The Language of Memory

by Sarah Garnitz

Months after I met Abdullah, I would think of him while picking up a newly arriving refugee family from Hartsfield Airport, what his first hours in America must have been like. Abdullah would have been the first of his family off the plane, the first up the escalator, the first to see the “Welcome to America” sign. His two older brothers and two sisters would trail behind, and then their mother, Salwa; her sienna skin peeking through her hijab like a chestnut. She would hold her International Organization for Migration bag over her breasts. Salwa would have been told that this bag was how the Americans would find her after she and her children navigated their way through crowds of luggage and talked to the men behind glass walls who fingered their documents as they asked too many questions in English. “Iraq, we are Iraq,” she would repeat. It was one of the three phrases I imagine her practicing for hours on the plane, “Georgia,” “thank you,” and “we are Iraq” was all that she would remember from the mandatory cultural orientation that all refugees are required to take before departing from all they know for America. Salwa would have silently mouthed the English words over and over to the back of the airplane seat during their flight but wouldn’t remember the words when she was in front of the man. Abdullah would have paid no attention to this man in the glass box. He would think that the plane had taken him to a world that was so bright, so shiny. He wouldn’t have been able to stop smiling at the unfamiliar sounds swelling in his one good ear.

He would have leapt onto the metal stairs that grew from the floor and watched his siblings fearful to do the same, as he rose above them. When his mother arrived to the top of the moving stairs with her IOM bag held high, there would be a few people from Refugee Resettlement and Immigration Services there to greet them. I was not one of them, but I can see Abdullah scan over the curves and lines of our “Welcome to America” sign held high, completely unfamiliar with what the letters meant, but liking that they were written in red, his favorite color. Abdullah would have watched the machines cough up their bags before he and his family left the big airport with the Americans in a big car, to their new home.

Abdullah and his family were placed in an apartment at Willow Ridge. When a family is resettled to the United States, one of the things they are provided with is a fully-furnished apartment and three months of rent before they have to start paying for it on their own. Though most families are resettled around people of the same nationality, there were no other Iraqi families in Willow Ridge. So, when their car pulled into the parking lot, nobody there looked anything like them. Three Bhutanese girls with rings in their noses that connected to their earlobes probably sat on the curb. Burmese boys in long fabric skirts, tied at their midsections were most likely running between apartment buildings paying no mind to the car, a baby would peek out of the floral fabric fastened to a woman’s back to watch everyone. There would be Sudanese boys with skin so dark it nearly glowed blue like the center of a fire. They would be on one team and a Congolese family would play in flip flops on the other side. One of the boys from the refugee soccer team, The Fugees, would make a perfect shot with a deflated soccer ball between two water bottles. They would all scream “goal” which would resound off the walls of the whole apartment building.

Salih, RRISA’s Iraqi caseworker, had a scripted speech for newly arriving families. He probably said something like, “This is Willow Creek. Your home. You live in a three bedroom apartment here. There are people from Burma, Bhutan, Eritrea, Sudan, people from Iraq just like you. It is very nice.” Despite Salih’s promise, when Abdullah and his family looked around, there would be no women in hijabs, no other kids speaking Arabic. There was nothing familiar about their new home.

“I will be your case worker. I was a refugee too and now I work for RRISA. You will get to know our office well. And I will give you my number; you can call me in case you need anything. And, welcome to your new place,” Salih would say, anxious to go home for the evening. Newly arriving families kept everyone working much later than they liked. In their apartment, there were three bedrooms, a toilet that swirled and sucked clear water, a rusty orange couch, two roosters that held up lampshades, all of this new to Abdullah and his family. Then two more people would show up from RRISA and as the state requires, they would bring a culturally sensitive meal to serve the family. They would pull out dolma, chicken ghormeh sabzi, lots of steaming rice. Abdulla would click the light from one of the rooster heads on and smile as he saw the first familiar thing all day, his mother’s beautiful face above the steam as she scooped hot food into bowls.

Over the next couple of weeks, each day would have brought more people to Abdullah’s door. Sometimes speaking Arabic and sometimes speaking English, always offering another reason for Abdullah’s family to squeeze into a car. Later I would learn that Abdullah’s father had been shot and killed in a car. I’m sure Abdullah wished that he could just fly everywhere, feeling his insides lift as the plane rose into the air, how taking off could feel like your stomach was shaking hands with your heart. Cars might have reminded Abdullah of gunshots, how hard it is to see outside through a bloody window. It was unclear if Abdullah or his brother was in the passenger’s seat. I imagine Abdullah would have stayed in the car with his dead father for hours before he opened the door and ran home. But that was not documented in their application for refugee status, they only need to know why you’re fleeing, not how long it took you to do so.

