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I’m a July 4 baby and always loved fireworks. An unexpected conversation changed my perspective

<i>Family Photo via CNN Newsource</i><br/>My mom
Family Photo via CNN Newsource
My mom

Essay by Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN

(CNN) — My pregnant mom was certain she knew how things would go that night. It was late afternoon, but she already had movie tickets in her pocket. I wasn’t due for another month. And my parents were excited to see “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” in a few hours.

But I surprised my family with a different sort of spectacle. My mom’s water broke while she was washing the dishes that day. And I made my entrance on July 4, just after 10 p.m., when surely a few fireworks were still lighting up the Chicago sky.

The idea that I burst into the world during the event’s finale is a bit of family lore I’ve always loved retelling.

For decades, the beauty and fun of fireworks were deeply intertwined with the way I saw my country and myself. To me, these were facts as indisputable as the wetness of water or the blueness of the sky.

But I see things differently now. And that’s something I never expected.

Fireworks were a huge part of my ‘4th of July Baby’ identity

Growing up, it’s not an overstatement to say no one loved going to see July 4 fireworks more than I did.

Yes, it was a bit of a blow to my only-child, millennial mentality to learn at a young age that all the festivities that day weren’t just for me. But I quickly learned to love sharing my 4th of July birthday with America. It’s amazing for most of your loved ones to have the day off on your birthday, and for everyone around you to be celebrating.

Gifts emblazoned with American flags became a beloved part of my birthday repertoire, from earrings to T-shirts to teddy bears. I loved flaunting my patriotism. As a toddler, I learned to belt out “God Bless America,” “The Star-Spangled Banner” and, of course, “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy.” More than anything, I loved going with my family to watch the fireworks.

There was nothing like the feeling of seeing colors burst into the sky as the symphony played the triumphant finale of the 1812 Overture. The boom of the cannons was thrilling. And the way those extra sparkly golden fireworks crackled gave me the good kind of goosebumps.

Even when it was clear the show had ended, I’d look upward toward the wisps of smoke in the atmosphere and hope there might still be more.

As I grew older and life got busier, my birthday celebrations became more muted. Sometimes I’d have to work. Sometimes there wasn’t time to plan a party. But no matter, what, I’d have one requirement.

“All I want is to see at least one firework in the sky,” was a refrain I repeated many times when asked how I planned to celebrate.

On my 35th birthday, that’s just what I said. And my boyfriend granted that wish, taking me to see a lovely firework display in a town square outside Atlanta. We watched children playing with sparklers and listened to a concert band play as dusk fell. It was as idyllic an American night as anyone could have imagined.

But the next day I’d learn that a family I knew had a very different experience that night, only a few miles away.

It was their first July 4 in America

I first met Abdalla Munye and his family in January 2017, days after the Trump administration’s travel ban went into effect. Abdalla, his wife Habibo and seven children who made the journey with them had only been living in the US for a few days.

These Somali refugees were supposed to be starting their new lives, but instead found themselves at a press conference, sobbing in front of strangers. Because of the travel ban, they feared they might never see their daughter, Batulo, again. Officials had booked her on a separate flight a few days after theirs, and the surprise travel ban left her stranded in a refugee camp in Kenya.

I spent weeks alongside the family, chronicling how the travel ban affected them. When courts blocked the policy and Batulo finally made it to the US nearly a month later, I was with them at the Atlanta airport and was able to share the story of their reunion with millions of people.

Knowing that moment would mark the end of one journey and the beginning of another, we stayed in touch, and I kept visiting them for months so I could tell the story of their first year in America.

That’s when an unexpected conversation we had opened my eyes to a reality I’d never considered.

I visited Abdalla and his family the day after my birthday, on July 5, 2017, and I still remember how struck I was by what he said.

I’d expected him to tell me his family had spent their first Independence Day in America having a cookout, or maybe watching a parade, or gazing in wonder as beautiful fireworks illuminated the sky. But when I asked how their July 4 had been, Abdalla said they’d spent the night hiding in the dark in their apartment, afraid to go outside.

“What happened?” I asked, naively.

