Asha was never gonna leave Dubai, even though most of the once glorious metropole was destroyed in the floods twenty years ago. But her parents have other plans for her daughter. And before Asha knows, she finds herself on a plane to a new world. Where everything seems to be better than at home, even if Asha can’t see that. The encounters she has on her way to Illinois university have made her form her own opinion on the people from overseas. But as much as she wants to go back, she is also reminded of the shadows of her past and starts to have flashbacks. Will she be able to handle her new life and her homesickness? Or will she take the next flight back home?
Her eyes were filled with happiness. Ruida and Jamal recognized their daughter’s laughter immediately among all the other children. Today is a happy day and a shimmer of hope. For the last years it hasn’t been sure they would make it. When she was born they named her Asha – the literal translation of hope. And since then it has seemed to be true. Asha was their light in their darkest times. Times when they didn’t have enough to eat and had to sleep in community centre halls with hundreds of other people who had lost their possessions after the big flood. Everything was falling into place. Their daughter would go to one of the best schools in their area in Dubai and study or get a job and after that, she could live on her own and hopefully survive in this harsh world. The homeroom teacher was as young as Ruida and Jamal. It was an unexpected pregnancy which caused their families to disown both of them. They said their young love would never last. It’s been almost 6 years since then. They had no idea if their relatives even survived the big flood that first hid Sydney, then New York and at last Dubai and other cities located directly by the sea. Everyone was terrified and if that wasn’t enough, an earthquake destroyed almost half of the city that hadn’t already gone underwater. The teacher sensed that Ruida was lost in her own thoughts, so she first welcomed Jamal with a head bow to show respect. Jamal did the same thing. Seeing her husband move, she finally became aware of the situation and also bowed. She showed her teeth which weren’t the whitest but still made her smile more friendly. “Who is your daughter, madame?” “Her name is Asha.” Ruida made eye contact with her daughter and waved at her, so the teacher could tell her apart from the others. “That is a very nice name you gave your daughter. In these times we indeed have to have hope.”, responded the woman with a burning fire in her eyes. You couldn’t tell whether she actually teared up because she suddenly turned away from the two and spoke directly to everyone in the classroom. “Good morning, dear children and parents! My name is Ms Halasay and I’d like to welcome you to your first day of school. We are so thankful to the community for giving us the opportunity to teach these young bright kids again after everything that happened. I hope we’ll have a lot of fun and also learn from each other. I now would like to excuse the parents and let them say goodbye before we start with our first lesson.” Asha came running into her dad’s arms. Her mother kissed her on the head and then let her go back to her seat. Ruida and Jamal looked at her daughter one more time before leaving with the other parents.
The days had quickly gone by. It was getting darker earlier and the nights seemed to last forever. Asha was a cheerful girl despite their poor living conditions. The three of them were cramped into a room with no windows and no water supply. Ruida was doing her best, besides working at the community centre, to provide the essentials for her family. Before the flood Jamal used to work in one of the big banks in Alumni Drive, which had secured a stable income for the young parents. Due to the water masses all servers were destroyed and everyone’s data with it. People lost all their money. Now Jamal was taking care of Asha instead. He was the one who told her bedtime stories at night when Asha couldn’t fall asleep and the noises of construction work let the paper-thin walls tremble.
On her graduation day, Asha looked at herself in the split mirror in the kitchen. Her mother was doing her hair. Asha didn’t even know her mother was able to do such things. “ Why won’t you do my hair more often?”, she asked. “Aren’t you too old for that? Besides you won’t be home once you go to university.” “But I mean, I’m only gonna be on the other side of the city. Of course, I’m gonna visit you and dad often.” It was rather fortunate that Asha didn’t see the look on her mother’s face at that moment as her eyes suddenly appeared teary. She didn’t respond to Asha’s words. Instead, she tried to change the topic. “And what are your friends wearing today? I am sure that they will look just as beautiful as you.” She groomed her daughter’s hair and put the last hair strands in place. Then she gave notice to Asha to stand up and look at her. The moment Ruida looked at her daughter, she was close to bursting out in tears. Her daughter was everything to her, and as her mother she wanted to make sure that Asha would have a wonderful life. The decision to send her away was not something they decided overnight. Her husband and she spent months searching for an exchange programme that they could afford. They eventually chose the University of Illinois to which they send Asha’s curriculum to without her knowing. And only a few weeks ago they had gotten a response from the dean welcoming Asha to the university with a full scholarship. Ruida and Jamal could not have been happier. But it still felt like they were betraying their child. Even if they had the best intentions, Asha would never want to leave them. This was about to change, whether she liked it or not. The decision was already made.