Like every other refugee, Abdullah and his family would be driven to the health clinic to get sticks stuck down their throats and needles injected into their arms. They would be given photo IDs, three slightly-used pairs of pants, three shirts, one jacket. Ramah, Abdullah’s youngest sister, would probably even get shoes that flashed lights from the soles when she walked. The refugee clothing store had gotten a large donation of flashing shoes. Salwa would be taken to get a business suit for work. Though she didn’t want to work and would later protest our urging her to do so. Resisting the need to move beyond the memories of her past to a land where many women worked. She would come into RRISA’s office and sign her name to get food stamps and library cards. The more services we provided, the more money we earned. Then Salwa must have gone home and cooked enough spices and brewed enough tea for the smell of Iraq to waft from her children’s clothing, each like a trail of incense as they drifted out the door.

Abdullah, Ramah, and Qasim all got on one bus to Indian Creek Elementary, while their older brother and sister got on a different bus to Avondale Middle School. The three would enter Indian Creek Elementary, a school balanced between refugees and Americans, the walls covered in primary-color hand prints. They would then be led by three teachers to three separate corridors, to spend their days from then on being saturated in English.

This is where I would meet Abdullah, Qasim, and Ramah. As one of my jobs at the refugee resettlement agency, I would come to Indian Creek Elementary afterschool and work in an after-school program for refugee kids. Abdullah, Qasim, and Ramah joined us three weeks after the school year had started. They were our only Arabic-speaking students and the only ones to join us late. Ramah went to the Kindergarten table, Qasim to the fifth grade, and Abdullah joined me at the fourth grade table where he swung his legs back and forth from the blue chair, unable to sit still.

The first time I saw Abdullah smile, he was making a graham cracker fish swim into his mouth. No one was watching, he was doing it for his own amusement. Then I would put out my hand and enunciate “I’m Ms. Sarah” as if he’d be able to read my lips in English before he could speak the words. As he reached through the space to grab my hand, I noticed a banana peel strap of skin missing from his elbow to his wrist, his arm curved in like a cavern. I would later find out that Abdullah was lucky that an explosion back in Iraq had only taken one of his ears and part of his arm. But the explosion had seemed to lock Abdullah in his mind. The more time I spent with him, the more I realized that whether he was stuck in memories or trapped in his inability to communicate, something in Abdullah’s head seemed to separate him from everyone else.

I could tell that Abdullah liked that his name was taped to his desk. He had his own pencils and paper and a chair to hang his bright purple backpack on. He smiled as he picked up each eraser and pencil and moved them between his fingers. The classroom was full of languages, kids that called themselves “refugees” too, with names that Abdullah struggled to pronounce like Chin, Sabal, and Bimala; none of them spoke like Abdullah. He mouthed their names to himself after everyone at his table had introduced themselves.

“Abdullah, can your write your name at the top of this page? Can you practice writing the alphabet?” I asked while Abdullah watched how my tongue nudged my teeth as I spoke. Abdullah’s eyebrows leaned together as he smiled.

“Cowabunga Dude,” he said back and was surprised at how loud his voice sounded in the room. I tried to grimace at his Ninja Turtle outburst. The other kids’ eyes widened as they covered their mouths and laughed. Abdullah liked the laughing, it seemed to settle him.

“Copy this, Abdullah,” I instructed as I wrote his name out in dashes. Abdullah traced the dashes and then tried to write his name under my splintered lines. I returned to Abdullah’s desk, “You flipped your b and d and your h is backwards. Try again.” I explained as I tenderly touched his forearm, accidentally pressing my fingertips into his deeply fissured skin. “Oh wow, I’m so sorry Abdullah. I didn’t mean to do that.” Abdullah pulled down his sleeve to cover the part of his arm that I had called attention to.

He shrugged and asked, “We play football?”

I was relieved. “No Abdullah, we keep practicing writing our names.” I said touching his head before threading my body through desks again.

At recess, Abdullah was the only kid who picked out the American Football from the netted bag as all of the other kids grabbed soccer balls and jump ropes.Though he couldn’t actually throw the football far, he seemed to like how his fingers fit in the grooves at the seam. Abdullah picked up the ball and threw it through the air to no one, who he then screamed at in Arabic before he ran to the empty spot on the playground where ball had landed. He grasped the ball and threw it again and then proceeded to scream again at the invisible person. Abdullah was good at seeing things that weren’t there.

Throughout the next couple of weeks, the ringing that caused him to pat his ear with the palm of his hand and his lack of progress remained constant. He would get through a few letters of his name before his pencil would slip down the page and begin to draw. I wondered if his ear eased as he sketched.He often drew a middle-aged man who looked like he had shoved a melon into the front of his shirt. The man had a mustache and was balding. He had a big, fat cigar behind his back and the smoke wafted graphite all around him.