Abdalla told me the sounds they’d heard outside made them think of the night when their oldest daughter had been raped and murdered. Memories of war and bloodshed and tragedy raced through his mind. He’d been taught in his refugee orientation that July 4 was a time for celebration in the United States, but he couldn’t believe that’s what was unfolding around them. For Abdalla, there was only one possibility. The dangers they’d fled had found them here, too.

In my steno pad, I jotted down Abdalla’s description of the experience.

“It sounded,” he said, “like Somalia.”

What a series of panicked text messages reminded me

Six months later, on New Year’s Eve, I got a series of frantic WhatsApp message from Abdalla that I’ll never forget.

Hello! This is Abdalla how are you doing I hope u doing good, how is the weather today does it change like Somalia we had some booms in our area what is going on we almost to run, don’t forget when u are running tell us too to run on our side.

At first, I was puzzled by what he’d written. Then I thought back to our conversation in July. New Year’s revelry was frightening his family the same way Independence Day festivities had. He was asking me what I was hearing on the other side of town. And he wanted me to alert him if I was fleeing, so his family would be able to escape in time, too. I tried writing a brief explanation to reassure him. And I sent a photo of fireworks, too.

Abdalla’s English had improved so much since his arrival, but he was still learning. I hoped the image would calm his fears and clarify any confusion in case something had gotten lost in translation. “Here people sometimes celebrate the New Year with fireworks…you don’t need to run! How are you doing?”

His response made it clear he was unconvinced.

Am fine but u say that it sounds like booms it’s not the way u think. And it is night and why are they booming night time.

“It is just a tradition for some people. … I know it is scary to hear,” I wrote. “Hopefully it will stop soon and you can get some rest.”

Ok let us pray to God in the morning to wake up peacefully with kids.

The idea that fireworks had inspired this exchange was a sobering reminder that’s stuck with me ever since.

By the time my next birthday rolled around, so much had changed in my life. I’d moved to the Washington, DC area, and it had been months since I’d spoken with Abdalla and his family. I watched fireworks with my fiancé from an apartment rooftop, and I laughed as I heard my friend’s son gleefully shouting, “Hi, fireworks!” as they lit up the horizon. But in my mind, I heard Abdalla’s voice, too, even though he was hundreds of miles away.

The way I celebrate July 4 has changed

I have thought about my conversations with Abdalla and his family many times over the years.

The visual beauty of fireworks still wows me. But every July 4, I now find myself closing my eyes for a few moments, and hearing how those same sounds could so easily be a very different kind of explosion.

I think about how lucky I have been to live my whole life without a shred of doubt that the boom of a firework was a sound of celebration.

And I think about how so many others have stories like Abdalla’s.

The UN refugee agency estimates there are now more 117 million forcibly displaced people in the world — roughly equal to a third of the entire US population.

I think back on my mom, washing the dishes 42 years ago, with movie tickets in her pocket and no doubt in her mind about what that July 4 had in store. Until everything changed in an instant.

So many times, we are so certain about our futures, only to find out something unexpected awaits us. That’s the beauty and the terror of living.

Abdalla never expected people in his own family to be killed as armed groups ravaged the Somali countryside. He never expected to be forced by war to flee his home. He never expected a US president’s decision would throw his life into chaos. He never expected to end up on the other side of the world, hiding in his apartment with the lights off in the place where he thought he’d be safe.

I don’t speak with Abdalla as regularly as I once did when writing about his family. But I try to stay in touch with people who’ve trusted me to help share their stories. It’s been more than seven years since we first met, and Abdalla and I still exchange text messages every so often. He sent me photos of Batulo’s wedding. After my own daughter was born a few years ago, I sent him pictures of our family, too.

He wrote to me recently to ask how my daughter was doing. And I asked him about his family and their plans for July 4 this year.

They now live in Kentucky, where Abdalla works for Amazon sorting clothing returns.

These days, Abdalla says his family is more prepared for July 4.

“We are used to it,” he says. “In America we see people celebrating it. And we also changed.”

America is their country now, too. And Abdalla says his family has grown accustomed to watching their neighbors lighting fireworks.

“That is how we celebrate with them,” he says. But still, his family stays inside to be safe, watching from behind the windows of their home.

I haven’t had a chance to make plans for my birthday this year. But I’m hoping to see at least one firework in the sky.

When I do, I’ll think of Abdalla and his family, and I’ll think of this country — our country — and how lucky we are to share it.

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