Firefighters

Loosely based on real events

“Many fires are started by firefighters. They feel the need to experience being a hero and saving lives so they decide to take it into their own hands.”

I usually don’t pay much attention to the crime fighting TV show that my family sits down to watch every night but today’s opening line caught my attention. As the show delved into a case of a firefighter who set off fires in his hometown, I remember something that I had experienced as a child. If I focused hard enough, I could still smell the smoke in the air and the kid shoes on my feet. 

  1. A person who fights fires.

Tall men and women in hefty uniforms. I would watch them with my father with wonder and admiration as they exited the big red engine into the smoking building. They emerged victorious as they got the uncontrollable element under their fist. Their extinguishers posed and ready to fight against the raging heat.

I was nine and dressed in Disney pajamas as the apartment I lived in was evacuated. The gated community of Palms Colony had been shaken awake in the middle of the night with the shrieking fire alarm. The house above mine was on fire and we had to leave immediately. There was panic, fear and uncertainty. My heart hammered as I struggled to find my parents, who were disappearing among the masses of people running towards the street. 

“Help!”

No one could hear me.

“Mom! Dad!”

People were rushing outside. My voice drowned in the chaos. 

“Hey, kid? You looking for someone?”

A firefighter, already dressed and ready to run into the fire. His name tag was a number, 3465.

I nodded and he guided me to the tent where my worried parents were waiting. I thanked 3465, whose face was still hidden behind the helmet. He nodded and sprinted into the building. I watched his back disappear into the smoke that people were running away from. He looked like an angel of death, only a silhouette was seen. 

An explosion. Screaming and panic. Shards of glass scattered on the concrete. Pieces of clothing and someone’s fur coat was falling from the sky like a twisted metaphor about rain. Smoke covered the night sky like a blanket. I wandered closer to a tag that had fallen from the building that was completely destroyed now. It had a number on it. 3465. 

  1. A person who enjoys fires.

This was the fifth fire in the last week. No deaths and minimal injuries in all the situations. Firefighters emerging as heros against a simple, tame fire. Journalists joked about how the fire department just needed some PR to help raise funds. Cops laughed but kept their eyes open for more friendly fires. 

“Fire on Lowell Street. I repeat, fire on Lowell Street!”

Three fire engines sped off towards the church that was already smoking. Its patrons had escaped but the element raged on, destroying the pews and the heavy gold cross at the altar.

He jumped out of the engine, extinguisher ready to work. He pulled the helmet over his eyes and ran inside the smoke and chaos. In an ironic twist, the inside of the church looked like the very thing they feared. The walls were blood red and the heat was enough to kill, and it could have. As he searched for people, he heard a small cry. A young girl, barely 10, covered in burns. He grabbed her and ran outside, covering her body with his uniform. “I have someone! Here!” 

The ambulance sped away with the young girl, her parents were sobbing and thanking him. He smiled and muttered something about duty.  It was all in a day’s work. 

“Good job today, go home and take some rest.” The fire captain thanked our team and dismissed us. The fireman grabbed his bags and headed to his car. HIs heart was racing, adrenaline pumping from the events of the day. 

His ex had given him a copy of her old apartment’s key a while back but she had moved out and moved on. So he took a turn off the highway and entered the gated community. It was late now, nearly 11 PM. He grabbed a container of petroleum and matchbox from his trunk and headed upstairs, taking the steps three at a time. He entered the house with his key and dumped it in the trash. The petroleum lines he drew were shaped like flowers. The fire followed the oil closely, clinging onto the curtains and sheets that covered the remaining furniture. His eyes were as angry as the fire. Satisfied with the damage, he sprinted down the stairs into his car and drove off, the fire behind him consuming the house. 

“3465? 3465?”

“Yeah, I’m here.”

“There’s a fire in the Palms Colony Apartments. We need you, can you be there?”

“Will be there. Let’s save some lives.”

Just Keep Swimming

To anyone who has ever felt burnt out doing the thing that they love.

