Taylor Milch was the 11th-grade winner of the Montclair Literary Festival Short Story Contest. COURTESY CANDY COOPER

Taylor Milch was the 11th-grade winner in the first Montclair Literary Festival contest for Montclair High students held last spring, for her story “My Friend Amira.” Runners-up for that grade were Lily Cunningham and Evangeline Unger-Harquail. The contest received 77 entries from Montclair High School students.

“My Friend Amira”
By Taylor Milch

As I sit here, getting my hair done by my best friend and maid of honor hours before I walk down the aisle to meet my new husband, I can only wonder where she learned how to make such elegant beach waves and tie them into a perfect updo when she herself always covers her hair.

June 24, 2027, is my wedding day. December 28, 2016, was the day I met my best friend, Amira. I remember the night clearly. My mother wouldn’t let me go to Emma’s party. She claimed that “this would be a good experience” and that “I had a lot to learn from these people.” I still hear these words that I whined at so indignantly so clearly in my head. Thoroughly annoyed, I went to the cultural dinner, or so it was called, and I claimed I would learn nothing except that I would be missing out on a fun night with my friends.
We were greeted with a warm welcome.

“You must be the Milches! I am Shayma, this is my husband, Anas, and my daughter, Amira.” I couldn’t remember those names if I tried, I muttered to myself. We walked inside the seemingly welcoming house and at the time, I had no idea it would be the place where I would spend so much of my teenage years. The smell inside hit me like a ton of bricks. I plugged my nose until my mom not so subtly texted me that it was rude. I took my hand off my nose and winced. After what was probably about ten seconds, however, I found myself craving the food I was smelling.

It smelled like meat. Not one I had ever tasted before, though. Or maybe it was fish, no definitely not fish. Ah, vegetables with lamb and maybe some spices. That might have been it! Whatever it was, I immediately craved it, and before I knew it, it was time to eat.
I still had yet to speak a word. The parents were having a seemingly involved discussion while the plates lay still in front of us. Shayma took the time to describe each dish to us but all I can remember is the falafel: a dish that turned into a favorite of mine over the years. After prayer, we began eating and happily conversing while being surrounded by perhaps the best food I had ever tasted… sorry, Mom! I practically scarfed it down, barely even listening to the conversation that was going on because in order to understand the thick accents that surrounded me, I would have had to pay much more attention than I was.

After the meal, my mother ushered me downstairs, telling me to talk to the young girl who looked to be about my age. I’ll admit, it was weird at first. Amira wore a hijab, something I had only seen before in movies and photographs. We had a friendly conversation, and soon enough I came to the conclusion that we could actually be good friends. We liked shopping at the same stores, we both wasted way too much time on social media, and even listened to much of the same music. When we went back upstairs for dessert, Amira introduced me to the sweet taste of baklava and harisi, and a refreshing drink of mazahr: an orange blossom water. Shortly after dessert, it was time to go and I left with an invitation for another dinner the next Friday night.

In the car on the way home, my mother seemed pleased with me. “It looks like you may have made a new friend,” she announced. It was a weird thought to me, making friends with a girl wearing a hijab.

Little time passed before Amira and I became close friends. One day while driving around town, with Justin Bieber blasting on the radio, she told me about her family and the decision about moving to America. “Leaving the house became dangerous,” she said.

“Something as simple as going to get carton of milk was scary. Soldiers nearly shot my father four times. It was not safe. My family asked if I was okay with leaving, I was scared but I knew America was where people are free.” Her words hit me hard, and if that wasn’t enough, she even told me about the process of getting here. “We took almost nothing with us. A few photo albums and one suitcase each, that’s all that fit.” I wasn’t even sure how to respond. Do I comfort her? Do I turn up the radio? I decided on going to get frozen yogurt, one of our favorite treats that we could enjoy together without worries of Amira’s religious diet restrictions.

I remember the day Amira texted me in all caps with the most excitement I had ever seen. Her text read something along the lines of, “GUESS WHAT!? MY COUSINS ARE COMING TO AMERICA!” She was so happy, yet on January 28, 2017, a date we will never forget, her family was restricted access to the United States after the newly inaugurated President Trump signed orders banning refugees from Syria.

Our hearts melted. Amira wondered why she was lucky enough to start a new life, but the cousins she had grown up with were turned away. She didn’t understand why parts of America were so filled with hate and discrimination. I again felt myself speechless. There was nothing I could do, nothing I, or anyone, could say to clear up the confusion. Our country was split down the middle. It was no longer the country of welcoming arms that she had dreamt of coming to. It wasn’t the same America she grew up with pictures taped to her wall, hoping to one day live in the promised world of freedom.

Not long after finding out Amira’s cousins were detained, I remember attending a candlelight vigil with her and her family. I forget exactly what it was honoring, likely the family members still fighting for their lives back home in Syria. What I do remember is the feeling of family. How I wasn’t all that different from the people that surrounded me, although we grew up in such different circumstances. I remember that they, too, had loved ones that they missed. I remember the feeling in the air of family, of peace, and definitely not of discrimination or of hate. The flickering of the candles reminded me of the candles that were held in honor of the Sandy Hook victims. The weeping of mothers reminded me of the weeping of a close friend after her daughter passed away from cancer.
We are the same, I thought. What does so much of this world not see?

So while I am sitting here, on my wedding day, with my best friend Amira curling my hair, I am wondering where she learned to make such curls. She has told me that I taught her so much over the last ten years; she said that talking to me improved her English, she said I helped her make friends, and that I helped her experience a culture that she has come to love. I thought about what she told me and realized she taught me so much more. She taught me that life is not fair, that some people do not see the world the way we do, and that while someone may have a different past than you, you are still so similar, and most importantly, you are both still human.