Her parents had woken her up early without telling her what was going on. Asha was looking forward to the surprise because she didn’t expect the worst from happening. They even gave her a headband to cover her eyes, so she couldn’t lurk where they were headed. Asha didn’t notice how her mother had packed two suitcases full of her belongings the night before. They brought her to the new airport 40 miles outside of Dubai. As they walked towards the gate, Asha was sensing that something was off. She suddenly insisted on removing her headband, making it harder for her parents to keep pushing her forwards. “Just tell me already where we are, Mom!”Silence. “Dad?” Still no response. Of course the airport was crowded and a lot of people were eager to pass them by as quickly as they could. “Mom, I’ll be back in two months don’t worry, I’m going to study English really hard, I promise”, someone was passing by so that Asha could hear exactly what he said. At this moment Asha found out where they were. She stopped abruptly. Her parents crashed right into her. She tore the headband off off her eyes and in that same moment, her eyes widened like the ones of a goldfish. She couldn’t believe what she saw. She couldn’t believe that her parents would do something like this. She simply couldn’t believe this was all happening right now. Her dad gripped her shoulders with both hands so she wouldn’t run away, while Ruida saw the look on her daughter’s face and started crying. “Honey, you know we love you unconditionally and we want what’s best for you. This is why we decided to give you the opportunity to start somewhere new. Somewhere that hasn’t been destroyed. Somewhere where you can get a better education.” “I cant believe you’re doing this. You didn’t even ask me.” Now Jamal was the one talking: “Princess, listen to me. I know you will hate us for that we’ve done to you. But you should know that this was all for your sake. Maybe you can understand that someday.” “Someday? Why can’t I understand this now? Oh, yeah, right, this is bullshit! Why would you ever want to send me away. I never wanted to leave you and our home. You send me away without allowing me to say goodbye to my friends.”
It felt like she had passed out. Asha woke up. Her head was hammering. She remembered breaking down in front of the gate. Everyone was staring at her. Her parents basically shoved her into the plane. Asha looked at the screen above her. She had been asleep for almost four hours. The seats beside her were taken by two people around her age. One girl and one boy. Both seemed unhappy with the situation they were in. The girl was biting her nails and staring at the wall with a dreadful look at her face. The boy, on the other hand, was less subtle with his actions. His feet were moving to the beat of his fingers which he drummed against the armrest between Asha and him. Asha tried to drown out the noise but it was impossible. The drumming continued the whole time the boy was awake. Luckily he also needed to rest in between for some time. While he was asleep, Asha spent this victory thinking about the last days she had spent with her friends and family. The fact, that she didn’t get to say goodbye to them, was the hardest part of all. She despised her parents for kidnapping her and making this decision without her. At the same time, her heart longed to see them again. Her mind was racing like crazy. What would this new life be like? How would she be able to come back with no money? Would she ever get the chance to go back? What are people like overseas? Why had it to be her? Without noticing she slowly drifted back to sleep. The next thing she heard was: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ll soon be landing in Illinois. Please remain on your seats until you are given further instructions.” Even though this was her first flight, Asha had been more nervous about what would wait behind the gates than the aeroplane possibly crashing down. The boy next to her – awake from his power nap- was doing his showdown. It seemed like he spent the whole flight preparing for his final drum solo. Asha wondered why he still hadn’t gotten a cramp in his fingers. Unfortunately, the boy seemed used to it, so she would have to listen to this noise for the remaining half an hour of the flight.
The moment she set foot outside the plane, she was surrounded by sparkling lights and blinking screens in every imaginable colour. Inside the giant entrance hall, thousands of people were busy starring at their wrists or talking to themselves. That’s what Asha thought at least. Only later she would find out how wrong her assumption had been.
