United by Difference in New York City

United by Difference in New York City

Hurricane Irma forced my family to leave our home, but new friends in NYC helped me feel like I belong.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published by Youth Communications and is reposted here with permission. YC is a nonprofit publisher of teen-written stories and curriculum to help educators strengthen the social and emotional skills of youth.

A heavy pot blew through the window in a flurry of wind and rain. The seal was broken. Pop! Pop! Pop! The rest of the windows came crashing out of the walls, and the house began to flood. My family and I worked tirelessly to keep the water out, but we couldn’t stop the water any more than we could stop the coming changes.

In 2017, Hurricane Irma hit Virgin Gorda, one of the British Virgin Islands (BVI). The Category 5 monstrosity reduced cell towers to metal stumps, tore through electricity poles, and turned trees into skeletons. Grocery stores that had been hollowed out by anxious buyers before the hurricane had sunken roofs and battered walls. Our house was left standing, but our car and the home next to ours was destroyed.

With no means of communication, and facing food scarcity, my family and I were in a dire situation. After a week, my mother, two younger siblings, and I were evacuated via helicopter to Puerto Rico. Women and children were flown out first, so my father stayed behind. He made most of his meals of coconuts until he was sick of them. We laugh about this now, but it was not funny at the time.

From Puerto Rico, we traveled to New York City where we joined our grandparents, and my mother returned to my father in Virgin Gorda a few weeks later. As I hugged her goodbye, I felt as if my tether to my culture and community had snapped. I only had my siblings to remind me of what it had been like to climb sea grape trees or watch the mocko jumbies—the performers in bright costumes who walk on stilts at festivals and parades. Although the rain had stopped, Irma’s floodwaters had pushed us away from our little island and into unknown territory.

Everything about New York City was different. Even traveling to school was scary. I’d never used public transportation, nor had I ever crossed a street guided by crosswalks. The city had more traffic than I had ever seen before. The bus was uncomfortably packed with people, which made it difficult to travel with a backpack. I arrived in late September, and since I’d already started the ninth grade in the BVI, I was allowed to continue in that grade here. I didn’t have much contact with my parents, because the BVI cellphone towers had been knocked down during the hurricane. I missed my friends too and I had no way to talk to them. I worried about whether they’d found food, water, and shelter. Months later, I found out that two of my friends were able to get to family in Barbados, and another friend on a different island had narrowly escaped a landslide.

I did not meet anyone from the BVI, but I made friends easily. A girl named Raida was in both my gym and music classes. She was friends with two other girls, and one day she approached me and we all became friends. Raida was Muslim and I was fascinated by how she and other girls wore their headscarves. The BVI doesn’t have a large Muslim population, so I had never seen this before; I was someone who can barely wear a hat thanks to my Afro. I watched intently as my friend showed me how she concealed the pins that held her hijab in place. I loved her flowing style of dress with lots of black and purple. A girl in my history class was Tibetan and I learned about the country’s politics from her. While I had heard of Tibet prior to living in New York City, I didn’t know anything about it—other than that it was a country in Asia. I almost certainly would not have met a Tibetan person had I stayed in the BVI.

I was amazed during the “cultural days” when South Asian girls in their saris passed me in the hallways. The light reflected off of the shiny fabrics and gold embroidery, making them shimmer as their skirts floated above the floor. Hindi, Mandarin, Cantonese, and more were whispered in hallways by giggling students. One of my Afghan friends taught me a few words of Farsi, and my Dominican friend taught me a few phrases in Spanish. While some of my classmates teased me about the way I pronounced words like “go” as a part of the dialect spoken in Virgin Gorda, I was excited to learn more about their languages.

In the BVI, the culture is more monolithic. For the most part, everyone speaks the same way, eats the same foods—like johnny cakes and red pea soup with sugar—and participates in the same cultural events and holidays. As I continued living in New York City, I compared and contrasted the cultures around me, soaking in the new ideas each one presented.

But there were unifying experiences as well. My friends and I felt similar pressures as children of immigrants, as our parents saw living in the United States as an opportunity to achieve a better life, and I came to appreciate the ways that differences intersected to create the culture of New York City. This amalgamation of cultures unified the city, and I was included in that unity. Understanding other cultures showed me that mine was distinct, but the comparisons I’d made connected me to my surroundings. I no longer felt stranded in a strange land; I was part of what makes this land unique.

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