When I was 10, I spent an entire summer learning how to swim. It was a surprisingly rare feat for someone in my immediate family, considering the fact that my dad was the only one who could do more than dip their feet in the shallow end of the pool. My parents enrolled me with a swim instructor in my neighborhood pool where I would grudgingly wake up every morning at 6 AM and spend numerous hours in the pool. I learnt free style, breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly. My instructor was an eccentric man who always taught the strangest phrases to remember how to swim. My personal favorite was the term “bobbling” when referring to breathing underwater by letting out bubbles. He would send me under the water and yell at me to “Do bobbling!” in order to cement an instinct in me to breath.

To his defense, it worked. I didn’t die. 

The lessons began as enjoyable to me but, like many long term engagements I would get into, I began hitting a burn out towards the tail end of my summer. I was getting tired, irritable and longing for a summer of sleeping in till 11 am and wasting time away in the burning sun. Rather than that, I would find myself in the pool, bobbling and swimming along the long end of the pool. I would ask myself, what was the point of all this?

Eventually, this irritability began to show and it became harder to keep my head above the surface. I would spend less time under water and kept popping up for air. My instructor was very mad at me. After all, the point was to learn how to swim without needing air every five seconds. Everytime he would follow me as I freestyle back and forth, he would watch me pop my head up for air, even if I didn’t need it. I would apologize but proceed to do it again. And again. And again

He gave up with me but not without leaving me with a sentence that would follow me through life. It was during the 40th lap I was undertaking. We were both exhausted, tired from the sun and ready to get the day’s lesson over with. I stopped myself from my unbreaking freestyle stroke to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t, I can’t do it.”

My teacher sighed, “Why are you not trusting yourself? What is scaring you?”

I realized that I had no answer. I had nothing to be afraid of. 

The entire summer, I had spent with my breath. Breathing in the salt water, 6AM wake up and watermelon juice my babysitter would make for me after practice. Breathing out anxieties of sore muscles, no time to see my friends and tight swim caps that would suck all the blood out of my head. 

But after weeks and weeks of constantly holding my breath in, blaming exhaustion for my fears and nerves, it was time for me to let it go. Exhale the feeling of burning out and get back in touch with the reasons why I fell in love with swimming in the first place. The feeling of freedom, having no control over my body but also being hyper aware of every movement my muscles made. 

As my instructor would say, I had to let out all the bubbles and

just simply breath.

The Governor’s School For The Arts: my thoughts

From June 13th to July 2nd, I got to attend the Kentucky Governor’s School For The Arts as a creative writing student. The program is a fully paid, 3 week arts intensive where students got to spend 24/7 being fully immersed in their crafts while disconnected from their families and in a completely independent setting. However, when I say independent, I don’t mean complete and total freedom. The program did have their share of strange safety rules that made 16/17 year olds feel like kindergartners, but I digress.

The program helped me learn a lot about my identity as a writer. In good ways and in bad ones. I learnt about how much I enjoyed writing in a group setting. I like performing in front of people. I rediscovered my love for poetry, if that feeling had ever left. I learnt that I don’t like playwriting and struggle to come up with dialogue for characters. I learnt what it’s like to write, and not think about anything else. not school, SAT or ACT or college. It was intense, exhausting and a little maddening on some days but I could not be more grateful to have been able to attend. The community that formed after the program, the friends I made and the mentors who I got to speak to, made all the hard work and sleepless nights worth it.

At the end of the program, I created a 20 page chapbook which compiled all my writing from the duration of GSA. I named it “A Few Love Letters” as a dedication to a recurring theme of love in all my writing. This could mean romantic love, love for family, love for home or even love for someone who doesn’t always deserve it.

Over the next few days, I’ll publish the pieces I wrote. Some of these poems are short, some pieces are long. Each was written from the heart and I couldn’t be prouder of them. So enjoy!

