One by one they arrived. At dawn, their silhouettes stretched down the sidewalk, their grey figures waving back and forth in the brisk sunlight. Some of the figures stood alone, their hoods pulled up over the heads to protect themselves in the cold January air. But most stood with their arms outstretched and their gloved hands entwined with the hands of their children standing next to them. Their rosy faces nearly hidden underneath layers of clothing and covered by hats and scarves, only their breaths in the cold air showed signs of life.
Manhattan was always full of people, but this morning, a Saturday, the crowd that had gathered at 263 W. 38th Street stood in silence, a stark contrast to the bustling traffic around them. The crowd, primarily women and children, stood fidgeting in the cold as the people waited. A man near a building checked his cell phone for the time. A young girl standing by her mother stood with mouth agape at the people; her mother reached down and wiped her nose. A woman with a dark complexion wearing a hijab and a name tag walked through the crowd of people hanging out candles; as she went, the flame from the first candle she had lit followed her as people shared the light.
The girl with the runny nose watched this woman work from the side of the crowd where she stood. She could barely see around the legs of the taller grown-ups who stood around her, but she peered cautiously around her mother’s own legs to see what this woman was doing. She was still walking through the crowd, handing out candles to adults and leaning down to the children she saw and whispering into their ears—children who made up the majority of the crowd that had gathered now. The girl tugged at her mother’s pants. “What is she doing, Omi?” she whispered.
“Hush, Zafirah,” her mother said. “Wait until she gets here.”
A few seconds later, the woman with the name tag leaned down into Zafirah’s face. Zafirah’s eyes widened in fear as this stranger approached her, but with her mother’s hand on her head and the woman’s smile in front of her, she turned to face the woman.
“Hi there,” the woman said. “I’m Esther. What’s your name?”
Zafirah didn’t respond, and instead looked down at her winter boots. Her mother, Manaar, put her hand on her daughter’s shoulder in encouragement. “Zafirah,” the girl whispered, almost inaudibly.
“Zafirah? What a beautiful name,” Esther said. “Well, Zafirah, I’m glad you’re here. I have a very special task for you. Would you like to know what it is?”
Zafirah’s fear wasn’t abated, but her curiosity was too strong to refuse. She nodded, and the woman leaned down to speak her ear for a moment. After finishing, she looked up at Manaar, who smiled back. “Does that sound like something you can do?” Esther asked. Zafirah nodded shyly, but her small smile beneath her scarf betrayed her excitement. She looked up at her mother expectantly and started waddling away toward the door of the building where Esther had instructed her to go.
A line of other children, none older than eight or nine years old, stood in front of the glass doors to the building, where a dozen adults stood behind folding tables with colorful posters behind them with letters and words that Zafirah couldn’t read. She craned her neck to see what was going on, but the mass of children and their tall parents was too much for her to see past. She waited impatiently with her mother and watched as the other children gleefully walked back from the tables past her, cradling something in their arms.
Finally it was Zafirah’s turn. The man behind the table smiled at her as she approached, her chin barely cresting the top of the table to see him. “You must be one of our special helpers today,” the man said. Zafirah nodded; her mother beamed.
“That’s wonderful,” the man said. “Just a minute.” He turned around momentarily and reached into one of the several large boxes behind him and pulled something out. When he turned back toward Zafirah he gently set down on the table a large red brick with some writing on it. Zafirah was confused.
“These are our special bricks,” the man said, pushing one toward Zafirah. “Don’t worry. It looks heavy, but it’s not — it’s plastic,” he added, with a knowing glance toward her mother. “Are you ready?” The girl nodded and reached out with small, mittened hands. She, too, was surprised at how light it was when the man placed one in her cupped hands, and she clutched it more confidently already.
“See, it’s not that bad, is it?” the man said. Zafirah shook her head. “Now that you have this brick, you have a very special thing to do, okay? Do you see where all those other children just like you are lining up?” He gestured a few feet away, where other restless children were standing with their own bricks. “We’re going to take a walk, and it’s very important that you hold onto that brick so everyone can see it, okay?” Zafirah nodded. The man smiled. He then straightened up and addressed her mother. “We’re starting at 38th and 5th, so if you want to head down that way you’ll see more staff.” She thanked him and turned around, her daughter in tow.
Zafirah turned from the table with as much pride as the other children before her, and she walked with her mother down a few blocks on 38th Street to join the crowd of more than 100 children and their families. Police officers were standing on the edge of the increasingly crowded sidewalk making sure no one was venturing into traffic, and Zafirah eyed them nervously when she walked past. She shifted the brick to one hand and reached for her mother’s hand with the other. Across the street businessmen and locals walked briskly through the New York City streets; a few turned to watch the crowd gather, but most ignored them.
