I recently met a migrant. In her possession, a letter to her new head of state and hopes for a better life in the country that took her in.
She sat next to me on the platform, sighing a little when she lowered herself. I smiled at her, told her my back hurt too. For a moment we tut-tutted about the quality of the wooden benches, then we fell silent again. I was reading To Obama, with Love, Joy, Hate, and Despair, the exquisite investigation into the letters sent to the former president by Jeanne Marie Laskas. The woman next to me looked over my shoulder, read a line or two, then sighed again. I expected her to say something, make a comment, but instead she started to sing. Softly, a song I didn’t recognize, that had rhythms and words that were unfamiliar too. But my body responded by itself, tapping while I thought I was dealing with words on a page. Now it was her turn to smile. And start talking.
She had been taught the song in the camp, she said, maybe 20 years ago. It had been her tenth birthday. There had been very little food and no entertainment, but one of the aid workers wanted to do something nice. The song had been a present, and for a moment she had felt important: seen and heard. A year before, a group of men had come into her house, hacked her father to death, and taken her mother. On her way out of town, part of a throng of other petrified children, she had seen her body lying on the side of the street. Her breasts had been cut off, her private parts were a bloody mess. It had taken months to walk to the camp. Sometimes children just disappeared overnight, never to be seen again. She was careful to stay in the middle of the convoy and keep her head down. After they arrived, the real trial began. Nightly attacks by militias, raids by the government during the day. After a year or so, their own troops came and tried to send them home at the barrel of a gun. But there was no more home. There never really would be.
She had never heard of Canada and had no idea who this man was. But she trusted the journalist, because he was the only one to trust. So she gave him the letter. And he left.
She was lucky, she thought. Her father had taught her how to write. He had been a good man, who believed that girls had lives and rights. He was special in that way. Now she used her skill to send letters. She would ask the aid workers who important people were and then she would write. About what was happening to all of them, asking for advice. What should she do? How could she help herself, her sisters, the children around her? Most probably never made it to their recipients, and for a while her hope went unfed. But then a journalist came and asked questions. How she saw her future, what her dreams were. She showed him the letter she was writing at the time and asked him who to address it to. He was Canadian and spelled out the name of his Prime Minister for her: Jean Chrétien. She had never heard of something called Canada and had no idea who this man was. But she trusted the journalist, because he was the only one to trust. So she gave him the letter. And he left.
She heard nothing, for more than five months. Then an aid worker came to find her and asked her if she wanted to go to this place, this Canada. There had been a letter, she said, that had spoken about her. She could come and bring her little sisters, if she wanted. She did. It took a while to get everything in order. Visas, health checks, paperwork, clothes. They had told her Canada was cold. She had no idea what that meant, not really. When they arrived in Vancouver it was the end of Autumn. It was five degrees [forty-one degrees Fahrenheit]; lovely and warm, her new countrymen said. She had never felt this chilled to the bone before. Then winter came. But they were safe. She could sleep with both eyes shut, which took a while to master.
They had gone back to school, all of them. They had jobs now, and families, and winter coats. This was her first holiday abroad. The first time she had dared letting go of her responsibilities for a while. She was silent for a bit. I was silent too. “Letters can work,” she said, pointing to my book. And after another few minutes of quiet, there was a question: “Who could you write to now?”