Asha was almost carried by the swarm of people. She was overwhelmed by every little detail her eyes could make out. The people here looked so different and smelled different as well. She forgot for a moment why she was here. Her brain wasn’t functioning anymore. But no one noticed the young girl close to tears, standing all alone in the middle of Illinois airport without a clue where to go first. Her parents had given her all the papers she needed overseas but in this hectic chaos, she couldn’t even find her luggage. After some time, she followed the directions to an info guide. She was longing to talk to somebody who could help here. At her destination however they were only electronic machines to type in questions. No human interaction at all. But she needed the help, so she walked towards one of these devices and was already confused at the first look of it. Isn’t this much more complicated, she thought, why would somebody replace a human with a robot like that. Nevertheless, she asked where she could find her luggage and how to get to the address her parents had told her. Within seconds the machine spat out the answers on the screen and printed it out for her to read. First, it asked Asha if she would like to scan a QR code with the same info, but Asha declined not knowing how she could have done that. With the information from the robot, she picked up the two suitcases her mom had packed for her and went on the search for a taxi. It didn’t matter how much she waved with her arms, not a single driver would stop for her, while everyone else got into a cap without even raising their pinky finger. Asha thought this was more than strange. What Asha didn’t know, was, that the taxi service here worked solely through a digital network. The drivers registered their route on the app and the passengers booked themselves in. Everyone had a user ID so that the cap drivers could locate their costumers through GPS. Hence Asha didn’t have a chance at getting a spot. She then found the courage to ask a woman in her forties who was getting in the car next to her, if she could come along. The woman let out hysterical laughter and slammed the door right in front of her face. But to her surprise, the taxi driver held up the door next to his seat. “You look a bit lost my dear. You can hop in. I’ll take you.” The woman in the back chocked on her water, when she saw the girl again. She was about to say something but decided not to, in case the cap driver would give her a bad rating. This would be more severe than the small trouble from the rude behaviour of a childish girl. If her account rating went down she would not have access to all the cap drivers in her region as they would be more likely to decline her. That was the only thing that stopped her from throwing this unbothered and rude girl out of the cab. She didn’t say a word the whole drive as always and that’s why she got one of the best ratings in her area as well. She was busy responding to emails from her company. The taxi driver stopped downtown on the 34th Avenue where she had a meeting in 30 minutes. Without a look back she left the cab. Asha was a silent lamp next to the driver, but for a different reason. Her parents had always told her to be careful around strangers and especially men. On the other side, he didn’t look like a rapist or serial killer, but you never know, said Asha to herself. “ I hope you don’t mind me saying this but you don’t look like you’re from around here, am I right?”. It was her first time speaking English with a native speaker, so she was very shy to say the least. “ I’m from Dubai. I have just arrived here.” Asha made sure not to give out to much information. The cap driver nodded understandingly. “So where do you want me to take you? Have you got an address?” Asha crammed in her backpack looking for the little scrap of paper her parents had given her. She read the unfamiliar words with a kind of misleading uncertainty so that the driver asked if that’s really where she was headed. Asha replied with a simple yes to convince him. The driver sensed the awkwardness she radiated and concentrated on the road again. Asha had been too nervous to take a look outside – until now. It was already dark outside but the street lamps on the side of the highway and the illuminated silhouettes from the unfamiliar skyscrapers painted the city in the deepest blue and white shimmer. Asha had never seen such a picture come to life. All they learned in Dubai was about their history and the wonderful things Dubai had once to offer. But that was no more. Since then, Asha had always dreamed to build up her hometown again to regain its glory. She was overwhelmed by the scenery outside the car. Illinois was a big city she had only heard about. After New York and L.A. were flooded people fled into the centre of the country. Illinois once belonged to the 50 states of The United States of America but the state gained so much popularity that it evolved into a big city with over 30 million citizens. This number was out of the imaginable for Asha. But Illinois was only one of many. The population didn’t seem to decrease even with such horrible circumstances. The majority of the people were now in their thirties and forties. Former states such as Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma experienced the same rise in population. It was crazy to believe that she was going to live here. For the first time since she had arrived, she felt excited. But shortly after this adrenaline rush she felt guilty about it. She didn’t want to admit that her parents were right. This was a big opportunity for her but still. They did all of this behind her back and therefore she still felt betrayed. All of her friends must think of her as selfish and arrogant for not even saying a word. She knew Emam would have killed for this