I am Not a Refugee by Sadie J. Testa Secca

I am not a refugee. I am, however, an I.D.P, an internally displaced person, essentially a refugee who has not crossed international boundaries. I now live far from my former Floridian home, currently residing in a three bedroom apartment in New York City. It might sound luxurious but considering the amount of people that live here (15 and counting) it is far more like the tenements of the turn of the 20th century than a picture perfect image from a fashion magazine.

Life with 14 other people isn’t easy-not even close. But soon, that number of occupants will increase by five, making our lifestyle all the more challenging. Two friends of high school age, two elementary aged kids, and a preschooler will all be arriving by plane from Tampa, Florida, in four days. The later three were all in my custody. The custody of fifteen year old girl.

In any normal 21st century United States of America, this would have been an outlandish proposition ridiculed by even the authors of fantasy novels.

But that was before the calamities of the summer of 2016.

It started when Hurricane Emmerson struck the coast of southwest Florida, followed by Hurricane Fernando and Hurricane Gianna pluming Central Florida and the Panhandle, respectively.

Every body of water in the state flooded over, whipping whole towns that had survived the storms away. All beachside properties were ruined, boats totaled, marinas turned into scrap metal and fire kindling. Public parks were devastated, and all kinds of animals were forced to leave their natural habitats due to the disasters.

Nearly everyone lost something, whether it was a car, the roof to a house, a pet, or a job.

Some people lost a lot more than others, and had to be relocated to a safe spot just so they’d have some kind of shelter, and, hopefully, a sense of normalcy.

All kinds of aid poured in, from local, national, supranational and non-governmental organizations.

By the end of July, the state had begun to recover from this dreadful time. I was volunteering at a local history museum Monday through Friday every week to help run summer camps, a fixture of everyday life that was now a life-saving blessing for the children whose families were trying to rebuild after the destructive weather. We let most of the kids come for free, and did enriching activities with them while their families did whatever they needed to get back on their feet.

I also joined a club of sorts for teens at the museum. We were to come up with events that would bring teens to the museum if life ever returned to the way it was before, and if life kept up with its twists and turns, we’d work on outreach projects to help the teens who would be our target audience but were suddenly rendered victims of a destructive catastrophe.

We mainly stuck to the goal of bringing teens to the museum as though everything was fine, because life was working its way back to being normal.

But then, a week or two into the month of August, word of an attack by a group known as the Westward Winds began to spread.

This organization, a bunch of people who were either upset over the lack of aid given to them in the wake of these disasters or just wanted a reason to rebel, was armed and insistent on taking whatever its members thought they needed from whoever they wanted, and had no qualms about using those weapons to do so.

Life became a lot more dangerous after that. Even though the incidents involving the Westward Winds were mainly concentrated in South Florida, far enough away from my home near Tampa for those living there to feign safety at that time, we were all still afraid for our well being. Every night before bed I’d pray for us all to be okay, if only for one more day.

I tried to forget the stories I heard on the news, the stories of children from the age of zero to high school graduation, being evacuated from their neighborhoods and sent to whatever state would take them: Washington, Montana, Arkansas, Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, Tennessee-the list went on and on.

I tried to live the life of a fifteen year old. The life of an average fifteen year old.

Every other Tuesday I’d go to the museum dutifully as ever, like I was just an ordinary girl going to her ordinary club to do the ordinary task of making teens like history. I also started school (10th grade), joined five clubs at school , made some new friends and generally had a normal school year, until the Westwards Winds attacked a store a twenty minutes drive away from my house.

It was official: the Westwards Winds were in Tampa Bay and there was nothing we could do to stop them.

Before anybody could really panic about the situation though, the government stepped in. The newly created U.S. Department of I.D.Ps mandated that all children from birth till the age of high school graduation be removed from the state and relocated to a different state that would take them, just like I’d seen on the news. The students from eight schools that were geographically near each other in my school district would be sent to New York City in New York. Other students from schools near each other in the district would be sent to other parts of the country, like Atlanta and Seattle, or even small rural towns in the Midwestern region of the U.S. My school was sectioned off to go to New York. All of the High School students had two days to prepare to leave, the officials said, the middle schoolers three days and the elementary schoolers five days. The U.S. Department of I.D.Ps would find us a place to live, but it’d be on us to pay the rent.

But there were some exceptions to these rules, as always, which is how 15 people; 13 sophomores, one seventh grader and one third grader were living together in a three bedroom apartment in New York City and waiting on five more people to come.

