By Sabrina Guo, 12
Writing My Own Path
As a child, I loved the smell of libraries. I would flip through the pages of any book, and take a good, long sniff. My favorite scent was sweet–a bit of lemon and coffee, mixed with paper, of course. However, other books had a bitter smell and were covered with all kinds of food stains, which I hated because it reminded me of how books were sometimes treated just as paper and nothing more. I thought of each book as a life–a key to a specific person’s brain.
At the same time, I hated books. I respected them and liked their smells, yes, but I absolutely loathed words. Every time I tried to read something as minor as a news headline, words would swarm around me like taunting wasps. While other kids talked about their new favorite books, I was the wallflower, standing away from the crowd and nibbling slowly on my sandwich.
A memory: when I was five, I learned that To Kill a Mockingbird was a book loved all around the world. I decided to read it–after all, if there were so many positive reviews, how could I not love it? In addition, I was determined to open myself up and conquer my fear of words. I asked my father to check it out at the library. When he walked through our door with it, I was giddy with excitement. I flipped through it, smelling it like a perfume tester. It was unique and unlike any other book I’d smelled before–like moss drenched in rain, bittersweet and mature. Greedily, I started reading the first page. But almost immediately, dark words started to choke the air around me. The enlarged first letter pounced on top of me, and the rest of the words quickly followed, swimming around me. I tried to push my fears away, telling myself I wasn’t going to be engulfed this time. My fear of reading was going to end right there, right then, that second, with that very book. But because of its advanced language, I had no idea what was happening in the story. It was boring and tiring… and I was only halfway down the first page. I exhaled, telling myself there would be a next time. Then I slammed the book shut in frustration.
Although I had a complicated relationship with books, I did love writing song lyrics. After school, I would transform my tangled thoughts into strings of words, which I wrote down in a tiny notebook about the size of my hand. Little did I know that these song lyrics were actually poems; later I would take a risk and reshape my lyrics into a more literary form. And that was how I took my first step into writing. From there, I decided to experiment with reading again. I borrowed many types of library books, but it was fantasy that finally hooked me. Fantasy made me feel like I was soaring above moonlit clouds, plucking shimmering stars from the sky and collecting them inside of my heart. These stories gave me an amazing sense of freedom, adventure, and suspense. And after a while, my interests expanded to other genres; I even started to read some news articles, which had intimidated me so much before.
My father and I like to watch the news together, and last year, as coverage of the refugee crisis increased, he encouraged me to dig deeper into the topic. It can sometimes sound like it’s a simple, fast process to immigrate to the United States; but as I read up on the issue, I discovered that it’s far from easy or quick. It can actually take up to several years to go through all the necessary steps! Even after reaching the U.S., refugees can still face economic and emotional difficulties, along with discrimination. After learning all of this, I decided to write a blog about it, as I am a blogger and contributing writer to the children’s magazine, Stone Soup. I was also inspired to write a poem addressed to refugee children, welcoming them to their new home in the United States. I tried to explain some of things that they might encounter in their new country, from academic pressures to peer pressure. Writing the poem enabled me to think more deeply about what a refugee child might experience after leaving their home country. It challenged me to think outside of my own life and circumstances, and this poem was one of the first works I’d written truly from my heart.
Around that time, William Rubel, the founder of Stone Soup, mentioned in his weekly newsletter that he hoped to create a platform to showcase refugee children’s art and writing. Due to my interest in the refugee crisis, I immediately volunteered to help. He suggested that I begin researching organizations, photographers, and artists who were working with refugee children. Through doing this, I found many amazing organizations. One in particular, Another Kind of Girl Collective (AKGC), really struck me. This organization, founded by Laura Doggett, holds photography and film workshops for Syrian refugee girls living in Jordan. AKGC aims to give refugee girls the deeply necessary space, training, and equipment to develop their preferred art forms, along with providing them a platform to share their own stories and experiences. The girls prove themselves not to be passive and tragic beings, which is sometimes how the media portrays them, but rather hardworking, creative, smart, and motivated visionaries.
Because of how much I admired Laura’s work, I reached out to her through email, asking if I could interview her. I had doubts about whether she would respond. After all, I was just a twelve-year-old girl, and she was surely busy with her extremely important work. So you can imagine my elation when I did hear back from her! She told me she would be happy to give me an interview. She was heading to Jordan and even invited me to interview two young female Syrian filmmakers, Marah Al Hassan and Khaldiya Jibawi. These filmmakers live in Za’atari refugee camp and have participated in the AKGC workshops; their work has been shown in places as renowned as the Sundance Film Festival and the New York Times.
Before interviewing the girls, I did not know what to expect. After all, they lived in refugee camps, had very different life circumstances, and came from another culture. However, when we spoke to each other on Skype, it was as if we were friends at summer camp! Even though they were already young wives and mothers, they didn’t talk down to me because I was younger than them. They answered my questions warmly and expanded on them, giving me more information and insight. I felt respected and embraced by these incredible girls. Before getting to know Laura and the girls, my only exposure to refugees was what I saw in the news, which is often one-dimensional. But because of my conversations with Marah and Khaldiya and how they welcomed me into their lives by talking about personal subjects, I learned that they weren’t as different from me as I expected. We all shared the same desire: to be heard. And after speaking to them and the AKGC facilitators, I grew more aware of the many obstacles, from gender discrimination to loss of family members and violence, that the Syrian women had to overcome to achieve their goals. This shifted my perspective on my own life. I began to see how many advantages and benefits I’d previously taken for granted.
I already had a high level of respect for the refugee girls, but after seeing them on Skype, my admiration soared. Through their creativity and bravery, these young women change our world for the better. I had to spread the word about my new friends and their vital work, and so I wrote a blog about AKGC on the Stone Soup website. Inspired by this, Mr. Rubel announced the launch of a new refugee issue of Stone Soup, which will feature the creative work of children caught up in the Syrian war. I am so happy that this important information will be shared with a larger audience of kids my age, and I am proud of the work I did to contribute to the effort.
Without words and writing, my world would be much narrower with fewer opportunities to meet inspiring women. For example, I am now a member of the Grow, Inspire, Reach, Lead (G.I.R.L.) Talk Committee in my school district. Our goal is to empower girls and encourage them to pursue careers in STEM. Recently, I wrote a letter to Michelle Obama, telling her how she consistently inspires me to be a strong and capable young woman, how much she’s affected my life, and how she inspired the G.I.R.L. Talk Committee. To my excitement, she replied, thanking us, and providing tickets to a talk on her new book, Becoming. We learned so much listening to her talk about her life: her obstacles, haters, writing process, and even how she met Barack Obama. It was a motivational and energizing experience for all of us.
It took time for me to welcome words into my life. But after I stepped out of my comfort zone by writing lyrics and poems, it was not long before I was avidly reading books and finally conquering my fear of newspapers. Words became an essential part of my life. And by educating myself on current events, I became more connected to the outside world, which led to my discovery of AKGC and the formation of my relationships with Laura, Marah, and Khaldiya. I will carry these new friendships with me for the rest of my life, along with my love of words and writing. And for this, I will be forever grateful to the power and beauty of words.