chance. Asha was drenched with guilt and shame. The only way to win her friends back would be to take the first flight back. But with what money. Asha’s parents told her that the dean would check all her expenses. That meant she couldn’t buy a plane ticket without him noticing it. “We’re here!”, shouted the cap driver enthusiastically. He regretted it after seeing the shock on Asha’s face. Asha nodded again. “Thank you for bringing me here.” “Do you want me to help you with your luggage?”, he asked in a friendly way. But Asha still wasn’t sure about this man, so she declined. She said she could handle it herself. The two suitcases felt like the only two things she had ever owned in her entire life which might be actually true considering the size of their old home. Home. Home was in Dubai. But she wasn’t home anymore. Everyone was home except for her. The tears started rolling. First unnoticeable but then they came like a rain shower. She was crying and walking at the same time. She didn’t look back at the driver after giving him his money. She didn’t even know where she was headed and she couldn’t see a thing from the watery tears in her eyes. Somehow she found a campus plan which guided her to the dean’s office. It was almost 11 PM so Asha didn’t think there would be a single person in the office. Oh, how she was wrong. The office seemed as busy as in the daytime. Phones were ringing and behind a glass wall, you could hear a heated conversation. Asha began to sweat. She would have to communicate with these people only speaking English. Nobody seemed to take notice of her when she entered the room. She was like a mouse inside of a big barn. She had wiped away the tears from before but she could not completely hide them due to her puffy and red eyes. She coughed purposely to see if somebody would look up from their desks but it was impossible to drown out the other noise simply by coughing. Asha stepped up front to what seemed to be the dean’s secretary and tapped on the wooden furniture. “ I have an appointment with the dean.” The secretary didn’t look up. Asha was about to turn around. “You can wait here, my dear. He’ll be finished soon.” She said this while tipping. She quickly scanned Asha’s face with her glasses and then typed again. Asha waited for around 3 minutes. Someone loudly put the telephone holder back in its place. “He’s ready to see you, Miss Talil.” Asha could not remember telling the woman her name, though she was sure only a few students looked like her. The dean was sitting behind the glass wall. Before she could knock the door swung open on its own. She was very surprised by the interior design of the office. This is not what she expected from look through the glass wall. It was colourful and also kind of crammed full of extraordinary antiques. The dean himself was sitting in a swinger chair and looked quite unique. He was wearing Shorts and a loosely fitted shirt, which made her question if he really is the dean but he welcomed her with open arms. “My dear Asha, I am so glad that you are finally here. We have new and exciting things coming your way. So get ready to experience the opportunity of a lifetime.” Wow, she thought, he sounded like one of those old TV commercials she watched in school for research. Asha responded with a simple sentence: “Thank you for having me.” “Well, well…we’ll get you settled in right away. Mrs Thompson will show you the dormitory and then you will check in with me tomorrow afternoon. Is that alright, my dear?”
“Thank you. Of course.” The dean stood up and walked towards her. Asha took a step back but he already pulled her in for an awkward and somehow inappropriate hug so Asha thought. It was the first physical contact with a man other than her father. Asha froze. But the dean didn’t seem to have noticed. Mrs Thompson then entered the room almost 10 seconds after the Dean had mentioned her. Was this some type of telepathic connection or was it just a coincidence Asha wondered. Nevertheless, Asha was glad that Mrs Thompson had interrupted their hug. “When you’re ready I will show you your new room, miss. Your luggage has already been transferred there.” Right, Asha had completely forgotten about her luggage. The two suitcases were on the heavier side and she only had been in the office for less than a minute, how could they be already in her room?
Mrs Thompson was now the one who took Asha’s hand and guided her through the building. Everything looked so different to Asha. The style, the materials, the architecture. The corridors were wide and white. It felt like she was in a hospital. It was the complete opposite of the dean’s office she had seen prior. As they were passing the hallway Asha caught a look into a dorm where door was slightly open. A student was laying on her bed and was wearing a strange device around her eyes. Asha had never seen such a thing before. Why would she put that thing on her head? Asha was about to ask the secretary but right at this moment she again gripped her hand firmly, pressed Asha’s index finger on a sensor on the wall. Next to them, the dorm with the number 6740 opened on its own. “There we go. Before you enter and after you leave your room, make sure to log in your fingerprint, otherwise, you are denied access to 6740. Got it, my dear?” The secretary’s facial expressions and her words didn’t seem to match. Her face said that she wasn’t at all interested in Asha, yet she kept calling her ‘my dear’. Her mom always used to call her that. But wouldn’t know that, right? Was this some kind of trick? Asha was still very sceptical about Westerners. She didn’t really understand their actions nor traditions. But she wanted to learn. That’s something she was here for anyway. Might as well go all the way in. With these last thoughts, she closed her eyes and fell asleep within seconds.
