how you have changed me

when i knock on your mother’s door and i hear you inside yelling my name in excitement, waiting for us to play the game over and over and over where you shake my hand, i say, “oh, hello! how are you?” and you giggle endlessly because the words are nonsense to you

when you beamed as you showed me the beat-up, used car you’d saved up for by putting in long, 12 hour night shifts at the factory and pinching pennies anywhere and everywhere 

when your 3 older kids teased your youngest one, the way siblings do, because getting her vaccination shots made her cry

when i broke fast with your family and you served a mysterious white drink you all clearly loved but made me want to vomit and i drank almost all of it anyway just to be polite

when you sang and danced to songs you didn’t know at 6 in the morning after a night shift, just because you loved the music

when you decided my fair-haired self needed some enhanced eyebrows,  drew them on thick with a black eyebrow pencil, and admired your work as your children laughed shamelessly at me

when  you told me your dream was to be a doctor who helps poor people as we filled out a job application for a hotel housekeeper position we weren’t sure you’d get

when your face lit up as you talked about your spouse and children joining you in America some day, maybe

when the rain poured down and me, my roommates, and you, my sweet, goofy, little neighbors, danced in the rain like we were in a movie

when your voice shook as you told me how you never sleep because you work all night and your little ones keep you up all day

when we laughed later about how earlier we had bonded over hating snow on the way to your job interview but then when the interviewer asked you if you liked snow, you got nervous and said you loved it

when i hear you tell new volunteers you have 3 kids, but i know you have more, that they’re lost somewhere in Africa, that you don’t know what country, that you don’t know if they’re alive or how to find them

when we played outside at the yearly celebration and we named our team “Sleepy, evil, cranky cats with mustaches” (but “Fart” for short)

when i took your family of 10 to a charity to get clothes for winter, how the staff made you put some of what little you picked out back and i wondered if you were embarrassed, how it all fit in 2 trash bags, how my own clothes on my body felt worthless, meaningless, like rags

when your leg had been blown off in a bomb and all you had was a mediocre prosthetic leg that hurt to use, but you walked 2 and 1/2 miles to english class every day anyway because you want to build a good life for your family

when i see you and say “Amakuru?” and every time you shake my hands, laughing and exclaiming, “Ni meza!!” like I’ve made your entire day, when you look at me with those kind, grandmotherly eyes and they make me miss my own grandma

when i attempted to paint a unicorn and ornate butterfly on your face with face paint, because i had no way to communicate in a shared language that the picture you pointed to was far beyond my skill set, and when I saw you smile for the first time because you finally understood something i said as I pointed to my dad and mom and said, “‘abi, ‘ami”

when i asked how your wife was and how your newborn son was, your first child, both back at the refugee camp, when you told me casually and softly as you smiled how he’d passed away, but i saw the pain in your eyes, thinking it was so unfair that you never even got to meet him, knowing you wouldn’t get to hold your wife for months, maybe years, and then when i went home and cried and cried

when we taught you how to use “your mother” as an insult, and you told us our mothers smell-ed as you left the room

when we took a break from soccer to sit on the curb and use sticks to etch our languages’ alphabets in the dirt, testing each other on our learning progress

when i held your hand and chattered to you during the entire outdoor kid’s club one saturday and you stayed completely silent leading me to believe you didn’t understand anything i was saying, only to come prancing in next week speaking perfect english

when you addressed me as “mister” with that mischievous gleam in your eye knowing full well that mister was only for men

when i went to pick you up for an office meeting and you asked if i had time to meet your newborn baby, only 4 days old, when i melted seeing how small she was compared to the bed and her tall, gentle father, the love in your eyes, that beauty from the ashes

through all of these moments and more

you have made me more whole

how can i explain?




  1. jettej33 says:

    When I read my daughters heart written on a computer screen…

  2. ahmeliahmeli says:

    Was the white drink a yogurt drink? My family loves that and I cannot get myself to swallow it! 🙂 Beautiful post.

  3. Joyce Kraus says:

    Hi Alissa. I am Lorna Tran’s sister. I’m sitting here with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat after reading your beautiful words! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and for all that you do in helping all these wonderful human beings with your friendship and love. You make the world a better place!

    1. Thank you for your kind words! 🙂

  4. M says:

    What they have changed is your view on how life is meant to be lived.
    Life is simple but with the advancements we have made it tends to get more complex and it has gotten to the point where we have forgotten how to live especially here in the states.
    In life we meet very few people who show us this and when we see life for what it was meant to be for the first time it really is empowering.

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