The way her tongue clicked as she switched from French to Arabic, her mother listening via Skype from thousands of miles away in Lebanon; it all was such magic.
Her black boots were pushed in the corner near her dresser, the laces lying lifelessly on the floor. I wanted to take a picture of her so badly as she slept, not in a creepy way, but because she was so serene and peaceful. The way her hair fell over her face, the way she laced her fingers loosely in front of her lips, like she was praying.
I will admit I did not know where Lebanon was when I first heard of it, nor did I understand true beauty or true compassion. I wasn’t aware of any person who could put aside all her worries and help the people she loved before herself.
Then, I met JoAnna Farkouh.
When I went to Humboldt State for my first year, I had many roommates who did not work out. I was moved to an apartment complex that hosted students over 21. I am 19 currently. My first roommate there was a drugged up young woman who was struggling with herself. It came to the point where I could not do homework sitting in a hot-boxed room surrounded by bags of weed and hallucinogens. I was moved around the corner, into a room with an international student. Her name was Joanna. She was a small, light skinned Lebanese girl with long black, twirling hair that touched her wide hips. She had dark eyes and thick eyebrows. She was, in my opinion, the definition of natural beauty.
Automatically, my first thought was she must not speak English very well.
“You sure have a lot of boxes,” she said in a light, concerned voice after we moved my things in. “I’m glad I was able to leave a good sized space for you.” Her accent was barely there. We went to bed quietly, I laid there for an hour or so going over the events of the day. I was sad and a bit scared to be in a new setting with such older people.
Over time, we learned we had a lot in common. JoAnna and my old friends from around the corner would have cook-offs: She would serve feasts to the six of us, seasoned with Middle Eastern Spices, delicious dishes with wondrous smells and tastes. My friends would respond with some more familiar food: food, pasta, ice cream over large chocolate chip cookies, and salads with feta cheese. She grew close to my friends, which I liked. Almost everyday she was Skyping her mom and her large labradoodle dog named “Scooby.”
“Scooby, Scooby!” She would coo and call at him in French.
Looking at a map one day, I noticed where Lebanon was. Right next to Syria. I thought back to how much Syria was in the news.
“Sometimes, we don’t have electricity,” she told me. “Other countries often drain our water.”
“Do you ever feel unsafe?”
“…” She looked down for a moment.
“There are these enemy outposts that border our country. Sometimes, they create circles around our cities, like Beirut [where she lives].” She sighed.
“They have more weapons than all of our military. So we just let them sit there and hope that nothing happens.”
I looked out the window at the pink and purple sunset over Humboldt Bay. What would it feel like to fear each day in your own country? I closed my eyes for a minute.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
One night, she started getting angry when talking about her previous roommate, who had moved out early (to my advantage).
“It makes me mad,” she huffed. “She would drive down to Sacramento every weekend then come back and cry because she missed her family and boyfriend so much.” She turned away to hide her face.
“Does she not realize,” she choked, “that my family is thousands of miles away?!” Tears streamed down her face as she climbed down the bunk bed.
“Oh, JoAnna.” I said, put my computer away and climbed down from my own bunkbed.
I embraced her gently as she cried into my sleeve.
“I miss my mom so much,” she croaked.
Suddenly it was the last day of school, my mom was almost finished loading my things into our truck. Joanna knew it was time to say goodbye. Her dark eyes were sad and stormy, and tears brimmed as she forced a smile.
“You have been such a good roommate,” she said, her accent thickening as she cried. I could almost feel the lump in her throat. Wait, it was my own. Suddenly I was crying. I grabbed her into a hug as I tried to control myself.
“I will see you again,” I kept repeating. Then the tears dried, the last hug was given, and I was all the way home in my bed tossing and turning.
I loved JoAnna, in such a special way. She was my friend, she was my roommate, she was my big sister. She was the person I hoped to be some day. She was a trilingual, beautiful, smart, kind woman who would go so far. But after she went back to Lebanon I noticed her Facebook updates were a bit melancholy.
“Is everything okay, roomie?” I messaged her a few days ago. We still called each other “roomies,” even though we would never room together again.
“Yeah,” she replied quickly. “I just need to get out of here.”
She wants to return on a permanent visa in hopefully a year, she told me later. I worry about her every day. She was a special person who opened my eyes to the other part of the world I was pushing out of my life because it wasn’t affecting me. I realized that there are a lot more things I need to be thankful for rather than just food on the table and a place to sleep. I am thankful for my health. I am thankful for my education. I am thankful for all the opportunities I have been given. But I am most thankful I was able to meet such a beautiful person as JoAnna. She is a friend for life, and whether she’s thousands of miles away or beside me eating lunch, she’ll always be my beautiful Humboldt State roommate from Lebanon.