Story & photo by Meg Webster
I remember vividly the day I met them. It was 2016, and they entered the classroom in single file, arranged by height. Four sisters from Jordan with their mother. Stunning. The eldest was 35 and the youngest 23. They arrived just weeks before and now stood in the cluttered kitchen of Westbrook’s Intercultural Community Center, the only space available to teach our adult English classes.
“We are stateless,” they tell me, “no country has ever claimed us.” Though their smiles are nervous and handshakes timid, chestnut eyes peer from beneath floral hijabs with piercing vitality.
According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), there are some 12 million stateless people worldwide – defined under a United Nations 1954 Multilateral Convention as “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.” The European Network on Statelessness describes these people as “legal ghosts, exposed to human rights abuses with no recourse to justice.” They are denied all citizenship rights, including access to healthcare, educational benefits, and basic human rights and protections.
“Sometimes it felt we were alien to the earth even,” says Alula, the third born. Statelessness is a provocateur of sorts that leads to a whole slew of other abuses, and just one piece to the entirety of their story, which is nothing short of austere, but Amjambo Africa is withholding details to protect the safety of the sisters. And so together they embarked on a collective journey to find home, which eventually landed them in Portland, Maine, in 2016.
Hanifa, the oldest, is a natural nurturer. She has a Pollyanna way about her that is good-natured and forgiving. Her sisters say she is highly intuitive and has the gift of empathy.
Next is Afra. Afra has a quiet fortitude and eyes that are somber but do not surrender. She pauses often as she speaks, carefully weighing her words. Her sisters tell me she often slips out alone, unnoticed, to pray or walk quietly through the woods.
Alula is the third born. She’s insatiably curious and has an appetite for adventure. “I’d like to pilot a plane one day,” she tells me just months after learning to drive a car. Her goals are lofty and diverse. Endowed with a mind both analytical and poetic, she is a self-proclaimed writer and feminist.
Rabia is the youngest. She is conscientious and inclusive and sensitive. “What I don’t get, I try to give,” she tells me. Her sisters describe her as youthful but insightful. She says perhaps she’ll be a journalist one day. “Above all though, I just want to help others.”
Growing up, their liberty fluctuated in relation to their geography. There were long stretches when they didn’t leave their home at all. “We had such little choice and control in our lives,” says Alula. But this didn’t stifle their resolve. They threw extravagant parties in the confined parameters of their small homes. They found any excuse to celebrate: birthdays, Mother’s Day, New Year’s, Ramadan, even holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving. “We’d spend whole days preparing sometimes, making decorations, baking cakes, cookies, candies – all from scratch,” says Alula. They’d put on makeup and dress as though they were going out to a royal gala. They’d conduct fashion shows and photo shoots, and dance for hours – all for each other.
“Tell her about Hanifa’s worlds!” Rabia exclaims. Their eyes grow large and they stretch their arms wide to relay the playhouses Hanifa built using boxes, sheets, scarves, and beads. Their words jumble as they speak over one another. They tell me about the “fun cards” on which she’d scribble fantastical ideas they’d then build. They’d create plays and write stories. Once Hanifa stood behind a cardboard box TV frame for hours, scrolling through pictures she’d drawn just to keep them entertained.
They dissolve into giggles as they recall Hanifa peppering her hair white to play “grandma.” They’d gather around her with cookies and tea as she told stories, the telling of which sometimes spanned days. “When our real world was falling apart, Hanifa was all the time creating an alternative world for us,” Alula says.
“All the time I felt it was just a game” says Anuoar, “but now I understand.”
They continued to create together as they got older. In Jordan, they gathered together and wrote scenes about what their lives would be in the United States. They’d write in the present tense as though they were already here. They’d imagine themselves in line at the airport, watching baggage handlers toss their bags, brimful of beloved belongings, onto the plane. Night after night, they practiced their English, playfully slipping in and out of their American personas. And then in 2016, their play became a reality. “It was as though we were newly born,” they tell me, all nodding with bewildered smiles.
Life in the United States poses a unique set of challenges, however. They’ve plunged headfirst into the American immigrant experience. Each juggles multiple jobs yet they barely scrape by. They navigate complicated systems in a language they’re still mastering. They learn who and when to trust. “Everything comes so quickly, it’s easy to lose yourself entirely,” says Afra.
Renewed hope can be a double-edged sword. Though imminent threat has waned, risk has not altogether vanished and hurdles continue to amass. Nevertheless, empresses of revel, these sisters safeguard one another’s positivity and spirit with fierce determination, celebrating victories large and small. They did this as children as they crossed deserts and borders, lived in poverty and hiding, holed up together in confined spaces, and they continue to do this here in the United States.
They currently live together in a compact, third-floor apartment in Maine, four Jordanian sisters and their mother, whom they call their guiding star. Their home is vibrant and inviting. “Life is too short,” Alula says. “Sometimes when I’m with my sisters and my mom, I think, we never really know when all this will end right? It makes me want to really enjoy everything.” Her gaze locks with mine, eyes serene. “Everyone has a child inside. If we lose this child, there is no meaning. We must let life continue to surprise us.”
Meg Webster is a multimedia artist and support specialist at University of New England School of Social Work. She’s produced a variety of multicultural advocacy shorts, exhibited in galleries and writes multicultural narrative pieces for select Maine publications. Prior to UNE, she worked as a program coordinator and ELL teacher working within the immigrant, refugee, and asylee communities.