Abdullah would grin at the picture once I made my way to his desk. Abdullah’s eyebrows, like thick pipe cleaners, inched towards his hairline as he smiled.

“Me?” Abdullah said as he touched his chest

“That’s you?” I asked, trying not to look amused at the plump, smoking man. “Back to writing Abdullah,” I would say and with that he would start fidgeting with his ear again. I wondered if the picture was really how Abdullah saw himself, or if perhaps this was an illustration of his father. Whoever it was, this man in Abdullah’s mind kept escaping through his hand.

I don’t know how Abdullah got stuck in an explosion. I don’t know whether it was at his school or the market or his friend’s apartment. I don’t know if Salwa knew her son was in danger as she saw smoke creeping from the horizon and licking the sky. I don’t know how much Abdullah remembers. In my story of Abdullah, he had been walking through the hall of his school to the bathroom and when he awoke again, his ear was ringing, his left forearm was fleshly pink and glistening against the floor. Qasim knew that Abdullah was in the exploded corner of the school and when he finally found him, Abdullah was lying on the floor humming to himself, to the bells he heard in his head. Qasim carried Abdullah out of the building and was greeted by Salwa and Maria who both collapsed and cried with dozens of other parents, curled over like grave markers for their missing children. In my story of Abdullah, this was the day that Salwa decided that Iraq had nothing left for her family.



Each day at school was similar to the first. I asked Abdullah to practice his English or his numbers and when I walked away Abdullah would draw. He drew the plump man a couple of more times but eventually the images grew more vivid. Abdullah only needed a number 2 pencil and red marker to draw the pictures saturating his memory. Stick figures held rifles, boys laid in streets with red scribbles on their shirts or heads. When I returned to Abdullah’s desk, I would ask him what the picture was of but Abdullah had no words to explain. He would simply smile and shrug. Sometimes muttering “cowabunga dude” as he looked at his paper.

About three weeks after Abdullah’s first day, I decided to move KaMoo to his table. KaMoo walked up to the table next to Abdullah, staring at the flip flops on his feet. When I asked him to introduce himself, KaMoo said his name at an inaudible whisper that made Abdullah smile. Abdullah repeated the name and seemed to like the way it made his mouth move. Abdullah had seen KaMoo and his family move into an apartment, one building down from his own a week earlier. The apartment complex was booming with Burmese refugees. Burmese hung out with Burmese, Bhutanese with Bhutanese, Eritrean with Eritreans, and with no other Iraqi’s around, Abdullah and his family stayed close to their apartment.

I asked Abdullah to introduce himself to KaMoo and Abdulla took in a big gulp of air and heaved out “cowabunga dude.” KaMoo began to laugh, a high-pitched chuckle that made my arm hair stand on end. KaMoo repeated it back to him. Abdullah’s eyes widened, they were talking, back and forth, KaMoo could understand him.

“KaMoo, oooo oooo, yeah, Dude, hiya.” Abdullah would say mirroring a wrestling move that he had seen somewhere. Many of the refugee boys seemed to have become familiar with WWE wrestling while in refugee camps. This move seemed familiar to KaMoo, who covered his teeth with his hand as he giggled.

“Yeah man, we play?” KaMoo asked, holding the Candy Land box during the free period. Despite this game being stigmatized by the fourth grade as something only for girls, KaMoo and Abdullah, didn’t speak enough English to be embarrassed about playing. The cards were all colors and the spinner pointed to Plumpy, Princess Lolly, or Lord Licorice. For this, they didn’t need language. But the more I saw the boys together, the more I realized that not having language seemed less of a burden and more of a relief. They could understand each other without explanation.



Throughout the next several weeks, I watched the boys together. KaMoo, whose hair became especially disheveled when he attempted to do subtraction, would grunt and then Abdullah would nod and attempt the problem himself. During recess Abdulla grabbed the football and threw it to KaMoo, who fumbled it and then cartwheeled to make up for the blunder. Abdulla joined him and they cartwheeled till they fell at my feet. Abdullah continued to draw, a person falling backwards, in front of a stick figure with a gun or a girl with graphite hair that lifted as she jumped from a window. But now, KaMoo would watch Abdullah capture the scenes and he would say, “yeah me too, Ms. Sarah, look, me too,” as he pointed to memories of his own.