Welcome To The Cancer Mom Club

“The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.” – Mark Twain 

When I was in the seventh grade, five people from my science class formed an unofficial “Cancer Mom Club.”  It was not a support group for the children of women who were Cancers but an alliance between five children whose moms had suffered and survived cancer. It was an unconventional way to make friends. While most people would find what we did unsympathetic or callous, I think it was a healthy way for me to cope. Growing up, I never met anyone who had gone through what I had gone through so it was good to meet people like me. In a way, it was my way of living with the aftermath of my Mom’s sickness.

My mom was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma when I was two years old. Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is a type of cancer that affects the body’s immune system. While Mom was battling her sickness, I lived with my grandparents. I wasn’t allowed to see her when she was in surgery or during chemo because of how young I was. As is often seen in children, I was not aware of what was going on with my Mom and never processed the entire experience. As a family, we tend to not dwell on the subject much. The two years that my Mom was sick are not mentioned in the house, so I turned to the Cancer Mom Club to heal and process my emotions, even if I was not aware of what I was doing. Sometimes it could mean joking around about dark subjects. 

This is not unusual in teenagers, especially for Gen Z. We like to joke about trauma and the bad things that happen in our lives.This can be seen in the form of making jokes about school shootings or racial injustice or abuse. There’s been a lot of conflict over Gen Z’s use of humor as a coping mechanism after experiencing traumatic events. Historically, humor has always been utilized to cope with traumatic events. But technologies on the internet have broadened the impact range and the affected audience of tragic events. This means that more people get affected by dark humor and can be more sensitive to it. 

As a generation, there’s an unspoken understanding that dark humor should never affect other people. Talking about your own experiences and trauma is acceptable, but it should never go as far as making fun of someone else’s trauma. I agree; I never joked about the sickness itself because I was not in the position to do so. According to Meghan Mobbs of ​Psychology Today, dark humor “treats threatening or disturbing subjects…with levity or amusement.”.  Dark humor can be subjective and should never affect other people, only yourself and your experiences. That is why the topic of humor and trauma is so controversial. People don’t like hearing about tragedies, even if the speaker has first hand experience. To me, dark humor helps make a tragedy less tragic.  

The Cancer Mom Club disbanded at the ending of our school year. Since most of us were not friends outside of the classroom, we never spoke after that. Two of my friends, who were also a part of the club, also testified about how the club helped them heal. Their mom also suffered from cancer when they were young. Similar to me, the topic is taboo in their homes so an eccentric group of middle schoolers with a love for dark humor and a common tragedy seemed to be the only space they felt comfortable sharing their stories in. My mom’s cancer is not a huge part of my life, my family and I try to move on from the ordeal rather than be stuck in the past. Despite that, I appreciated the space and the opportunity the Cancer Mom Club gave me, to heal and to grow. 

My mom started getting better after months and months of surgery and chemo. She never forgets her sickness and reminds me everyday about how important it is to embrace life and laugh a little. If we can joke about something, it becomes less threatening in our mind. A few weeks after Mom had recovered, she went to get her hair cut. It was short and choppy after chemo, so it prompted the lady cutting her hair to ask which incompetant hairdresser had cut her hair so badly. My mom laughed, “It was God!” 

A Letter To April 2020

On April 22nd, 2020, I decided to write a letter to myself. I had learnt about this website called futureme.org that allowed you to write letters to yourself which they would deliver to your chosen email in a year, three years or however long you choose. I found the idea fascinating; I was always curious about what the future version of me is saying right now. I wonder if she is proud or embarrassed of the person I am right now. 

When I wrote this letter, it had been a month into the Covid 19 surge in the United States. Though I did not know it yet, I was about to enter one of the most emotionally and mentally challenging years of my life. In a course of a year, I dealt with losing friends, starting high school online, being isolated in my room for days on end and missing family who were stuck halfway across the world. As it was for many teenagers, 2020 soon became synonymous with change and growth. 

My letter read,

Dear Zoya as a 15-year-old, 

Hi its Zoya! Today is April 22nd, 2020, and the world has gone crazy. The coronavirus has taken over the world and i am stuck at home doing “online school” watching Netflix and YouTube and eating to feel better. It’s awful. I am really worried about my grandparents and family. I hope, when u get this letter, they are all okay. 

