Chance meeting with Portland Somali family transforms young author's life

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Sarah Thebarge's new book, 'The Invisible Girls,' blends her religious background, relationship issues and cancer fight with the struggles of immigrant Somalis. 'Writing their story helped me understand my story,' she says.Sarah Thebarge’s young life was splintered into a thousand pieces when she landed in Portland on a cold, drizzly January day.

Battling breast cancer at 27, Thebarge endured 18 months of chemotherapy and other treatments, had a mastectomy to remove both breasts, nearly died of sepsis, and, in the midst of everything, her boyfriend of two years broke up with her while they sat in an idling car in a Starbucks parking lot. He ordered a caramel macchiato at the drive-through window and drove her home.

Thebarge’s life dreams collapsed around her. Shattered, Thebarge felt invisible to the world; just another sad case of a tumbled-down life people ignore every day.

Then she met the Somali girls. They saved her life.

“What ended up happening as a result of my life falling apart was this really beautiful encounter and this story that never would have happened if life had gone exactly as I had planned,” says Thebarge, 34, from Lancaster, Pa., the daughter of a minister in the conservative Baptist church.

Nearly two years after she moved to Portland, Thebarge’s chance encounter in fall 2010 with two of the five Somali girls and their harried mother on a westbound MAX train from Gresham changed her life. Thebarge turned the encounter first into a series of blog posts through the Burnside Writers Collective (, and then into a 260-page book released last week detailing the girls’ lives, their struggles to live in a weird foreign city thousands of miles from their African home and their joyous impact on her cancer-ravaged life.

Sarah Thebarge's book 'The Invisible Girls' was published April 16 by Jericho Books. The 260-page book sells for $19.99. Thebarge will read from the book at 7 p.m., Thursday, May 2, at Annie Bloom's Books, 7834 S.W. Capitol Highway.Her writing chronicled months of interaction with the girls: 9-year-old Fahari, 8-year-old Abdallah, 6-year-old Sadaka, 4-year-old Lelo and Chaki the toddler. The girls’ mother, 26-year-old Hadhi, was separated from her husband (who she says was abusive) and alone in a strange city without adequate language training, job skills or money to feed her family.

(Thebarge declined to provide the family’s last name. She wanted them as main characters in her book to remain anonymous. The girls’ ages are probably off by a few years because when the family arrived as refugees in the United States, they had no birth certificates, so federal employees estimated their ages.)

Thebarge’s friendly greeting to a tired Chaki on the MAX train that sunny fall afternoon — she held the sleeping toddler on her lap and played a game with Lelo — led to a friendship with Hadhi and guidance on living in America. Thebarge recognized something in the girls and their mother: the lost look of a refugee who was invisible to just about everyone around her.

“A lot of times when we see people that look different from us on the outside we assume that they are different, that we don’t have anything in common,” Thebarge says. “When I first meet this family on the MAX, they’ve got different skin tone, different religion, different ethnicity and language. Everything was different. But when I started to think about their story, I realized that I knew what it was like to be a little girl in a fundamentalist culture. I knew what it was like to be a refugee of sorts and almost die and end up in a new town with just clothes and have to figure out how to start life over and somehow assimilate back into normal life and not be able to explain to people what you’ve just gone through. So I feel like I recognized them on MAX even though I didn’t know them, because I’d been an invisible girl, too.”

Invisible Girls Trust Fund

Jericho Books released Thebarge’s “The Invisible Girls” on Tuesday, April 16, seven years to the day that the 27-year-old Thebarge was told she had breast cancer.

Originally, the book was going to be focused on how the cancer had changed Thebarge’s life. She wrote every emotional and gut-wrenching detail about her diagnosis and treatment, eventually sending manuscripts to a couple of literary agents, who politely declined to handle it because they thought the story was too sad. (“There was no place for the reader to breathe, no bright spots,” Thebarge says).

Meeting the Somali family turned the project into a blend of Thebarge’s battle with cancer, her life’s pivot point and the Somali girls’ exuberance in facing their own situations.

“Writing their story helped me understand my story,” Thebarge says.

In the book, Thebarge chronicled the family’s struggles to overcome crushing poverty, their humorous look at Portland’s wacky culture and their attempts to cook dinner when Hadhi had no idea how to properly work the stove or oven (nearly everything was burned).

Early in the project, Thebarge decided that her writing skills could be leveraged to provide something of value for the girls: a college education. Thebarge says her college degree helped her turn from an “invisible girl” to a strong woman, so she wanted the same for the five young Somalis.

The Invisible Girls Trust Fund was born. Most of the money from the book’s advance and royalties is going to the fund, Thebarge says. That gives people who buy the book a chance to do more than just read an interesting story, she says.

“When you read the book, you’re not just having the opportunity to read about these girls’ past, you have the opportunity to contribute to these girls’ future,” Thebarge says.