My other students were acquiring language at a rapid rate, even KaMoo, though he was often too shy to speak it. But, after a month of Abdullah being in the program, he could count to ten, name the colors on the Candy Land cards and say, “Please, I want play,” “we eat pizza?” “This my sister,” “I hurt,” “football,” “no,” “yummy,” and “okay.” Other students came alive as they learned to speak to each other and me in English. Students who quietly sat apart asked to play games together or told me about their days, but Abdullah would just sit at his desk with a silly smile strewn across his face, holding his ear and doodling or speaking to KaMoo in a language all their own.

Abdullah’s inability to communicate reminded me of another student I had had years before, who did not have the language to explain the pain in his ear. He was in Kindergarten and from Burundi and he was smacking his ear over and over while crying. Coincidentally, the secretary at the school spoke Kirundi and was able to ask Eric why his ear hurt.

“There are butterflies in my ear” Eric said. “Last night my mother poured water into my ear to make the butterflies leave,” he explained to the secretary.

We took him to the doctor, who pulled a cockroach out of his ear canal. His mother had done what she had thought was best, to drown the butterflies, fluttering their wings against his eardrum but without language, we couldn’t figure out what caused him pain.

Abdullah couldn’t find the language to communicate and somewhere between his ear and his mind there was a force field, deflecting all of the English he was trying to learn. Abdullah’s siblings were progressing. Qasim and Ramah were getting good grades, they were making friends. They had English words for “table” and “dinner” and “hungry” and “play.” English was welding to their tongues but Abdullah had no new words.

While Abdullah’s mouth could not seem to remember the movements of English words, I noticed one day that he seemed to also be forgetting Arabic. He and KaMoo were playing with Qasim on the playground but Abdullah seemed to struggle with talking to his brother.

“Abdullah, what is this in Arabic?” I asked later as I put my hand on the table.

“I don’t know” Abdullah said shrugging with a smile.

“What about this, Abdullah, what is ‘book’ in Arabic?” I asked.

“Don’t know” Abdullah answered.

“He stupid,” Qasim explained. “He don’t know, at home he no speak English, he don’t know.” I wondered how often Qasim had told his brother that he was stupid probably the same amount that any older brother would. I wondered if it bothered Abdullah as much as it did me.I wondered whether he realized he was forgetting his native tongue at a faster rate than he was acquiring a new language to communicate.



After a couple of months of having Abdullah in my class, I visited his house to talk to Salwa. Abdullah’s family was approaching the three month mark which meant that RRISA was going to stop supporting them. We had found Salwa a job at a local bakery that was run by an Iraqi widow who wanted to give another woman like her a chance. Salwa had refused the job. She didn’t want to work. She wasn’t used to working. She wanted to support her family at home, not with a job. The smell of Bahart thickened the air in the room and I struggled to breathe as I tried to speak slowly enough for Salwa to understand the problems with her son.

“Qasim, Rahma, they learn English, but Abdullah, he no.” Salwa explained. She handed me the Arabic to English Dictionary and pointed to the loops and swirls that translated into the English word “sick.” I didn’t know how to respond, I didn’t want to nod that her son was “sick” but I also didn’t want to disagree with her worried look. I found the word for “therapist” for his drawings, then “doctor” for his ear, then “tutor” for his English. But Salwa simply said “no.” And in the upcoming weeks, when other people at RRISA tried to convince her to get help for Abdullah, she continued to protest. I didn’t know why; she seemed like such a kind woman, with motherly hands, an understanding smile. Perhaps, if Abdullah learned English, she feared she would lose him.Salwa was not learning English as fast as her other children.Maybe she was sacred to lose Abdullah, his helpless smile and shrug, perhaps for her there was already enough loss. Now she wanted a life of stagnancy like the spices in her house.

Abdullah continued to draw and I continued to help him as much as I could. Though he’d often become distracted by the imaginary worlds he created on the paper. He seemed at ease with not being able to explain what the drawings meant. Then, perhaps in the evenings, KaMoo and Abdullah would meet in the parking lot of Willow Ridge and Salwa would smile from the window at the boys speaking a language that no one else understood. They would throw imaginary footballs across the sky, race across the parking lot, do spinning kicks through the air. Perhaps there continued to be peace for them with not having the words to convey memories to one another.


SARAH GARNITZ is a displaced Southerner from Atlanta who now resides in Philadelphia, where she works as the Program Manager for an AmeriCorps*VISTA program at Pennsylvania Campus Compact. She’s been lucky enough to find many intersections in pursuing her passion for writing and working with underserved communities. Her interest in understanding the intersections between society, writing, and outreach led her to serve in AmeriCorps, to teach, and now to be a nonprofit program manager. She graduated from Elon University and then went on to earn her MFA from Rutgers University with a cross-genre focus in Creative Nonfiction and Poetry. “The Language of Memory” is an essay from her manuscript The Memory Ceiling.