I hope when I get this letter, I will be happy in high school with lots of friends and no social distancing!!!!! I am so excited for that! Right now, I’m a 
hope u/I have a good summer. I am really bored, stressed, and worried. This pandemic is making me feel gross. I hope that 2021 is better.

Remember to take care of yourself, have fun and i love you! 
-Zoya 
(but 14) 

It was funny to read the musings of a clueless 14-year-old who had no idea what was about to hit her. She didn’t know that “online school” would soon become normal; distance learning is the new thing. The Coronavirus would ravage the world, just a few days ago a statistic came out saying that every 1 in 500 people in the US has had Covid. That statistic terrifies me, especially having seen the negative impact of the disease in such a brutal form. As strange as it is, to see my thoughts from April 2020, a part of me is hopeful too.

This is my reply.

Dear Zoya as a 14-year-old,

Today is September 16th, 2021. One year ago, you wrote a letter, sitting on your bed, not knowing whether our social studies teacher would be hosting a Zoom call for class or not. It is funny to see how much changed in a matter of a year.

 The world did go crazy, especially our own little one. We got into fights with our friends, lost a few of them too. We even saw a few friends reveal their true colors this year. We cried more than we admit, you have a lot to look forward too. 

It sounds scary when I say it out loud. A lot goes wrong but so much goes right. As I sit here, in my bedroom, knowing that tomorrow I will be seeing our friends in school (actual, real school),

I know that we have changed so much. 

We learnt about the world around us. Whether it was discovering a passion for social activism or rediscovering our love for journalism. We made so many friends in the new school you were terrified about joining. It’s not that bad, you know. Everyone went through hell that year and everyone needs a friend. 

We had a good summer. We adopted a dog, finally, whose name is Prudie. She’s the highlight of our year and made our mundane quarantine much better. I know how excited you were about getting a dog, good job finally convincing Mom and Dad!

Our family has stayed safe and are doing well. Our grandparents are vaccinated and looking forward to us visiting soon. Whether it’s this December or next summer, we have that to look forward too. I know you need to hear that, even if you won’t say it out loud.

So, the world does go crazy. But remember the person you will become soon. Someone who has been through a lot and couldn’t be more grateful to be writing to you, today. She wants you to know that she loves you. Remember to take care of yourself, drink some water, wear a mask (it’s a thing now) and I love you more.

Zoya (as a 15-year-old) 

Alex and Isaie’s Story

A significant amount of people moving to the United States come here for medical care. The American healthcare system may have its flaws but the ability to access good quality healthcare and medical facilities, no matter your background, is something that appeals to many refugees and immigrants. Healthcare is important to people who live in smaller countries that may not have access to proper healthcare for many of its citizens.

Alex Ishimwe and Isaie Dusang, siblings who moved from Rwanda in 2016, spoke to me abut their move to the United States. They were only 7 and 9 when their family decided to move to the US. This was because their father was sick and the family needed to get help for him urgently. 

This decision was not an easy one. Alex said that they had to leave behind close friends and family to live in a strange new country where they didn’t speak the language. She found the United States to be very new and cool, there were so many new sensations and sights which made the move less scary. She said that she had never seen so many people and big buildings all in one street. 

As with all changes, this move had its own challenges. To add to the language barrier, the Ishimwe-Dusang family moved from California to the smaller state of Kentucky when their father, who had recovered from his illness, had to learn to drive. Cities like California and New York can be hard places to learn to drive, especially as an adult. Kentucky proved to be the right place for them because they ended up living here for the next 3 years. Isaie said she liked Kentucky but found the students in her class different and intimidating. After learning the English language, those challenges seemed to disappear and they settled into their new life.

