by Mary Tarawally
Content warning for mentions of suicidal ideation, death, and violence.
From a very young age, I had to learn to become the superwoman I always dreamed of. My mother was always my role model and superstar. Growing up, she would recount horror stories from the Sierra Leone Civil War, of how fathers had their forearms chopped off in front of their two year old daughters and pregnant women had their unborn children carved out of them.
My mother recalls her own encounter with death. It was a twilight kind of night with the air still and cool. Thirty five wide-eyed, blood-thirsty rebels surrounded my mom with two of my elder siblings on either sides of her while I nestled against her warm back, tied by a sheet of Sierra Leonean Creole cloth.
The rebels held a variety of weaponry: some held crimson-drenched blood stained daggers; others had smoke worn out AK 47s, with the last of bullets waiting to pierce the heart and soul; the rest had, from her memory, machetes that bit and crunched the bones, sleeves and forearms of human flesh unapologetically. Indeed she saw death that day, but miraculously, a Jesus she didn’t know beforehand saved her. She was a Muslim woman, but afterwards converted.
The war took everything from my family and me. As always with the effects of war come destroyed homes, villages, towns and cities; and, as a result, comes homelessness. My elder siblings also recount stories of my family and me sleeping next to trees, in garages, in people’s basements, on people’s rooftops, and, if we were lucky, in people’s living rooms.
I personally recall my family living in schools, taking baths in the bathrooms middle schoolers used for their personal use. I remember moving a lot, never having a stable place to call my own. Kids in the various neighborhoods enjoyed teasing and bullying me for not being up to their standards and having fancy homes, alongside being a Christian. The families in those towns were predominantly Muslim and so the kids found my family shameful for practicing our faith, though I was taught to love all persons and all faiths.
I tried not to listen to the negative comments. I thought my family was dynamite. Each member of my family was hard-working. My mother went out looking for work every morning. My sisters Christiana and Samuella, ages twelve and seventeen respectively, took up work since they could not attend school. Christiana opened and managed a mini stove market where she roasted and sold corn and fish. Samuella always enjoyed school and was always a bookworm, so she took up tutoring the rich kids in the rich neighborhoods. I was very grateful for what I had, my little family. They gave me the strength to get through the mean comments.
My family and I lived in Conkary-Guinea at the time and moved to the U.S at about the age of eight. Life in America was not the happiest when I first started school. My siblings and I, before coming to the USA, had to stop attending school because our mother could no longer afford it. At the time, we were living in Petit Simbaya (or Small City as I like to remember the town’s name). I remember the kids whose families could afford to send them to school each evening would gather on the outside gate of the elite families, and converse about their day, the things they learned and how incredible it was.
My siblings and I always kept quiet. I considered some of the kids to be from hell because they purposefully made jokes and embarrassed us any chance they got. Like an orchestra of bees, they enjoyed pestering my siblings about the value of education and of its usefulness, as if we didn’t know. I vividly remember despising those kids as two and four year olds hated needles and watery collar greens.
The first few weeks of middle school in the USA were demon weeks. My classmates during lunch time in the cafeteria would gang up on me by getting students from across the room to talk about my hair, my knockoff Air Jordans, Nikes, and Pastels sneakers.
I spoke three languages and so being in an English class, my accents did not help with my pronunciation. I couldn’t even raise my hand in class to answer my favorite math questions because in the back, foolish fourth grade boys were giggling and chuckling. Every night laying against my mother’s chest, tears warmly crawled out of my eyes. They were painful coming out, as I hated myself, thinking what was happening was my fault.
Slowly, I felt myself feeling not important to this world and I just wanted to stop existing. One day I sat on the edge of my bathtub crying and praying God would just take me away from all of this. I wasn’t doing well in class (even though I had skipped from second to fourth grade) due to the harassment from the girls during bathroom breaks and general class. My only refuge were two classmates at lunch time, my only friends.
My only problem was that I didn’t want to leave my warm and loving mother who had suffered war and raised her kids through hardships, and my hardworking, funny siblings. I couldn’t hurt them, not after all we had been through together. I couldn’t continue like this, I just couldn’t. So I decided to start praying. My mom always told me God can hear you, and having endured her set of persecutions of war and being a Christian woman in a predominately Muslim community, she became my inspiration.
I wanted to help people. I wanted to inspire and be a role model for young little girls that encountered bullying in school. I had to become the superwoman I never had. And slowly but surely, I became my superwoman. Of course the teasing and bullying did not but I remember shifting my focus from what they said to what I thought.
I wanted to be the type of role model that inspired excellence, positivity, and growth. At the end of the school year, I found out that I had failed my classes and had to repeat the fourth grade again; my world shattered. Oh I did cry, cry and cry all the rivers of the oceans combined together. But after crying, I made up my mind to not stay in the mental and emotionally broken frame I was in. If I wanted to inspire growth and change, then first I had to grow and change myself.
At the age of eight, I did my best to identify all my areas of weaknesses; education, self-esteem, and my faith. I wanted to go to Harvard University and work at the United Nations so I had to start getting all A’s and being involved in my school and community: done. I wanted to love myself more and not care what people thought about me, so I had to start praying and finding the little girl within me and healing and forgiving her as well as others: done. And my faith, lastly, was woven into both, because I learned to pray about everything.
Today, I stand as a full time sophomore university student studying Business Management at the prestigious St. John’s University. I am currently undertaking my second internship with the United Nations, having worked recently on the 2016 Winter Youth Assembly at the United Nations Headquarters in New York under the Friendship Ambassadors Foundation. I currently serve on a National Board of Directors on an NGO committee, Immigrant Information Center.
I have had the privilege of speaking on the same pulpit as Dr. Martin Luther King did to youths in the Metropolitan A.M.E Zion Church and several other churches in the African American Episcopal Zion Church in the New Jersey Conferences. I had the honor of acting as a liaison between then-running United States Democratic Senator Corey Booker and Metropolitan A.M.E Zion church. I have been a recipient of many awards, among them, the Raoul Wallenberg Awards— an award given in honor of the Swedish diplomat who showed courage and bravery during the Holocaust, going on to save over 100,000 Jewish people. I consider myself very blessed and very fortunate to have made it this far in life and in my career. My wish continues to be that I aspire higher and higher, to be the superwoman the little girl in me is proud of.
Mary Tarawally is a student and contributor for Trascender Magazine.