Which color do you want?

Outside this unfamiliar building, we're not sure what to expect,
and even less certain of what is expected from us. 
Foyer Selah is a home for asylum seekers waiting for permission to stay in Belgium.
We, a group of well-meaning whites, with worries like "why hasn't he called yet?" or "hope it won't rain tonight";
I'm wondering if they really want us here or if this is just an imperative that we've invented.
The living room is big and bright and ridicilously over-heated.
It has the familiar feeling of a communal space, sparsely decorated but welcomingly colorful.
There is no suspicion, only big smiles, vivid hand gestures and eager attempts at finding a common language;
Arabic, French, Tigrinya, English and Somali bounce against the walls, looking for somewhere to land.
We have come armed with props, games, nail polish and curiosity.
At first it seems surreal, to meet someone for the first time and ask to paint their nails.
- Which color do you want? 
Silvana, the smallest Eritrean 18-year-old I have ever seen, cannot make up her mind. 
She looks over to her friend, a veiled Somali woman with a contagious smile who points to the turquoise bottle.
This intimate act becomes a way of interaction, of breaking down barriers too large to think about.
Or maybe reducing barriers that exist mainly in my mind. 
Silvana is married. She doesn't speak much English, but she can say "husband", and she says it a lot.
Her phone is full of photos of the two of them together, looking young, beautiful and happy.
In between them are photos of shoes, glittery dresses and very exotic nail art.
She shows me a turquoise nail decorated with zebra stripes and miniature stones and looks hopeful.
I'm thinking how extremely normal yet absurdly abnormal this all is. 
A young girl bursting out into the world, hoping to land somewhere less hostile than what she escaped.
A young husband who follows but ends up on another shore.
Weddings gowns, high-heeled shoes and a world of uncertainty and loss are all contained within Silvana.
She fingers the wooden cross around her neck and explains: "Orthodox". 
- Are you a muslim? she asks as she starts to paint my nails with a shade of light pink.
A few hours later we hug each other and the girls are taking pictures.
I slip Silvana a small thank you note, and I wonder if she can tell that my head is raging with calm confusion.
She asks her friend to write a reply that says Yekenyeley.
It means 'thank you' in Tigrinya, she explains.
It's a story as old as the world. 
We try to make a change in the life of others, and they end up changing ours.
What was it I wanted? 

Write the world.

In 2014 I left Europe for the first time.
In New York, I lied to Joyce Carol Oats about being Belgian, and she gave me her autograph. 
A man on a park bench wrote me a poem more true to my spirit than had I written it myself,
and some friends made me drink a shot of pickled garlic liquor (don't try this at home!).
On a boat along the Boston coastline I watched a Pakistani and an Iranian reenact the "I'm the king of the world"-scene from Titanic. It was glorious. In a restaurant on Elm Street, I talked about arranged marriages and feminism with an Indian friend who just a week ago had been a stranger. 
Upon return to Brussels, I listened to Barack Obama speak to the youth of Europe. In a beautiful concert hall of red and gold, he said "Do not think for a moment that your freedom, your prosperity, your moral imagination is bound by the limits of your community, your ethnicity or your country." and I tried to imagine a European leader speak as though our souls were at stake, not just our economy.
I met a man who said my words are dangerous, that they take people to the darkest places and that I need to be held accountable for that. As I rolled up my sheet of paper, I wondered- just for a minute- if he was right. 
Is there too much hardship in this world to make room for my difficult questions?
In 2014 I thought a lot about the world.
I was told stories of violence, war and discrimination. Stories about people who fight back.
Hiding notes of hope written for the universe, I imagined that small words can make a big impact.
I studied postcolonialism. I read Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Adichie, Azar Nafisi, Salman Rushdie,
and I wanted to be a warrior poet.
I listened to messages of peace by someone who knew Martin Luther King.
I watched the news and I thought to myself:
Write the word; Write the world; right the world.

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