The First Cow Transcript

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When I first arrived in Portland, Maine, I walked off the plane with my twelve year old brother and my eight year old daughter and my two little boys, four years old and two years old. The woman from social services who met us took us directly to this room with the conveyor belt. I had never seen anything like it before. We stood there in silence watching the bags, and she asked me, "Do you see your bag?" 

And I told her I didn't have a bag, only this plastic bag I was carrying; that's all we had. And she said "Right, okay. Well then let's go home." 

And that word — "home." I hadn't had a home since my village. I was born in a small village called Bor in South Sudan. We knew Africa had its troubles, but we had food and we had each other, until one day the spring after I graduated from high school. I was in the market getting meat for my family. Baskets were raised and people were shouting. The meat wouldn't go far and we all wanted some. Over the noise and chaos, the unmistakable sound of gunfire filled the air. Some people dropped to the ground and some people ran. I chose to run. My stepmother and I grabbed what we could and ran into the jungle and on to another village. It would be eleven years until I stopped running from that war. I never know peace in Africa again.  

Later I met my husband. All my children were born in refugee camps. Later things changed from bad to worse. My husband was killed in the war, and I lost my second daughter; she died of starvation and disease. And we were wandering from place to place. So, when this woman said, "Let's go home," there was nothing else I wanted. 

She brought us to an apartment. We had never been in an apartment before. We had lived with thousands of other refugees wandering from under the tree to under the tree. So, this apartment was different to us. She showed us around the apartment. I remember when she opened the refrigerator full of food, but there was nothing familiar to us. We saw a big bottle of orange soda and we thought it was juice. So, we tasted it and it tasted very bad. So, we left it. She showed us the bathroom and the shower. She showed us everything, but before she left she said, "This is a fire alarm. When you hear it, just go. Go outside and wait there until it's all clear."   

Then she left. And all five of us were standing in this strange place; very scary. I told the kids, "Let's sit down. We are home now.” 

I kept remembering the word "home." I said we should really sit down. There were two couches in the living room. My children had never seen a couch before, or a carpet. So, I went to the kitchen to warm up some milk. But before we drank our warm milk we heard a...a noise. And I told the kids, "Let's run! That's the fire alarm the woman was talking about."  

Back in refugee camps, we had a plan, because one time the village was attacked and I had to run with the children and it was very difficult for me to collect all of them. So, we made a plan that when something happened my brother would grab the baby and I would grab my four-year-old and my daughter would hold my skirt and we run. So, here we were in Portland, Maine, in this apartment hearing this noise. So, we went into our plan. And my brother grabbed the baby. I grabbed my four-year-old, my daughter held my dress and we ran out of the apartment. We stood there, and I ask them, "Do you see the fire? Do you smell the smoke?"  

They said, "No."  

So, I said — we stood there for a while and we said we should probably go back inside the building. So, we walk inside the building slowly. But we didn't know which one was our apartment. We looked; all the doors look alike. We tried a few of them, but they were locked. Later I saw one door a little bit open. So, we thought this might be our apartment. I went in first slowly, and it was our apartment. There was a woman standing by the door. She told us she accidentally rang a doorbell. So, we learned it wasn't a fire alarm at all — it was a doorbell. 

The woman from social services would come to visit us from time to time, and when she usually come she would always find me sleeping. So, one day she asked me, “Why do you sleep so much?" 

And I told her, "For the last eight years I walk from Sudan to Ethiopia, and I walk again from Ethiopia to Sudan, and again from Sudan to Kenya, and from Kenya to the border of Somalia. I walked from under the tree to under the tree; from hunger to hunger, from gunfire to gunfire, from death to death. I walked the entire eastern continent of Eastern Africa with these children. I am sleeping because I hadn't slept for eight years." 

Portland was different from my village. My village was a small village. It lies on the eastern bend of White Nile with maybe around 5000 people. My father had four wives. As a custom in my village, I lived among many brothers and sisters. I went to school and learn English, my third language. I was happy. But in Maine we felt so alone. We were feeling alone. So, I asked for some friends somewhere, especially people from my tribe. A woman helped me to find some friends who made it to Minnesota. So, with the help of social services, we were able to move to Minnesota.  

In Minnesota, my children had their first opportunity to go to school. I managed to enroll them in a school. I bought them school clothes and supplies they needed. The woman who helped me told me that the kids would need to wake up early in the morning and go to the bus stop school bus. So, she told me that we would need an alarm clock. So, I went to Kmart and I asked the ladies there if they had an alarm clock sounded like a rooster. They helped me found one. We set the alarm clock. In the morning, kids wake up. I walked my twelve-year-old brother and my eight-year-old daughter. I walk them to the bus stop. The bus stop was just behind our apartment. I watch them climbing onto the bus with tears in my eyes. The bus took off, parents left. I was still standing there was tears in my eyes, wondering if they would come back, hoping they would come back to me. 

Later, I went back to the apartment to my little boys. They were still sleeping. My tears were still falling. I thought about everything my children had gone through. Everything they had seen. When my baby, [Jock], was born, the village was attacked. After nine — nine hours after his birth, I was forced to leave with him. And now, we made it. My children would never walk 200 miles again. They would never starve again. And they will always be happy, even when I'm not around. 

Once again, I thought about last few years, when my daughter graduated from law school. I was very so proud of all my children. Today I think about that first day, in Portland, Maine airport, when the woman said, "Let's go home." And "home" means "hope" to me. "Home" means I would never, ever run again.  

Thank you.