New Orleans

The Choices We Make – A Refugee Story

This was originally posted on Medium — https://medium.com/the-refugees/7c5f8c0435c3

Four years ago today, I thought my life couldn’t get any better. Two weeks before, I had made a rush decision. One I’d later consider to the best I’ve ever made and probably will for life. Seconds after Garrett Hartley kicked it through the uprights and sent the New Orleans Saints to their first ever Super Bowl, I rushed into my bedroom to grab my laptop. A minute later my phone started ringing. It was my brother, Randy.

Neither of us felt it was the appropriate time to exchange greetings. The only choice was to repeatedly say something like, “Holy shit… Holy shit… Dude… The Saints are going to the fucking Super Bowl.” After a pause, it was time to spring the surprise on him.

Clicking the confirmation button, I asked, “Guess what?”
“Huh?”
“I just bought a flight. I’m coming home to watch the game with you and dad.”

So many things made it the right choice. Too many actually. But if I had to list a few, I’d start with the smiling fella working behind the counter at the airport rental car place. Then the elderly black woman I ran into on Decatur Street after the game, tears running down her face saying, “I believe I wanna be in that number!” We hugged like an old friends who hadn’t seen one another for a decade or more. It could have also been seeing my dad’s smile after the game ended, who despite rarely drinking, held his champagne glass high making sure he toasted everyone at the party.

One thing trumps it all. Although I wouldn’t realize it until three months later. In May of 2010, my brother died in a car accident. When I traveled from San Francisco to watch the Saints play in the Super Bowl with him, it would be the last time we’d see one another. 

That morning before the game, he pulled up to my parent’s house and got out pulling a few loads of laundry from the back cab of his truck. This was the routine, as his apartment in Hammond didn’t have a washer or dryer. My parents were living in Slidell now. After losing everything in Chalmette, the desire to return to St. Bernard Parish simply wasn’t there. After all, many of her closest friends—her safety net—moved out here. I’m certain none of them ever thought they’d live there, too. They say you can remove someone from Da Parish, but you can’t remove Da Parish from them. I guess you could say that’s why I convinced my dad and brother to watch the game with friends in Chalmette.

Throughout the game, our party was exactly as you’d imagine it to be. Lots of folks catching up while I introduced everyone to my girlfriend from San Francisco. By the time it was over, everyone’s cheeks were rosy. Mine were hurting. We had to go out to celebrate and there was only one proper place to go: the French Quarter.

Mardi Gras was around the corner, but the streets were never packed like there were that night. Strangers from all walks of life high fived as they passed one another. Cars strolling through the crowd blared music while their passengers hung out windows to join in the camaraderie. The smiles on everyone’s faces were gleaming; happiness was everywhere. Someone grabbed my shoulder and turned my attention to Electric Ladyland Tattoo Shop. It was Randy.

“Let’s go get it now.” he said.

Earlier in the day at Winn-Dixie, while stocking up on booze, we made a pact. If our boys won the game, we’d both get fleur-de-lis tattoos.

“I’m gonna get it on my ankle.” he said. I was undecided. I was on board with the tattoo, but not its location. Our flight back to California was midday tomorrow anyway. Being the good brothers we were, we shook on it, agreeing that the next time I was in town the ink would become permanent.

Eventually we called it a night. Slidell was a much longer drive than Da Parish. The following morning he woke me up to tell me I better head out sooner than I had planned. They had just announced what time the Saint’s flight would arrive and it was the same time as ours.

“Why does that mean we have to leave early?” asked my girlfriend.

Easy for her to say. She grew up in the city by the bay during the 80s and 90s. New Orleanians had been greeting their team at the airport after away games since before we were born—even when they lost. And if they did it after a loss, you can be damned sure they’d be doing it after a Super Bowl victory.

Randy was headed back to Hammond in an attempt to catch his first class of the day.

“What nutty professor has class after the Saints Super Bowl?” It was a rhetorical question, but I still felt it was a valid one. Standing in our parent’s kitchen, we pulled one another in for a bro hug. After exchanging I Love Yous, he grabbed his laundry and left.

