, but its curve-hugging fit and glaring batik pattern are inappropriate. Snakes writhe and—what are those? Pygmy kangaroos?—hop across her bottom. Alissa approves of the women’s close-trimmed hair and lip gloss, though.
Royal leans so far forward that Alissa knows the young woman has unfastened her seatbelt. She whispers into Wilhelmina’s ear, and they burst out laughing. They look askance at Alissa and sneer.
As the minivan approaches Busch Gardens, rollercoasters loom like children’s scribbles across the sky. “Have you been there?” asks Alissa. Ridiculous question. But rollercoasters fascinate teenagers, right? Jeremy adored them. Alissa raises her palms and imitates thrill-ride terror with a theatrical cry. Anything to relieve the awkward tension.
They don’t deign a response, only pucker lips and exchange wry looks.
Oh well, it was worth the try. Their insolence comforts Alissa—eye rolling, apparently, is an international teenage phenomenon, not exclusive to entitled Americans.
These are two daughters among six, come here with their mother, all crammed into a slovenly studio apartment. No language competency, no job prospects, yet they belong to one another, their clan. These women have inside jokes and winks to sustain them. They will survive.
Waves of hope drench Alissa at this show of resiliency.
Alissa determined to destroy the parasites that burrowed through Jeremy’s nights. She captured his nightmares.
In her sleep, she conducted an orchestra for dark-eyed children then funneled them into a cave. She dragged firewood after wounded mothers and rolled over the lifeless body of a young man. He was Jeremy. She drove him somewhere for repairs, but the bandana men had shot the mechanic who flailed on the pavement.
Alissa awakened and vomited beside the bed.
Victor mopped the floorboards then made her cinnamon toast.
One afternoon while she turned garden soil, a neighbor commended her for raising a son who killed the infidel.
“Fuck you,” Alissa hurled in the man’s contorted face. She flung the spade onto the bromeliads and stomped into the house.
Thumbtacked to a local coffee shop’s bulletin board, the Refugee Resettlement Program ad read, “Drivers needed.” It was her first moment of relief, the only way she could imagine to honor a graveyard in a war-torn land.
Qamar adores Alissa and begs the Program to send her and her minivan when the family needs a lift. The flattery swells Alissa’s heart. Which is already full, too full, even before Qamar invites her inside for coffee.
The sons mill around the apartment. A white shower curtain! A tall, silver trash bin in the kitchen! All thanks to the Resettlement Program. They shout when they see her. “Yassin got a job,” Adnan cries. “Automobile repair.”
Tears start up behind Alissa’s eyes, and the filigree encircling the precious espresso glasses blurs.
Qamar inspects the metallic stitching at the edges of Alissa’s scarf.
Alissa quickly unwinds it from her neck, folds it, and lays it over Qamar’s arm. “For you.”
Qamar’s freckles light up, her blonde curls bounce. “Shukran,” she exclaims. She clutches Alissa’s hand and air-kisses her cheeks. “I love you!”
A tear drops onto the tinseled scarf. Qamar’s fine eyebrows furrow as she peers into Alissa’s crumpling face.
Alissa dissolves, and her head careens to Qamar’s shoulder. Around them, footsteps recede. Whispers.
After quivering minutes, Qamar raises Alissa’s sniffling face with tender palms. “You pains? More kahwa. Sugar?” Her hushed English consonants soothe.
“It’s my son,” answers Alissa.
Qamar nods, though Alissa doubts her friend understands. But yes, she does.
“Mothers,” says Qamar. She points at Alissa, slowly at herself, again at Alissa.
“Nahn jamie al’umahat.”
We are all mothers.
Alissa takes the backstreets, curling around rotaries and managing one-ways, as astute as a taxi driver. No GPS necessary.
“Here we are,” she tells Jeremy and draws the minivan to the curb.
He remains hunched in the passenger seat, squinting at the parking lot. Beside the bland, stucco walls of the veterans’ assistance center, a towering sign reads “Crossroads.” The lot and sidewalk are empty except for sun-glinted cars, but he looks to be counting invisible people, calculating square feet, gauging the volume of air—
“There’s a new sushi place a couple blocks from here, Jer. When I pick you up in an hour, let’s try it. Dad can join us.” She babbles because today anything will do to interrupt his stricken alertness. “Lunch on us.”
He faces her with a thunderous expression. It softens, though, and he pats her hand. His pupils are wide, ready for anything. “Okay, Mom.” He pats her again.
She wants to clap her free hand over his, clutch him.
He releases her and steps out of the car onto the sun-white rectangle of sidewalk. Self-orienting, he blinks at his own shadow-negative. He looks like a man on a cliff, contemplating a dive into unplumbed water. Then he enters the building, out of Alissa’s view.
She idles the engine, shining her fragile optimism at the space he occupied until her eyes glaze. Then pulls away.
“ Florida typically conjures images of beach vacations and Disney, not Middle-Eastern or African asylum-seekers. Few new arrivals speak English, and their anxiety about their adopted home is often palpable. I want them to understand how truly welcome they are here, at least by many of us. My fun and poignant experiences while serving local refugee-resettlement nonprofit organizations inspired this story. ”