About six in the morning a siren blasted through the speakers that were installed in her room. Asha was sitting as straight as a poker. A familiar image appeared in front of her eyes. She wasn’t in her room anymore. She was out on the streets back in Dubai. Her mother was with her. They were hiding. The sirens were howling and it was dark. No one except for them was out on the street. “Asha, my dear, you have to be quiet, can you do that for me? I’ll be right back.” 7-year-old Asha nodded while sobbing. Ruida lurked behind an old rusty car to get an overlook of the open road. It was just a side alley but you could hear the noise getting louder. Normally they’d have to be inside at this time but Asha and her mother went grocery shopping and talked all the way back home. They lost track of time. Ruida was anxious about what would happen if somebody caught them out on the street without a citizen permission. In Dubai this violation could get you into jail. She wouldn’t risk her daughter’s life and education for her mistakes. They had to get home as fast as possible. Then she suddenly saw a silhouette in the shadows. The person was carrying something that looked rather heavy. Both of their hands were occupied. But every other step they would stop and look around as if being followed. For a split second light shone onto the person’s face and Asha’s mom almost let out a scream. It was Asha’s homeroom teacher- Ms Halasay. She has been teaching Asha for over a year now. But what was she doing here? The young woman suddenly tripped over her long skirt and fell into the mud. She was panicking. Without a second thought, Ruida rushed to help her. What she didn’t notice was, that the sirens were almost there. “Ms Halasay, I am Asha’s mother. What are you doing here?” “ What? Mrs Talil? Please, you have to hurry, you shouldn’t help me. You should be in hour house as well.” “Why? Are you being followed? What is going on? – “ Is Asha with you?” – “Yes” – “Then take her with you and leave. Now!” Those were her last words. At the end of the road, a group of armed men appeared. They were the source of the sound they heard earlier. Ms Halasay pushed Ruida to the ground and at the same moment, you could hear a loud gunshot. Then another body dropped to the floor. Ruida was still in shock but managed to crawl using only the strength of her arms. She had to do it as silently as she could. She was holding back tears. After the seemingly longest 10 seconds of her life, she reached the car from where she had spotted Ms Halasay. She wasn’t able to get up on herself. But the group of men was out of reach. They didn’t seem to have noticed her, otherwise, she wouldn’t be laying on the ground alive. Ruida couldn’t believe it. Asha’s teacher was just murdered right in front of her eyes. She had experienced a lot of violence in her life but seeing somebody getting shot would be a lifelong shock for her. Then she remembered what Ms Halasay had told her last. Asha. She needed to get her. Where was her daughter? She spotted a little human ball huddled to a concrete wall next to the car. Asha was silently mourning. Clearly she had heard the shot. Asha had experienced exactly the same thing as her mother except for one – she didn’t see any of it. So when her mom left their hideout, Asha wondered when she would be back. When she heard the gunfire, she must have thought Ruida was the one who got shot. Asha – indeed – was trembling with fear but was too shocked to move. “Asha..”, whispered Ruida. She still wasn’t sure if the gang had really left. “Asha, it’s me, mom.” Asha opened her eyes. Ruida could see the terror in her daughter’s eyes. Then she started sobbing relentlessly. Ruida grabbed her daughter and hugged her as tight as she could. “You’re safe now. You’re safe with me.” She would mumble these words to calm down her daughter. But she knew that she was saying this to also comfort herself. “Mom, I thought you were dead.” Asha was still curled up and shaking. Ruida stood up and carried her daughter back home. They didn’t look back. Ruida was sure, she wouldn’t have been able to get up if Asha hadn’t been there. Asha had nightmares for a year after that, as well as Ruida. To this day Asha didn’t know that her old homeroom teacher, who apparently left the country to study abroad, was the one shot that night.
“You’re safe now. You’re safe with me” Someone said those words – over and over again – trying to calm Asha down but it was only making it worse. How would she survive in a world without her parents? Or her friends? The same person patted her back. Asha still didn’t want to open her eyes. She was sitting on her bed crying. She couldn’t stop the tears from falling down. “It’s okay. You are safe. Nobody will hurt you. It was only the morning alarm to wake us up.” Asha was starting to think rationally again. Those flashbacks were from such a long time ago. She looked into a pair of static grey eyes with a strange silver shimmer in them. “ I feel like I have to introduce myself now that we are probably gonna be roommates.” Asha was still in shock but nodded. “ I’m Asha.”, she stuttered. “I know…I’m Serena.”