Today, they’re confidently speaking English and talking about their settlement in the US with happiness. They reminded me about how grateful they were to be living in the US. Since they moved here, their father got the care he needed to recover and the family was given access to more things than they could have ever imagines having in their home country. Their stories made me realize how much I take my life for granted. We often forget about how lucky we are to have the things that we do, especially if we live in bigger countries like the United States. We can get so engrossed in our fantasies of a perfect place that we forget to look around us and see what we do have. Alex and Isaie are one of the many youth that can show me and others the importance of gratitude because for many families, the things you have could be their saving grace. 

Gentilles’ Story

If you talk to any immigrant of refugee living in the United States, their response to the question of why they moved to the country is almost always the same. For a chance to improve their life and the lives of their families and children. The youth of these refugee and immigrant families are given once in a lifetime opportunity to move out of their home countries to have a shot at a better education and quality of life. 

Gentille Gihoza moved to the US when she was 8 years old. After living most of her life in the country of Uganda, her family was selected by the government to move to the United States for a chance at a better life. However, the journey came with its own set of challenges. The first being the amount of paperwork and medical requirements one had to complete in order to move to the US. Secondly, Gentille faced a personal bump on her journey. She had food poisoning which her mother was forced to hide from the government or else they would risk losing their ticket out of Uganda. So, she had to be treated in secrecy and the experience still remains in her memory today. This story showed me how determined Gentille’s family was, something that is seen in so many refugee families. Despite the challenges and hardships, they did not stop or give up even once. 

As with many children and teenager who immigrate to a new country, Gentille also faced a similar sense of isolation in her new country. Along with leaving her friends and grandmother behind, she was unfamiliar to the languages and people around her. At first, she described the country as ‘a different planet’, complete with tall buildings and sprawling roads. she also had the unfortunate luck of landing up in a school that did not help her new situation much. Gentile talked about how she faced a lot of bullying in this new school which, alongside her inexperience with the English language, made her transition to the new country much harder. Some of the teachers turned a blind eye to the incidents and the bullies faced minimal punishments. This forced her to move schools because, according to Gentille, the other school gave off too many “bad vibes.”

When asked about any final piece of advice she would give to another refugee youth who is moving to the US, she reinforced the importance of learning the language. Knowing English makes the move much easier; I can personally vouch for that as someone who knew English well before moving to the US. Gentille also talked about making friends who could help you learn the American ways of life. Having a support system, especially if they happen to be from the same country as you are, makes your experience much better. 

With this being said, Gentille’s story is an inspiring one. She says that her life, since moving to the US, has become much better. She has gotten many more educational opportunities and accomplishments since she moved here. Her quality of life has become better, and she talked about how she is grateful for the chance she got to live here. Even with all her setbacks, she made sure she emphasized how much she valued the chance to live here. Her story can be a guide to other immigrant or refugee youth who move to the US. Her perseverance and positivity are what helped her become the person she is today, even under sudden or less-than-ideal circumstances. 

Let’s Not Talk About Race

“Anytime a white person encounters a Black person who writes about race — or just a Black person who just happens to be Black —  the Serious Conversation About Racism (SCAR) must ensue. This isn’t a new phenomenon. I’ve been SCAR-ed before in the grocery store express aisle, between pickup hoop games at the gym, while getting a colonoscopy, and at least 82 percent of the unsolicited emails I get are drive-by SCARings. 

This part of the article was the one that stood out to me the most when I was reading it. “Yeah, Let’s not talk about Race” is an article written by Damon Young that talks about how talking about race with a person of color has now become a new way of proving that you are not racist. He wrote about how, with the wake of the protests and outrage following the brutal deaths of many African Americans at the hands of law enforcements, anytime a white person would see him anywhere, a “Serious Conversation about Race” would inevitably follow. I really liked this article because it lead me to thinking back to another conversation I had with a group of kids from an online program a few weeks back. We had talked about whose job it was to educate others. In this particular conversation, we talked about whether it was a Black person’s job to educate a non Black person about why saying the n word is wrong or racist. Is it a gay person’s job to tell someone who isn’t a part of the LGBTQ+ community why Pride month is celebrated or why certain words shouldn’t be used because they have homophobic connotations. Or should the other person be educating themselves? When someone is born a minority, like a person of color or a woman, or comes out as a part of the LGBTQ+ community, it’s almost as if they are given automatic duties to go around carrying a big poster that says “I would like to talk to you about being oppressed.” 