They reached the intersection of 38th and 5th and Zafirah let go of her mother’s hand. “I’ll be walking right next to you, okay?” her mother said. Just then, she saw the same woman who had been handing out candles earlier walk past her, instructing the parents to stay against the walls next to their children; police officers would stand on the edge of the streets, but the organizers wanted the children to be seen first. “We’ll be moving shortly,” Esther added. Manaar stepped back against the wall and waved at her daughter. Zafirah stared nervously for a moment but then remembered she had been chosen for a very special task, and she held her head higher and carried her brick with more conviction. She waited for the signal from the people in front for her to start walking. When it came, she took her first step timidly and her second step with confidence.
And so they walked. Block after block after block, past buildings with people gaping out of them, past stopped cars in the streets in which impatient people glared at them. Several times drivers honked their horns or rolled their windows down to shout things that Zafirah didn’t understand, but each time they yelled she glanced over to notice a curling frown on her mother’s face.
But Zafirah didn’t waver; she held the brick steady. She stayed part of the procession for the seventeen blocks north on 5th Avenue as the mass of silent protestors ebbed forward.
After a while, the crowd stopped moving. Esther walked back in the line of the children, pointing to the shiny glass building in front of them. Zafirah looked up: the skyscraper towered above everyone. She couldn’t see the top of it. Suddenly she felt a tap on her shoulder and realized the children in front of her had moved forward while she was staring agape at the colossal structure. She gripped her brick confidently again and ran to catch up with the crowd. Grown-ups were standing on either side of her as she neared the tower, with its shiny, darkened windows and its gold lettering emblazoned on the west side of the building. The clock outside the building read just before 10 a.m.
Zafirah waited in line again. She could see the children carrying the bricks were all being called to the front. When it was her turn, she walked slowly and deliberately toward the front of the building. A pair of police officers stood there, too, eyeing everyone that came near. She made eye contact with one through his dark glasses and felt a sensation of fear flow through her body. But she righted herself and looked straight at the people in front of her wearing the bright yellow vests, like the people who had given her the brick and the people passing out the candles. They had smiles on their faces; they looked friendly.
She walked toward them, her short little arms outstretched carrying the brick closer. One of the women gestured for her to place her brick with the others. So Zafirah walked toward the building, where a wall of plastic bricks was beginning to be built, each one brought there by a different child bearing a different story. Zafirah held hers by both hands and set it down on top of the growing wall with help from a volunteer working there. She let go of the brick and stepped back, counting the layers of plastic bricks that were slowly being built outside the building, blocking the doors from the light outside. Seven, eight, nine, ten, she counted to herself, then paused — the rows of bricks went on, but Zafirah didn’t know what number came after ten. She furrowed her forehead in concentration but was gently nudged away by the workers who were trying to keep things organized. She backed away and turned around, looking for her mother’s eyes.
When they met, she climbed on her mother’s back for a piggyback ride. From that viewpoint, Zafirah could finally see everything.
“Wow…” she breathed.
From her mother’s shoulders, Zafirah could see the whole throng of people who had arrived there that morning. The sea of protestors, people from all walks of life, spanned from the glittering tower next to Zafirah now all the way down 5th Avenue. They dotted the streets all the way through the city, wearing yellow and holding signs in solidarity. The candle-bearers still stood in a line, too, next to the rest of the children who were waiting for their turn to build the wall.
Manaar smiled at her daughter’s reaction. “They are immigrants,” Manaar said to her daughter. “Like us.”
“What’s an imm-ah-gant?” Zafirah whispered down in her mother’s ear, who only smiled.
Manaar felt the warmth of her daughter’s arms gripping her tightly and the joy of being surrounded by people supporting her — other people who had fled political crises, war-torn countries and other atrocities, like the ones from home that Zafirah did not remember and hopefully never would. She watched the crowd of immigrants and allies walk past her and around her stand in support for the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Manaar was entranced for several moments, tearfully watching the crowd huddle around her at the golden door to the gargantuan tower, a surprising new bastion of Americanness. She was jolted back into reality when she felt her daughter lightly press her knee into her back. Glancing over at the tower, she saw the layers of bricks being stacked higher and higher, building a wall of protest outside the building within which hatred itself was manifest.
She was filled with fire and turned toward the tower and its wall. Her daughter didn’t know what this meant yet—she didn’t know how to fight. But she would.