College Stories 2011: Chili Pepper Strawberries

Chili Pepper Strawberries

by Kelsey Jost-Creegan

The taste is strange in my mouth, surprising, arresting, delightful. A strawberry dipped in sugar and chili pepper. Who would have thought?

Arun smiles at me, offers another. I shift onto my bare feet and roll the strawberry in the strange mixture, catching as much taste as I can on the plump sides of the succulent fruit. I bite down, savoring the shock of sweet and spicy rolled into one.

As I’m chewing, we move to the computer and Arun shows me pictures of Burma, his homeland, while we await his mother, Cho. Images of Inle Lake, a giant lake inhabited by thousands people who live, farm and trade around and atop the water flash across the screen. Another world, it seems to me, but here in this small apartment off of the 15-501, two worlds cross for an instant, a glimmering second of cross-cultural harmony as unexpectedly delicious as chili pepper strawberries.

On Saturdays at Chapel Hill, I take the bus to a block of apartments off of the highway, so close to the university and yet in so many ways worlds away. I come bearing material, buttons, bobbins and, on good weeks, money, the profits of a small sewing cooperative project that Advocates for Human Rights, a student group in the Campus Y, is working to start with a group of Burmese refugees. I leave carrying new bags to sell, holding them as if they are as dear as diamonds and as delicate as daisies. Each bag is unique, beautiful, the product of hard work coupled with hope for a limitless future in this promised land of opportunity so far from the chaos of a small country grasped in the jaws of the military junta.

Today, Cho accompanies me to the bus, clasping her traditional skirt in one hand as we scramble along the dirt path. At the bus stop, she sees me off with a gentle hug and hands me a bag of fruit. Linguistics bars us from communicating much by speech, but talking seems not necessary.

One Friday of the same fall, I stand in the door of another apartment, in another town, surrounded by a different culture and a different language. In what seems to be yet another world, however, I experience a similarly warm parting, standing again humbled by kindness and gentle strength. This time, the words whispering in the background from the television and scrolling across wall hangings in the corner of my eye are in Arabic, not Burmese. Familiar yet foreign after a year of study, the script entices me; each word recognized is a small victory and a huge delight. I came today to work on language exchange, trading time speaking English for time practicing Arabic with a young Iraqi woman, Amal. That day, we poured over a small picture dictionary, resorting to giggles and gestures when words failed us. Still unfamiliar Arabic sounds roll off my tongue in a joyful struggle to communicate. Now, I stand with her and her mother, Shada, in the kitchen, blushing with quiet pleasure as Shada tells me a huge smile, after only three meetings, that she considers me a second daughter and hands me, like Cho, a bag of snacks for the road.

I’ve never been good at small talk, and explaining in the evening why I spent my Saturday afternoon in a refugee’s apartment is not always an easy and light conversation. But as I leave for the day and climb aboard the bus, I feel ready to burst with the need to share, to smile, to explain. Sadly, this work is filled with tragic tales of unimaginably horrible realities, images of wars and violence that reorient my perspective and tear small holes in my heart. And yet, those tiny spaces are quickly refilled to the point of overflowing with an immense hope upon experiencing such love and kindness in the face of adversary on the part of these families building their new lives here, right around the corner from my home in Chapel Hill. How is it that those who have suffered so much can have a seemingly endless capacity to give? I, who have been given so much, feel both dwarfed and inspired in comparison, disappointed by my own self-constructed traps of desires, worries and concerns, yet humming with hope of growing to learn from them. Working with refugees has become my passion, a passion fed by experiencing more through work with groups on and off campus and fueled by learning more from university courses. I leave each visit with a feeling of revived passion to confront a sometimes horrible reality and the strength of renewal in the feeling of vocation. Buoyed by a sense of purpose, I return to my studies with renewed vigor, whipping through Arabic flashcards spirited by a desire to communicate and poring over political science texts in a desperate attempt both to understand the current system that has allowed such atrocity and to envision a future that safeguards the rights of all.

My Carolina experience thus far is defined by people: by professors, by friends, by advisers, by classmates. I am forever indebted to all these figures, who have given me more than I could ever express. Those to whom I owe the most, however, those who have had the deepest impact, who have given me gifts I could never articulate, and who have changed my life in inexplicable yet profound ways, are those that I set out with the intention to “serve.” Be it ironic or inevitable, clichéd or candid, for every drop that I have given, I have received in turn tenfold.

Kelsey Jost-Creegan, a rising junior from Boston, is a political science and Spanish double major with a minor in Arab cultures. After graduation she hopes to pursue further studies in international relations and law and to continue working with refugees and asylum seekers.