Drita, My Homegirl
by Lombard, Jenny

As a refugee from Kosovo and a new student at her school in New York City, Drita's transition is made even more difficult when Maxie, a tough African-American girl, teases her for just about everything she says and does, but a special assignment from their teacher makes Maxie more sensitive to Drita's situation and leads to a friendship that surprises everyone involved.

Gr. 3-5. Drita, 10, is a Muslim Albanian refugee from Kosovo and a stranger in her fourth-grade classroom in Brooklyn, New York. Maxie is African American, one of the in-crowd that wants nothing to do with the newcomer-until her social studies teacher charges her with interviewing Drita about her story. The two girls speak in alternating first-person narratives that reveal both their differences and their connections: Drita's mother is having a breakdown; Maxie cannot confront her grief about her mother's death in a car accident three years before. Most moving is Drita's surprise about the ethnic mix in her classroom; in Albania a wall separates Serb students from Muslims. The message connecting schoolyard bullying with war is heavy, but the girls' growing friendship and respect for one another is poignant, as is the climax when Maxie presents her report about what Drita left behind. Steer slightly older children wanting more about the Balkan war to Nadja Halilbegovich's My Childhood under Fire: A Sarejevo Diary (2006). ((Reviewed May 1, 2006)) Copyright 2006 Booklist Reviews.

Two girls from different worlds and cultures come together in this deft representation of immigration and multicultural friendship. Escaping the horror of war, persecution and destruction of their Albanian life, Drita and her family emigrate from Kosovo to New York City. Thrown into the school environment of rival groups and peer discrimination, Drita's lack of English, coupled with her refugee status, immediately places her in a vulnerable position. Simultaneously, Maxie, a typical urban African-American girl, struggles to stay out of trouble despite peer influences and is assigned the task of learning about the new girl as part of her social-studies project. Brought together in this way, the two girls overcome barriers of language and custom to resolve issues they both have in common. Alternating chapters in the voice of each girl reveal more similarities than differences. Both are missing mothers; Maxie is still adjusting to the accidental death of hers, while Drita is coping with her mother's debilitating depression since leaving their war-torn country. Loving and level-headed grandmothers act as surrogates. Lombard does a fine job of portraying characters displaying growth through some serious circumstances while maintaining their childlike qualities. (Fiction. 9-12) Copyright Kirkus 2006 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1

For three days, before I am coming to this country, I can't eat. My mother is afraid I'm sick, and the Americans will turn us away when we get to New York City, but my grandmother said don't worry: now that my father has his American job, no one can turn us away. She said it's just the excitement taking away my appetite. For once my gjyshe is wrong about something: It's not excitement that keeps me from eating my dinner, it's worry. I keep wondering: What if I don't know my own baba when I see him at the airport? It's been almost one year since we are together with my father. The more I think about it, the more worried I get.

Finally, on the day we are leaving for New York, I get so tired of worrying, I eat a big bowl of delicious trahana my grandmother makes for me. While I eat, I think to myself: this is the last food I will taste in my country.

Our plane lands in New York in the middle of the night. At the airport, I can feel how hot New York is compared to the Balkans. Even the air feels different on my skin, sticky and wet. I close my eyes for a minute and take a breath. I think to myself, Now I am breathing American air.

Even though it's the middle of the night, this place is crowded with people. Then I see him: his face is all furry with a red beard he is growing, and he looks thinner, but he is still wearing his Albanian clothes. Now I know it was silly to worry so much. Of course I know my own father.

"Mirė se erdhėt," my father shouts, welcoming us, and sweeps my mother and my baby brother up into his arms. My mother is crying and we are kissing him so much. My mother cried every day that we were in Kosova because we had to be separated from Baba for so long. For one year my father was alone in America, getting money for us to come here. Maybe now that we are together in New York City, she will stop her crying. My father kisses me on top of my head, and we follow him through the airport to the garage where he parked his taxicab. When we learned that my father's first American job was as a car driver, we were all sad that a man who had trained as an electrical engineer had to take a job that was s'ėsh tė nė dinjitetin e tij-not good enough for him. But when I saw my father's taxicab, I thought it was lucky my father's first American job was as a driver. Now we would have a pretty yellow cab to take us to our new home, just like in a movie.

I look over at my grandmother. Gjyshe hasn't said a word since we got off the plane, except to nod hello to her son. Now she looks at me and smiles a smile so big that it covers her whole face.

"America the beautiful!" she says in English.

Sometimes from the way she smiles and tells jokes, my gjyshe seems more like a girl eight years old than an old lady almost seventy.

My father opens the trunk and puts our bags inside while the rest of us pile into the car.

My grandmother, brother and I are in the backseat and my mother is in front.

"Zonjė!" says my father and makes a little bow. Inside, the car smells sweet, like perfume. Gjyshe and I watch silently as my father drives the car down the ramps and tunnels of the airport. Soon we are on the streets, with the lights of America everywhere around us.

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