Now with that being said, I don’t think that it is completely wrong to ask someone about something that you believe they would know the best about. Whether it’s a Black person about police brutality or a woman about inequality in the workplace, more often that not, they are more than happy to educate than deal with someone who has no idea what they are talking about, but please don’t think that as a minority, it is our moral duty to educate and teach you just because you don’t want to do it yourself. I believe that the best way to deal with racism, sexism or any “ism” is to have the integrity to teach yourself and not make a big show about  being this very educated, and “woke” person. In the end of the day, our standard for others shouldn’t be that low. As someone who isn’t a certain minority it is your moral duty to educate yourself on different issues, not ours.

And no, I don’t want to talk about race.  

A Silent Enemy That Is Here To Stay.

Stereotypes have been the bane of many people’s existence. As a young teenager who moved to a new country, I have dealt with a fair share of stereotypes people have made about me. I have gotten questions about why I wasn’t a vegetarian or how I knew English so well. I usually try to not jump to conclusions about anyone and I think of them as misinformed, not racist. Unfortunately, despite how many technological advances we have made, things we have discovered and people who have risen to power against the odds, why do we still face stereotypes?

Can we stop people from making stereotypes? My answer is no, most of us still make stereotypes of people, even if you consider yourself to be “progressive”. In a New York Times article that talked about equal rights in the workplace, a Pew Research Center study found that despite affirmations that the sexes should be treated equally, the same people believe that men should receive preferential treatment in some cases. The poll was taken a few years back but the facts remain the same. Even when it comes to something so heavily debated as equal treatment for women in the workplace, people still prefer having men in control over certain tasks. 

Stereotyping has become human nature for us. Asking for global acceptance and everyone loving their neighbors is too much. The only way to truly beat stereotypes is to understand the word itself. An article published in the “Greater Good Magazine” stated, psychologists call our mental shortcuts “heuristics”—and we need them to help our brains navigate the world. For example, when we are planning to travel to Chicago in December, we use these shortcuts, or stereotypes, of a winter in Chicago and remember to bring coats. Stereotypes become dangerous when they are used against certain people, and people who believe in these stereotypes start acting on them. They can be used to excuse harmful actions made against races or genders.

My family is from India. I would say that my parents and I are very progressive, compared to many of my friends and their families. When I was 12, I moved to America and that was when I realized that I had also been making unfair stereotypes about America. Growing up, I always had the images of tall men with guns and cowboy hats After traveling more to USA, they were quickly shut down after I met and learned more about the people here.

Unfortunately, we can’t beat this problem easily. But we can beat stereotypes by speaking up against them. When someone says a joke that intentionally makes fun or stereotypes a group of people, protest. Say that the joke is wrong and the person should not have said that. Even though the person may not listen to you, it’s better to try than stay silent. A bully is only fueled by support. Try to get to know a person before you make an assumption about them. Simple steps like these could slow the growth of stereotypical statements and make the world a bit kinder. 

Why My Family Moved To The US

My family moved to the US in 2018. My mom had gotten a promotion and needed to be in her company’s headquarters in Lexington Kentucky. I was 12 when we moved. Initially I was upset at the thought of leaving my friends, home and family to move to a foreign country and being a new kid. However, the thought of living in the land of freedom and opportunities was much bigger than the fear of change. We were thrilled about the life we would get to live in America. In the beginning, I used to feel very foreign. I live in a city where there aren’t that many Indian families which was very strange for me and I would feel like an outcast anytime I was in public. After getting over the initial insecurity, I took advantage of the place I was in. I signed up for any opportunity I got my hands on. Moving here helped me get so many new windows to improve and show off my interests and passions. That is why my family moved to America, for equal possibilities and platforms to excel. 

This article is also published on https://my-america.org/your-story/. It is under the tab of “opportunity”.