A 9-year-old finds refuge in suburban Atlanta
Bill Clinton Hadam's America the beautiful: scary fireworks, thrilling bike stunts, and TV.
Clarkston, Ga. — Dawami Lenguyanga is patting a baby when the explosion hits. The Tanzanian mom is out strolling her apartment complex with her 7-year-old son, Igey, taking a break from the stifling indoors, and they've stopped to admire a Burmese toddler out with his young mother, when a red starburst splits the sky.
Dawami staggers backward. Igey screams. The Burmese mom dives for her baby, shielding her head. Dawami and Igey hurry home.
As they're climbing their front steps, there's another shattering blast. The apartment door bangs open, and there stands Dawami's older boy, Bill Clinton Hadam. In the gathering dark, all over Indian Creek Apartment Homes, panicked faces are appearing in windows and lighted doorways.
Neighbors on their stoops, veterans of such nights, reassure these newcomers in Burmese, Farsi, French, Somali, English: "It's OK." Overhead, fireworks rain down blue, gold, green. The war refugees are safe in Georgia now, and it's the Fourth of July.
Theirs is an American story - perhaps, in our immigrant nation, the most American story. Indian Creek's refugee families have all, in the past few years, made a quintessential journey: packed a few photos, said hurried goodbyes, and set out across an ocean, with only a few words of English and no idea of what lay ahead.
Like thousands of refugees resettled in the US in the past three decades, they arrived in Clarkston, a former mill town at the end of Atlanta's subway system, where a third of today's residents were born overseas. Halfway between the marble grandeur of Emory University and the historic Ku Klux Klan stronghold of Stone Mountain, in a leafy, figure-eight-shaped development of low brick apartments, they are starting over.
At the end of 2007, 11.4 million refugees of war and oppression were living outside their home countries and unable to return, according the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Each year, 40,000 are permanently resettled in the US. They come from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Burma, and a host of other places made miserable by violence and tyranny. For their children, public education is the main bridge to American life. In many cases, it's a weak one. But for Bill and other Indian Creek kids, an innovative charter school, the International Community School (ICS), is trying to do better. This school year, the Monitor will follow those children, their families, and their school community.
For Bill, Igey, and their friends - under 10, reading below grade level, and already serving as interpreters and cultural mediators between their parents and the bafflements of American life - the stakes are high. Even a brave young school like ICS may not be enough.
Tonight, Bill's the man of the house - his father, Hassan Mwanasumpikwa, is working the night shift at Fieldale Farms poultry plant, deboning chickens for $10 an hour. So standing in the doorway, the 9-year-old tries to look unfazed by the explosions. Behind him, the TV - tuned to his favorite, wrestling - flickers in the dim living room.
"In Africa, you hear [noise] like this, it mean danger," his mom says, indicating the patch of sky where the starburst is fading. "You go outside, people on ground like this," Dawami flattens her hands into figures of the dead, or wounded, or terrified. "No sleep good tonight."
She turns on the air conditioning, a rare indulgence. Bill cranks up the volume on the TV. Soon, the slaps of huge men hitting the mat nearly drowns out the blasts intensifying outside, as Atlanta flaunts its freedom.
Back in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bill's dad, Hassan, fancied himself an entrepreneur. The money he made working construction, he spent buying nuts and carved wooden statues from village vendors to sell in the city at a markup.
But that was before Hassan's parents fled murderous political rivals and hid out in the forest. Before Dawami (dah WAH mee)'s first husband, a Hutu, was murdered in reprisal killings after the Rwandan genocide. Before Hassan spotted Dawami waiting in line at a refugee resettlement office in Dar es Salaam and thought: "Eh! She beautiful." Before the pair moved together to the UNHCR's Mkugwa camp, in northwestern Tanzania, to begin a 10-year wait for a new life. Long before little Bill Clinton.
Bill Clinton Hadam was born Sept. 13, 1999, nine months after the US House of Representatives voted to impeach its philandering president. News of the scandal had reached Mkugwa camp, and Hassan couldn't stop thinking about it. "For me," he says, "I cannot forget."
He was sure his wife was carrying a boy. He wanted to give their son a name that meant something. Living with the chronic food shortages and uncertainty of camp life, Hassan admired the American president and idealized his nation. "US is big country in Africa. When you say you go to America, it's like paradise," he says. "And even so, the president of America could do that?"
This struck Hassan as an important lesson; even, a familiar one. "It's a fault men have. It's men who always make problems," he says knowingly. So when his son was born, Hassan named him Bill Clinton Hadam - Bill for Slick Willy, and Hadam, or Adam, for the sin that started it all.
This Fourth of July, Bill eats dinner in his favorite spot: the black metal stairs at the back of the building that look out over all of Indian Creek. From his perch, he gnaws a small roll, surveying the comings and goings in the parking lots below.
That's Bill at home: quiet, thoughtful, solitary. Unlike Igey (EE-gay), a curious, clingy boy prone to theatrical tantrums, Bill is obedient, polite, barely a presence in the household. He shuts himself up in his room to watch TV, forages his own meals - a hot dog here, a popsicle there - runs his own baths, and puts himself to bed.
Outdoors, he's a different story. Bill and his best friend - Lagos, from the Republic of Congo - are Indian Creek's men of mischief. Everything these boys do - death-defying leaps from the railing of the new playground equipment; daredevil bike-riding on a ramp built with pilfered cinder blocks and particle board - draws a crowd of small, rapt onlookers who shriek with fear and delight. All the kids play in English. Only a stammer on tough words hints that Bill has been in the country just a year and a half.
No amount of spray has daunted the roaches. Otherwise, Dawami keeps the apartment just so. The vacuum has a prominent place in the living room, as do the TV and stereo, a Swahili Bible, a rotating panorama of the pre-9/11 New York skyline, a stack of African music videos, a Hot Wheels bike, and seven vases of artificial flowers.
"I like too much flower," Dawami says, "I do garden. In the camp too, too much flower near my house. In the camp, everyone can see me, say: Oh, it's good.' "
Parked outside are two rattletrap minivans, their dashboards and mirrors festooned with plastic blooms. There's also a large van that Hassan uses to shuttle co-workers to the chicken plant. In three years, he says, he wants a big house, a good job - an American success story. Dawami's hopes are more immediate: to move someplace with "not too much roach," where her boys can have their own rooms. To get a custodial job close to home that pays more than $7 an hour. To be baptized as a Jehovah's Witness.
But one dream trumps them all: a reunion. Hanging on the fridge is a reminder - a sheet of curling, black-and-white passport photos of a young, cornrowed girl. This is Neema (NAY-muh), the daughter they left behind.
Night has settled on Indian Creek. The family is cocooned in the living room: Dawami on the sofa, Igey sprawled on the carpet, and Bill in a chair, sucking a purple popsicle, studying the muscle men on TV with full-faced intensity.
Outside, around the complex, the initial shock has worn off. In one yard, a barbecue smokes. And scattered on stoops and stairs, kids, grandmas, and a few whole families have come out to watch America celebrate.