Cancer’s impact on life

Easter weekend in 2006, when Thebarge was told she had advanced breast cancer, was the beginning of her terrible journey through life’s pain and cancer’s pummeling effects. It was one of the lowest points in her life.

“I was just completely shattered, so I became this unrecognizable collection of pieces,” Thebarge says. “I feel like slowly God has put those pieces back together, but it doesn’t look like what it used to look like. I’m a very different person because of what happened.”

Seven years ago, Thebarge earned a premed degree from The Masters College in Santa Clarita, Calif. She had just graduated with a master’s degree from Yale’s physician assistant program, and was preparing to enroll in the Columbia University journalism program (she wanted to be a science reporter for a major news magazine).

One evening, a bloody discharge from one of her breasts turned her world upside-down. It was ductal carcinoma.

Her New Haven, Conn., friends offered sympathy, gin and tonic, prayers and a chorus of “Amazing Grace.”

Thebarge’s book also details struggles with her religious beliefs and trying to come to grips with cancer’s impact on her life. During the entire episode, Thebarge says she never lost faith, but realized that as a woman in a conservative evangelical Christian denomination, she faced serious challenges. Thebarge says she was expected by her church to be submissive and, in a word, invisible.

“When I was a kid, I was anxious and internalized a lot of things,” Thebarge says. “So I focused on the part of the Bible in which God was angry. I grew up being terrified of God, thinking that he was just about to smite me if I did anything wrong.

“I just ran away. I sold everything, resigned my job, got a one-way ticket to Portland and ran away. Then I thought God certainly must be done with me now. If he’s just about to judge me on a good day, what was he going to do to you on a bad day?”

Flipflops in the winter rain

Thebarge moved to Portland in early 2008, took money she had saved for journalism school and used it as a down payment on a house in Gresham and began working as a physician’s assistant in a local hospital’s emergency room.

She chose the Rose City because five of her California college friends lived here. Today, five years after her chemotherapy, Thebarge is healthy and taking medications to keep the disease at bay. She works part-time as a consultant to ZoomCare and full-time as communications director for Southeast Portland’s Imago Dei Church.

Thebarge had recovered enough five years ago to enjoy a vacation to Paris. On her return, she decided to take a French class and enrolled in a downtown Portland program. It was on a MAX train traveling to the afternoon class that Thebarge met the Somali family.

She’s convinced the meeting wasn’t a coincidence. Hadhi and the two little girls were miles out of their way (they lived in a tiny apartment near Southeast 40th Avenue and Powell Boulevard) and appeared to be lost.

About 8,000 Somalis live in the Portland area, according to Djimet Dogo, director of the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization’s Africa House. Since civil war broke out in Somalia in 1991, more than 150,000 Somalis have resettled in the United States.

Large communities of Somalis live in Northeast Portland. Southwest Portland’s Markham School and Jackson Middle School also have large numbers of Somali students.

Thebarge befriended Hadhi and the girls, marveled at their resilience, reveled in their successes and was astonished at the poverty that gripped them. When Thebarge first visited their apartment a few days after meeting on the train, the children were eating a dinner that consisted of a bowl of ketchup in which they dipped pieces of moldy bread scavenged from a grocery store trash bin.

The girls had no shoes or socks, and wore only flipflops to school in the winter rain. Hadhi would often take the children to empty parking lots to search for loose change, Thebarge says.

With help, Hadhi received services through a Portland-area domestic violence center, the family also got food stamps and rent assistance.

Saving their lives

Even as she chronicled the family’s struggle in blog posts, Thebarge recognized in Hadhi the same kind of limitation imposed by conservative religious beliefs. Hadhi (who Thebarge originally thought was in her 40s) had not learned to read or write and she knew only basic English.

Hadhi had lost three sons to violence in Somalia. The family — including her husband — fled to a refugee camp and they eventually were resettled in Arizona. When Hadhi’s husband could not find work, the family hired a man to drive them to Portland.

Months after Thebarge befriended Hadhi and the girls, the family moved to Seattle to be near a distant relative (and to be part of a much larger Somali community). Today, the girls are thriving in school (“They think it’s the best thing in the world, getting to ride in a school bus every day,” Thebarge says), and have figured out how to navigate in America.

Thebarge visits them every couple of months. She says it was a gift to write about the girls’ lives and watch them grow. She says: “I was a completely broken person who didn’t believe in love, didn’t believe I could love somebody else, and definitely didn’t believe that somebody else could love me. By them just loving me unconditionally, and showing me how to be exuberant in the face of losing a lot, these little girls really saved my life.”

“The Invisible Girls”

Sarah Thebarge’s book “The Invisible Girls” was published April 16 by Jericho Books. The 260-page book sells for $19.99. Thebarge will read from the book at 7 p.m., Thursday, May 2, at Annie Bloom’s Books, 7834 S.W. Capitol Highway.

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