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A few weeks later he sent me a photo of two Maker’s Mark bottles, except the wax seal on their bottle necks weren’t red, they’re black and gold. A message followed saying one of them was mine and it wasn’t to be opened the next Saints Super Bowl.

While I’ve looked forward to opening it every year, I know the moment could never be as sweet as it was four years ago. Besides, when that day comes and the bottle of Maker’s has fulfilled its purpose—I’ll have kept my promise. Just like I did when I got a fleur-de-lis on my ankle shortly after his funeral four years ago .

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Storytelling

Struggling with the Need to Belong after Hurricane Katrina

This was originally posted on Medium.

 

What is a refugee?

Had you asked prior to August 29th, 2005, I would have painted a picture with broad, distant strokes portraying, only through imagination, a group of Cubans in a converted nautical 1951 Chevy pickup traveling at a painfully slow seven knots toward what they hoped was Florida. After Hurricane Katrina devastated and disrupted the lives of my family, friends, and community, that all began to change. Eight years later, I struggle with my need to belong and the definition of home.

The need to belong ranks third on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Right after the need to eat, breathe, sleep, be healthy, and mortality. The concept of home is essential to our need for belonging. Unless you were a military brat, we all grew up somewhere. There is a fixed point on the map that we call home. For me, that place was St. Bernard Parish. I was born in the next-door-parish of Orleans, but St. Bernard was where I learned to ride a bike, go to school, have my first kiss, and play in a garage band. I always knew that I’d leave, though — explore new places and cultures — but I never once imagined there would be no home to go back to.

I certainly never thought I’d be a refugee. That distantly vague mental picture symbolized by Cuban tragedy suddenly became personal.

Before I continue, though, I’d like to acknowledge some of the most horrific losses during Hurricane Katrina that affected tens of thousands of people, if not more. They were the neighbors and friends. The loved ones. The brothers and sisters. Cousins, aunts, and uncles. Sons and daughters. Husbands and wives. Moms and dads. Their lives will never be forgotten — I will never forget that. Neither should anyone else. Natural disasters can destroy communities, relationships, and entire cities, and many of us will have to endure that pain at some point in our lifetimes.

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I was one of the fortunate. I didn’t lose anyone—just my home and my possessions. The nostalgic videos of Christmas mornings, photos of generations gone by, and personal, one-of-a-kind items were the hardest to swallow. I was able to put things in perspective because there were others who were much worse off than me—those stranded at the Superdome—those trapped in the Morial Convention Center—those trapped on their roofs waiting for help. I’ve always had a knack for internalizing the positive even in the most dire of circumstances. Although many died in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, many were saved, and although the response to that disaster has been the subject of debate and criticism, the crystallized view of humanity that emerged from the stories of survivors and impacted communities was bittersweet in hope and despair in the months and years following Hurricane Katrina.

Some might say I was lucky. I moved to San Francisco, met a beautiful girl, moved to New York City to work in film, and moved back to San Francisco for the beautiful girl. All of these things were not possible if it weren’t for Katrina. Yet, each time I returned home, something was missing. Something didn’t feel right.

Eventually, I figured it out. So did a lot of people.

Like me, Steven Hoffmann was a native of St. Bernard. After graduating high school in 1997, he joined the United States Air Force. During his enlistment, he said, “I couldn’t wait to move back.” After all, it was home. If you moved away from that fixed point on the map, you might understand his feelings. Even if you didn’t love where you’re from, it’s still familiar. When you went home, you ran into familiar faces at the grocery store, ate at familiar restaurants, and maybe even felt grounded. When Steven finally returned home in 2010, everything had changed. “Things changed. People didn’t seem as nice. Going to the grocery store was different.” The close knit community of “Da’ Parish,” as its lovingly referred to locally, used to be a breathing, living thing. It was by all means its own culture.

When Katrina flooded all but 8 of the 27,000 homes in St. Bernard Parish, it acted as an indirect genocide of our hometown. The social fabric of the parish drowned. The compounded effects of a little known hurricane named Rita caused residents to be homeless for months. For some, the easiest way to cope was to move on. Homes in the surrounding parishes were being purchased for more than their worth. The northern neighbor of St. Bernard, St. Tammany Parish, was jokingly called St. Tammanard because of the newly merged population.

