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No English, Swahili

On April 4, 2022, Patrick Lyoya, a 26-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was fatally shot in the back of the head by Officer Christopher Schurr of the Grand Rapids Police Department in Michigan after a traffic stop. 

Knoxville, Tennessee—Summer 2021

I am driving down Dandridge Avenue by the Section 8 Office, next to the Family Justice Center, near all the places where I stand in line with Congolese mamas, their sleeping babies tied on their backs with kitenge, me clutching stacks full of paperwork, hoping the offices won’t ask for one more thing, won’t put one more piece of red tape between this mother and a place to lay her child’s head. I have just finished a client home visit, and I am driving down Dandridge Avenue in my yellow Kia Soul, the one that makes the clients smile, the one that makes them shout “Habari Keseweka!”  I am grateful for a slow day in refugee resettlement: no emergencies, no crises. 

My best friend Rehema and her brother, Hifazi, live just a block or two from here, in a five-bedroom house they bought with their savings and the American Dream, just five years after moving to the U.S. And so on an ordinary day like today, it would be ordinary to see Hifazi passing through here in his champagne-colored van. It would also be ordinary for the cops to be out in full force here, policing the boundary that traces James White Parkway, keeping Blackness out of downtown condominiums, keeping property values high. 

And so the flashing blue lights I see on Dandridge Avenue are ordinary, the two police cars for one speeding ticket are ordinary. But it’s Hifazi, and it’s his gold van, and his door is open, and he is sitting sideways in the seat, legs out of the car, texting on his phone, and he doesn’t know protocol. He’s never heard of the Green Book, and his post-arrival cultural orientation classes taught him police are there to serve and protect, so he doesn’t have his hands on the wheel. 

I go into full bystander mode, full White-Passing Privilege mode, full Karen mode if I have to. I slow down, roll down the window, yell loudly, “Hey Hifazi, are you ok?,” let him know that I’m there, but more important, let the officers know that I’m there, that I know him by name, that I’m watching, that I’ll record them, that I’ll stay there till they let him go. I make a U-turn and pass again, drive circles around this traffic stop, the female officer pointing and yelling at me to “GO!” I call Rehema, tell her I’m with him, that I’ll stay here until he drives off. Her voice is shaking as she begins to learn what Black Americans already know. 

Ames, Iowa—April 11, 2022

My stomach is in my throat as I am pulling up the body cam footage of the Patrick Lyoya murder for a class I am teaching about refugee resettlement in the United States. It has been almost a year since I left refugee work, but nothing I learned has left me. Teaching is one way to begin to think through what I carry with me, what I want to pass on. And so I’ve got ten undergraduate honors students around a seminar table trying to fill their US diversity requirement as I try to condense four years of my work into ten weeks of content.

  It is only a week since he was killed, and I am interrupting our regular curriculum to discuss the video, the one attached to the latest headline about US police brutality. I tell my students that I won’t show them the most graphic part, the killing itself, but that I want them to see the interaction, the way Patrick Lyoya gets out of the car, just like Hifazi did, the way Patrick Lyoya speaks with an accent, just like Hifazi did, the way Patrick Lyoya, who received the same cultural orientation classes that Hifazi did, has been taught from a United States government curriculum that he ought not fear the police.

I’ve taught my students this semester about the dire consequences of language barriers, but this cruelty caught on tape means I can show them better than I can tell them, and so I click play on the worst of all alternate endings to the hundred lives I’ve witnessed. What I am about to show my students explains why I warned my clients about updated license plate stickers and working brake lights. What they are about to see explains why I always felt the need to go off script, why I deviated from government talking points and handbooks about melting pots and newfound freedom from persecution. It’s why I reminded my clients of their Blackness while working within a resettlement system that pulls in donations with photos of colorblind pluralism. The events in this video could have come true for any of my Congolese clients who got behind the wheel. 

And I always wondered what my role was in that institution, my responsibilities as an off-white woman whose father happens to be an immigrant. What responsibility did I have, as a host of sorts, to tell the truth about my home? To leave things out? And who was I, if I’ve never feared for my life along a roadside, to be translating American Blackness for those newly baptized into its brotherhood? I wasn’t the right messenger, but I never could stand hearing a new colleague tell a new client that the police are there to protect them. I couldn’t bear knowing that some of the caseworkers believed it themselves. I know Patrick Lyoya had a caseworker too. I wonder what story she told him. 