We have been preparing the apartment at an intense speed. Between sales, donations, smart shopping and, admittedly, some saved money patched together, the fifteen of us went on a nightmarish journey to IKEA and a few other places to accommodate the home for such a large quantity of people.

Upon our return to our abode, we began to assemble the furniture and reorganize the house. Three bunk beds were placed in each bedroom, complete with weak mattresses and thin sheets. Each room got two dressers (courtesy of an elderly expat family’s move to a warmer, safe state), a mirror, and multiple cork boards or whiteboards. Knapsacks were hooked to the side of the sides of the bunk beds: dirty laundry was to go in there. Flimsy fabric boxes were shoved under the tall piece of furniture to hold personal items like shoes and jewelery. At the foot of each bunk sat the suitcases we had taken with us on that fateful plane ride away from Florida. They were partially empty. The closets were divied up to make the best usage of space for all who inhabited the rooms.

The apartments had two bathrooms, one of which was selected for use by girls, the other by boys. They were equipped with what was necessary but were not extravagant by any means.

We added 24 place settings to the sparse kitchen cabinets, as well as a new set of pots and pans, and food storage containers for packed meals eaten away from the home. We also cleaned the refrigerator of any gross leftovers from the last people to own this apartment.

The dining room was now the permanent home of fold out tables and chairs organized into one very large rectangle, the only cost effective way to accommodate 20 people for dinner at a single time.

The living room held three sleeper sofas (two blue and one grey). The teenaged friends coming would have to sleep there. It wasn’t much, but there were only two people sharing the space as opposed to the six, the way each bedroom had to be. Plus it was safe from crisis in Florida-what more could anybody ask for? Security is all an I.D.P really needs.

A small television was placed in the living room, but the quality was so low, not many bothered to use it. The walls of this room were covered in bookshelves, obtained for free after my friend David helped their previous owners pack for a move across the country.

He wasn’t in school that day so he had the time to help them; “it was worth it”, David said, in a mockery of the officers from the U.S. Department of I.D.Ps. That was one of the favorite phrases to use, especially in relation to our education. “It was/is/will be worth it.”

Due to the fact that only people younger than 18, give or take, and doctors and teachers

(to accommodate those who had been displaced) were being evacuated from the Sunshine State, people 14 and over were deemed capable of being legal guardians whose primary responsibility was making money and caring for kids. Even though some adults could leave, there was no way they could possibly parent all of the I.D.Ps under eighteen. So the American government enacted one of the only realistic solutions they saw: the passage of a bill called the “1895 Emergency Reversal of Education Act”, also called EREA. This law allowed states to revert back to the idea that only an eighth grade education was needed for success in life, as it was in 1895, and, if necessary, administer a test to pass a seventh or eighth grader out of their classes to graduate early and begin participating in the workforce to provide for others. People who didn’t take this test, and/or were below the seventh grade, were expected to graduate high school, and attain some form of higher education if possible. Anybody who took and passed that test, or was above the eighth grade (the age of 14) had to work if they wanted enough money for them and their friends to survive. Going to school was out of the question. It did not matter how much education affected the jobs a person can get, or how much better it made a person at childcare-there was no public secondary education for any I.D.P over the age of 14. We all had jobs, or were in training for one. David, whose dream in life was to be an aerospace engineer was now a receptionist in a fancy hotel by day, and taking lots and lots of IT classes from an online, pay-to-use program at night. Martha, the girl who slept in the bunk above mine, wanted to be a publisher: she now worked at a cultural center’s gift shop and was taking language classes online with the hope of being a translator eventually. Emiliy, who wanted nothing more than to be a doctor since preschool, worked as a seamstress in a shop with a few other women,two of which were I.D.Ps from another Floridian high school. Jared, always great at science, worked at a science center. He didn’t have it that bad. Neither did I. Having volunteered at that local museum in Florida and been in their teen program, the Metropolitan Museum of Art took me and three other ex-volunteers on to be docents. It was pretty great. I enjoyed social studies a lot, and was comfortable with speaking to crowds (even in the intimidating atmosphere of the Met). The job itself was wonderful and it paid a full dollar above the minimum wage, which was not bad for a seemingly foreign kid without a high school diploma to make. But more than any other career in the world, I wanted to work for the United Nations. I used to want to be the delegate, back in high school, but now I’d take anything. Tour guide. Casher. Reporter. Secretary. Secretary-General (one could hope, eventually, right?). I was certain, now more than ever, the huge, glowing blue rectangle in Midtown was where I needed to be. But with a job to help pay the rent and the bills, fill my mouth and the mouths of other, of what did I really have to complain? Nothing. And with the arrival of three children to take care of, having a steady income of any kind was a blessing, although I knew it’d take the whole village of my roommates to raise them.