When the media began to refer to us as Katrina refugees, I cringed. After all, we were still Americans. We weren’t refugees from other countries. But as our family, friends, and communities began to scatter, the core of who we were was fading away. Home was growing distant in the rearview mirror of our collective exodus. Nicole Bauer LaCava lived her entire life in Chalmette and says this is what she lost the most.

“Our family, friends, and everything we needed used to be literally two minutes away. Now we can’t have a family gathering without someone traveling at least an hour.”

After I moved away, I noticed how deep my relationship with home was when I’d visit. My arrival in New Orleans would spark a frenzy of messages and phone calls—all wanting to get together and catch up. Had Katrina never happened, this would have been an easy task, but with everyone having been displaced to surrounding cities and parishes, it was a logistical nightmare. My brother was in Hammond, my parents were in Slidell, one group of friends were in Metairie, some were in St. Bernard, and others were in Covington. Each of these places was an hour or more away from one another. Add the conflicting responsibilities of kids, jobs, and other obligations then you begin to realize how getting everyone together could be considered an Olympic sport.

Some of us were determined to make it back to Da’ Parish. Folks like Tiffany Clement Andrisani.

“I was one of the people who couldn’t wait to get back to St. Bernard after the storm. We bought a fixed up house in Meraux. I lasted about two years. I just couldn’t do it. The home that I knew was no longer there. The place lacked character. In place of all the home grown businesses that we had grown up with were a bunch of generic, throw ‘em up quick places mixed with the big chains coming in with their new and shiny buildings. Nothing held memories. I can still drive down Judge Perez today and feel like I don’t know where I am.”

Tiffany now lives in Long Island, Nicole lives in Jefferson Parish, and Steven lives in St. Tammany. It took us a while to realize what we really lost in Katrina. What remains of the St. Bernard Parish we knew and loved can only be found in our hearts and souls. And if home is where the heart is, there are stories to be told.

The memories we can never show you will be our burden to carry for the rest of our lives. At least we still have those, right?

You can call us flood victims or survivors. Heck, you can even call us displaced—but without a place to call home, may as well call us the refugees. No matter what name you give us, whether you love or loathe your home — I hope you’ll be grateful that you still have one.

 

 

Eight years ago today, Katrina’s strong winds and storm surges affected the lives of many on the Gulf Coast. My story is one of many, so please find yours and tell it.

Thank you to Swede White, Tiffany Andrisani, Christopher Ard, Carlyn Leeds, Steven Hoffmann, Brandon Cressy, and Nicole LaCava for your contributions.

To the people who grew up in St. Bernard Parish, this is for you … and ya mamma n dem.

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Storytelling

To My Dearest Birth Mother from Joseph Justin

Replying to a thirty-three year old letter

September 24th, 1979, New Orleans, LA

My dearest child,

This may be the most difficult letter I will ever have to write. As I pen this letter I have just returned from sitting with you in the hospital. You were running a high fever and were hospitalized for observation. You are a strong baby and might I add a beautiful baby as well. You are a fighter, and thank God you’ll make it. It doesn’t surprise me, for during my pregnancy we went through some rough times. There were times I wondered if we would make it but, we did. With every month that went by you grew. I could feel you moving around inside me and the love for you created a bond between us. A bond that will be with me until death.

Your ancestors are of good American stock – French, Irish, English – Upper middle class – Educated & Proud.

I am at this date eighteen. Your father was twenty-one. I said was because he was killed in an auto accident. We were young and marriage could have been possible, I suppose, but I felt in order to give you the very best that life has to offer, I would surrender you for adoption. I went to the best avenue open and that was Catholic Charities. Through them I know they would find you the best parents possible. Your adoptive parents love you as much as I do. Please understand my darling little one, I love you, and because I love you so much, I was able to pick a future for you. Please always treat your adoptive parents with the love and respect they deserve. Their star is one of the brightest in heaven.

There won’t be many days that pass that I won’t think of you and wonder about you. When you are older and you want to see me, I’ll always be there for you. Your adoptive parents will be able to assist you in finding me.

