To Lilac Street, With Love

Kate Brennan
7 min readJan 21, 2021

…my heart goes back to these little lamplit neighborhoods where children read books and paint and hold hands on icy winter nights without warm coats. They are learning little by little that there are some people who don’t want them here. They are faced with a challenge that non-immigrants would never understand…

These kids are fearless.

We’re walking through the dark streets of the Northside. Dirty snow piles on the curb, and the only light comes from street lamps and the fluorescent laundromat across the street where a few people still in work uniforms wait by the large window. This is the place where college students are told not to hang around at night; yet here I am, walking under the shadows of North Salina Street with a program coordinator, two volunteers, and our assembly of twelve kids.

I began interning with Hopeprint in January. A couple days a week I’d leave my ivy-clad college on a bus to be driven into the underbelly of Syracuse. I’d ride past chain link fences and glowing liquor store signs and people sitting on their porches watching the day wind down, and I saw the world crack open before me in brilliant light. The Northside is home to countless refugee families, and Hopeprint strives to activate the refugee neighborhoods by hosting empowering, educational programs for refugee families.

Children walk freely down Lilac Street and pop their heads in and out of the Hopeprint houses, which are like second homes to them. Program coordinators, volunteers and Hopeprint families come together as one community to cook meals, share stories, organize events, and take care of each other.

Their efforts are not performative. In fact, the greatest gestures occur between the lines, often slipping through the crevices of Hopeprint’s larger image. One night, I was spending time in Littles Land, a converted garage where toddlers play with toys and have dance parties under strings of Christmas lights, and a program coordinator talked to me about a sleepy child he was holding. The child didn’t trust many people, especially because the family’s house had been broken into awhile ago. Some Hopeprint volunteers came over to change the locks so that the family could stay safe. He also told me that the child’s mother came to them and said she wanted to learn how to bake a cake, so some volunteers came to her house and taught her how.

And speaking of cake, there was another night when, at a table full of chatting teenagers, I heard a conversation next to me between one of the girls and a program coordinator. The girl’s birthday was the next day, and the program coordinator asked her if she wanted cake for her birthday. The girl, who is very shy, smiled and nodded her head. The program coordinator said to meet her at Biscotti Cafe the next day and she would get her cake for her birthday. There were a few other kids around them who overheard, and she invited them too.

This same program coordinator took another girl to get her hair braided, paying out of her own pocket. It wasn’t until I started spending time with these girls that I learned the complexities of black hair — the braiding, wrapping, relaxing, etc. I remember watching with such awe as the girls came in with different hairstyles, sometimes every week. One girl had thin braids with gold charms, another had long, thick braids, and another wore her hair short and natural. The variety of ways they wore their hair and the unfailing confidence they carried was a beautiful thing to witness. Many of them came from different countries and had different experiences, but as they compared braiding salons in small circles before program started, their hair bonded them as sisters.

On a Monday evening, you can walk up the wooden stairs of 142 Lilac Street, leave your shoes in a pile by the door, and find refugee women sitting in a circle and talking about their lives while practicing English. The first evening I spent with them, they learned different terms to help them describe how they are feeling when they visit a doctor, and the volunteer told them that they have a right to a translator. Then, they sat down for dinner together. It was close to International Women’s Day, which was fitting because I have never met a group of women that has inspired me more. As they sat around the dinner table, reaching for bread and water with the same strong arms that hold sleeping infants, they were a living celebration of strong women.

Many of them are mothers, and to me, they embody the cause of the whole organization. Hopeprint is a mother to the children who come to the programs. It gives them meals, rides, hugs and words of encouragement.

I sincerely hope that these words of encouragement will give them all the confidence they need to grow into the people they dream of becoming, because they are some of the kindest, smartest, funniest children I have ever met. They’re tough, too — way tougher than I was as a kid.

Even the littlest ones hold hands and skip through the ghostly neighborhoods at night, with no fear of the dark.

Sure, they have childhoods similar to other kids. There are scraped knees, TikTok dances, two girls wearing matching leggings because they’re best friends, and a third girl upset because she feels left out. But there’s another element to them. Many children in the Northside have more responsibilities to help out their families. (When we ate at Habiba’s Ethiopian Cuisine one night, the person refilling our cups was a boy who looked about seven.) Many have struggled to learn English as a second language. Many have traveled across the sea from places of war and destruction, and some have experienced unimaginable loss. They have a sacred, unspoken way of looking out for each other that I haven’t seen in other children; I could see the protective drive of some of the older kids looking out for their younger siblings.

To me, they are the strong lungs of Hopeprint. They are all growing up together, looking at our broken world through a shared window of hope.

When I escape campus a couple nights a week to come here, the culture shift is too strong for one city. The university quad is a flock of Canada Goose coats, and everyone complains about the cold. In the refugee neighborhoods, many children don’t have warm winter coats, and yet they brace Syracuse winters without complaints.

There was one night that a smoke alarm went off at 129 Lilac, so everyone went outside to practice fire safety. I wrapped my denim jacket around the shoulders of the girl shuffling ahead of me and rubbing the goosebumps on her arms. The grateful expression on her face as she held it around her tiny frame like a tent made me want to single handedly take a sledgehammer to capitalism.

On North Salina Street, the teenagers have their program in the Hopeprint office. I liked spending time with them because they all had such distinct personalities, and they carried stories inside of them like breath. There’s a seventeen year-old boy who taught me new social media lingo such as “SFS (shoutout for shoutout)” every week. One evening, as I shook the snow from my jacket, I asked him and his sister how their day was. They looked at each other and laughed uncomfortably. As I asked what they were laughing at, the girl held up her right hand to show bruised knuckles. Someone at school had said something rude about a person in her family, and she was not going to stand for it.

In the purple of her knuckles, I saw the fierce devotion these kids have to their families and home countries. I saw their strength, their struggle, and the fire that burns under them.

Another night, I stayed late and missed the bus back to campus, so I took an Uber. The Uber driver was a refugee from the Congo, and told me about the war that tore his home country apart. He spoke without bitterness — only compassion. He told me about the orphanage he opened there, and how he travels back whenever he can to see his family.

“This country is a golden ticket,” he said. “This country is peace. You can do what you want to do.”

At the end of the Uber ride, I asked if I could take his picture and make a short post about him on Hopeprint’s social media. He was excited to have his picture taken. He took a minute to check his appearance, making sure his shirt didn’t have any wrinkles. And he smiled.

Today, as I feel the turbulence of the Black Lives Matter movement and as I watch people put real energy into making refugees, who have already experienced so much pain and loss, feel unwelcome, my heart goes back to these little lamplit neighborhoods where children read books and paint and hold hands on icy winter nights without warm coats. They are learning little by little that there are some people who don’t want them here. They are faced with a challenge that non-immigrants would never understand — they have the challenge of feeling at home in a place where many are rooting against them.

That’s what Hopeprint is for. It’s the team that stands behind New Americans and roots for them. Every day I spent with Hopeprint, I learned more about family and community. I found it in the hot tea shared by women on Monday nights on Lilac Street and the bottles of red wine passed around the table at gala planning meetings. I found it in the last week of the winter program for the teenagers when the coordinator said, “This doesn’t mean we have to stop seeing each other. Shoot us a message if you ever want to get a soda, hang out and talk. We can do that.” In the valentine that a five year-old boy made for me, turning my entire week around. In watching kids have open, guided conversations about racism. In the little kids running through the quiet streets who taught me to not be afraid of anything.

These kids are fearless.

--

--

Kate Brennan
0 Followers

Journalist, Newhouse grad, subpar snowboarder, rock climber, caffeine addict & 80s horror movie fanatic.