Not long after we re-did the apartment, the day the next five people would to come live with us arrived. Picking them up at the airport was a security fiasco, especially when the preschooler claimed he had never seen me in his life,which, although untrue, I hadn’t seen him for a very long time, so it was easy to see why he’d act like I was a complete stranger. And for their lax enforcement of child labor laws, the officer from the U.S. Department of I.D.Ps were very strict about kids only going home with a person they knew (in a good context). Eventually, after I explained that to five different men in uniforms, it was deemed I could be the legal guardian. All I had to do was sign a piece of paper. I signed it, and we returned to the apartment.

Madeline, a fourth grader, marveled at the peculiarity of the arrangement of the apartment. Hailly, a third grader, seemed bothered by the set up of our abode. Tommie, the preschooler, couldn’t stop touching every object in the living spaces as he could. I was now getting very annoyed with them and the situation in general.

“Who wants to see their new bedroom?” I asked excitedly. All three gave enthusiastic replies of “yes!” So I led them to the bedrooms.

“Madeline and Hailly, this is where you’ll sleep,” I said, gesturing towards the room that looked like a college dorm crossed with a refugee camp crossed with soldier’s barracks. The girls looked disappointed.

“We have to sleep in that space?” asked Hailly.

“It appears to be very claustrophobic,” added Madeline.

“Yes,” I replied, “but if I can do it, you can do it too.”

Tommie also thought the bunk bed floor plan was a bad idea.

“This scares me,” he expressed to me while shaking and playing with his zipper. It took me a minute to realize he was being serious and not just trying to get out of sharing is room with five other people.

“Well, guys, it’s time for dinner,” I announced shortly after Tommie commented on my interior design talents.

Miraculously, we all sat at the plastic folding tables, all 20 of us, and ate the pasta with store-bought but stove-heated tomato sauce in peace.

After dinner, some of us worked out a schedule for chores, explained it to everyone, then put it to use.

In addition to the chore schedule, we created a chart for who would use the shower when, who would make dinner when, who would take the five people under the age of 14 to their activities when, and who would pick up Tommie from his preschool when.

It required a lot of effort, patience and understanding, but we managed to create a functioning schedule which would-hopefully-make our daily lives a little easier.

The shower schedule went pretty smoothly for our first time using it.

By eight thirty I was corralling “my” three children to bed. I started by reading to Tommy for fifteen minutes (after which he fell asleep), then went to Hallie and Madeleine’s room (not mine) to read to them-individually. By 9:15 they both were too exhausted to continue reading. I felt terrible leaving all three of them in their respective rooms when a lot of their roommates might not get to bed until 10:00, 11:00, or maybe even 12:00 AM. I couldn’t really control that though. There was no way to get them their own rooms.

Feeling guilty, like I had failed as a guardian within 24 hours, I left them, then headed to shower. I told Tommy, Hailly and Madeline it was bedtime, no exceptions.

At least not until Madeline came out of her room, late at night, long after we all showered and thought she went to bed. I was working out a budget for us to live on. She was crying over having to start school a week later.

It was then I had a talk with her.

“I know you don’t want to go to a new school,” I began. “Quite frankly, I don’t want you to either. But you need to be grateful you have an education. Please listen to me, Madeline. You’ll make friends at school too, and those friends will make New York City your home. I know it’s hard without your parents and I know I’m no real substitute for them, whatever the U.S. Department of IDPs think, but you have to trust me on this. You need to make something amazing from your experience at school. It’s worth a lot. Now please go to bed Madeline. You need to rest for tomorrow. “

To my astonishment, she went to her room. I did likewise. In the moments before I went to sleep, I realized that, while being an I.D.P wasn’t fun, easy, or something I’d recommend people trying, I knew it was forcing me to become a better, and far more mature person. For the first time ever, I was thankful, if only for a few not-quite-awake moments, with the way my life had ended up. There’s more here than hardship, I realized. It’s the creation of me as a person, as an adult. A fifteen year old adult.

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