So Patrick Lyoya gets out of the car. The officer makes a hand-puppet motion with his right hand as he asks him if he speaks English, and we can see Patrick’s Yes is only a half-truth, and we can see Patrick needs an interpreter, but who would request one from this mocking cop, his barking tone, whose condescension is intelligible in any language? Officer repeats: “The Plate Doesn’t Belong On This Car,” and I am screaming inside that Patrick Lyoya doesn’t know what that means, that a plate is a thing that you eat off of, that Patrick Lyoya doesn’t know DMV or registration or Wheel Tax. Patrick is trying to get his license out of the car, and he starts to circle the hood to get it from the passenger, because he didn’t grow up with Be Still, Obey, Play Dead. And so the officer starts to tackle him and Patrick runs, accustomed to running from danger, from armed rebels in Kivu, the ones who pushed his family into Malawi. Officer yells: “Put Your Hands Behind Your Back,” conspicuously and painfully in English, and he grabs a yellow taser, and Patrick is in fight or flight, and so Patrick puts his hand on the taser, and the cop yells “Let Go Of The Taser,” and the body cam goes dark. 

The sky is gray and cloudy and there’s a drizzle of rain. That overcast sky is what we see when the body cam turns back on, when we see officers compressing the body in rhythmic motion, and we hear a female machine voice saying, “Continue Care—Continue Care— Evaluating Heart Rhythms.” There is no point in any of this. Christopher Schurr shot Patrick point-blank in the back of the head. There is no revival. Any rescue attempts are for show, strategically captured on camera. When the firetruck arrives, rolling up slow, there are no sirens.

I take a deep breath, look at my students, tab over to the video of Patrick Lyoya’s mother, her Congolese Swahili painfully familiar. Nasikia moyo yangu kuvunjika sana: I feel my heart being so broken. The interpretation Patrick needed is provided to his family at last, no doubt arranged by their attorney, Ben Crump, who is accustomed to trying high-profile murders of unarmed Black men, who knows that it does not matter what language you speak if the police decide to shoot you before you open your mouth. Patrick’s mother cries, says she thought she was fleeing to safety when she came to America, but that it was here in Grand Rapids where the bullets finally caught up to her firstborn. She talks about the pain of giving birth to a child, the expectation that a child will bury the mother, the natural order of things. Mtoto ya kwanza anavyopendwa: how the firstborn child is loved. 

I think of Rehema and Hifazi. How their mother’s firstborn son was killed at five years old in Congo, a brother they’d never quite know, the catalyzing incident for them to flee.  Rehema is the oldest now, the only girl, her work as an interpreter attempting to save the lives of countless Patricks every day, her work as a big sister of four Black brothers doing the same. I think of the times we’ve sat together on couches in dimly lit apartments and walked clients through rehearsals of No English, Swahili. I wonder if any of that practice even mattered. 

The press conference ends, and YouTube plays an ad.  I turn to the students and their sober faces. I sit with their silence. I wonder if this teaching, this witnessing, even matters. 

Knoxville—Summer 2021

I perch my yellow car on a hill overlooking the traffic stop, still making my presence known. The officers finish up their paperwork, and I watch Hifazi drive away. I breathe a sigh of relief and call Rehema back. She thanks Jehovah that he’s okay, and I tell her to remind him and all her brothers to keep their hands and feet inside the car, to keep their hands on the wheel. This is why she’s scared to drive in America, she says. She jokes about getting a “mzungu mask,” a pullover Halloween mask that will make her white, less likely to agitate the police at first sight. “But when my accent comes out, they’ll know,” she says, half joking. 

Right about now, Hifazi is pulling into his driveway. 


Summer Awad is second-year MFA candidate in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University.  She was recently awarded an inaugural LANDO grant for migration, immigration, and refugee writing from the de Groot foundation for her collection of creative nonfiction essays about working in refugee resettlement. Her nonfiction has appeared in Chapter 16. Her poetry has appeared in Writers Resist, Exposition Review, and Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, with a piece forthcoming in About Place. Her play WALLS: A Play for Palestine was produced at The New York International Fringe Festival in 2016.


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