Walk through life my dear little one, proud with your head high and walk with the thought that besides your adoptive parents, there is someone who loves you dearly for life and that someone is your,

Mom

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July 1, 2013, San Francisco, CA

My dearest birth mother,

It’s been nearly thirty-four years since you wrote this letter to me. I would have replied sooner but so many things have prevented me. Now, that doesn’t mean that there has been a day I haven’t thought about you – where you were or how you were doing. I used to sometimes pretend that you were in a crowd with me or maybe we were sharing an elevator. How cool would that have been?

My curiosity felt like it would have come to a head when I first tried to find you. Unfortunately, neither my parents nor Catholic Charities could help. You see, not long after you penned my letter and my parent’s letter, my adoption was sealed upon the Act of Surrender. The State of Louisiana told me if you and I signed up for the Adoption Reunion Voluntary Registry, they’d proceed with facilitating our reunion.

I was excited. After all, you mentioned that you’d be willing to see me when I was older. When the letter arrived to inform me of the next steps, I opened it with a sense of purpose – recording to memory the dramatic unveil. Sorry, at this moment we regret to inform you that your birth parents have not registered. I felt my soul deflate through a prolonged sigh like a cheap balloon. There was so much I wanted to say. Even if it were a simple thank you. Eventually your own words would lift me up: You are a fighter. For the next decade or so, I’d use what little clues I had to find you. Here’s what I knew:

  • You were 18 years old, 5’5 and a half, weighed 110 lbs and had brown hair, hazel eyes, and a fair complexion.
  • My birth father was 21 years old, 6′, weighed 180 lbs and had brown hair, brown eyes, and a fair complexion.
  • My birth father died in a car accident prior to my birth.
  • You entered the adoption program in July 1979.
  • You were in 11th grade and employed in retail sales, enjoyed reading, sewing, and cooking. You also had an allergy to penicillin.
  • It did not appear that your parents were still married.
  • Your father was 42 years old; your mother was 39 years old.
  • You had two siblings – a brother, age 19, and a sister, age 16.
  • You were born in and residing in Louisiana at the time of my birth.
  • My birth father was employed as a carpenter and graduated from high school.
  • After my birth, I developed a high fever and was hospitalized. You would visit and call nightly to check on me.
  • You did not complete the Act of Surrender until I was well and discharged from the hospital.
  • You named me Joseph Justin at birth.

Unlike most adoptees, I had a goldmine of knowledge about you and my father. However, each attempt to find you would end in both mental and physical exhaustion. So many possibilities, so many forks in the road. Most recently, I used databases to find twenty-one year old males who died in 1979. It was a breakthrough, but it would eventually break me. The only way to continue my journey was to call the parents and siblings of men who died at the tender age of twenty-one, opening a wound that began healing thirty-three years ago.

The last family I called pushed me away at first – Sorry, our son didn’t have any children – but my phone would ring an hour later.

It had been three decades since their son died in a car accident and here I was, answering to see if, in the off chance, I was the missing piece in their lives. They were eager to help. They were keen on me being their long lost flesh and blood.

I’m a fighter, but the gravity of it all hit too close to home. I’m happy to inform you that my adopted family has been just as amazing as you had hoped. The three of us became four when they adopted my little brother and, like any family, there were rough times but for the most part we were always there for one another – especially after Katrina. While the flood took our home and personal belongings, we hadn’t lost what was most important. We still had each other! After the storm, I thought nothing could break us, but I’d be proven wrong one night in 2010. My little brother died in a car accident, coincidently at the age of twenty-one. For the last three years, my fighting spirit has been dedicated to keeping my family strong, but when those parents reached out in hopes of finding their grandson, I couldn’t help but imagine what it felt like to be in their place.

After we concluded that they weren’t my birth father’s parents, I remained in shock. I stared at the long list of names, the long list of “maybes”, and I couldn’t go on. I might be a fighter, but I’m also extremely compassionate. I can’t do that to another family again.

That doesn’t mean I’ve given up. It just means that I need you to meet me halfway. If you’re out there and you still want to see me, I hope this letter will reach you. And in the event that it does reach you and you’ve changed your mind, please don’t feel bad. Just know that there is someone who loves you dearly for life and that someone is your,

Joseph Justin

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