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My surroundings disappear; all that’s left in the world is the phone pressed to my ear and the sound of a stranger falling apart. Panic and fear whirl, forming a maelstrom in my chest, pulling in and vanquishing my thoughts. I control my breathing, stockpiling the confidence needed to fill my role as the herald of devastation. I will not abandon Mary, the constituent on the phone, or my commitment to national service. An intern for U.S. Representative Judy Chu and the one Mandarin speaker in the office, I am the only one who can take care of her.
“I’m sorry,” I say haltingly in Mandarin. My eyebrows knit and my thumb runs nervously over and over my scabbed over cuticles. I feel my lips reluctantly form the words. “But the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services can only approve her visa after five years.”
Both Mary and her husband have cancer, and are desperate to have their daughter move to the U.S. Her outburst of tears is the sound of loneliness and the abandonment of hope. I find myself recalling times when it was me who needed help. I'm eight, crying after realizing that my parents' divorce would be real and forever. I'm twelve, shell-shocked after hearing about my grandmother's cancer diagnosis. I feel Mary's pain as if it were my own.
Despair and frustration well in my chest. I feel useless, listening to her weep. My words of empathy are less effective than a Kleenex.
“There has to be something you can do. I need my family,” Mary pleads, choking as she tries to hold back her sobs.
The word “family” is jarring. She reminds me of the special bond that I have with U.S. Representative Chu’s constituency. My family, too, immigrated to this country, and as an Asian American with most of my family still in China, I also pine for my relatives. In this moment, Mary and I become family. I place Mary on hold and search online for other options that can allow her daughter into the U.S.
Returning to the phone, I share my findings. “Humanitarian Parole or a travel visa can grant one year. It’s hope. One year with your daughter can still be enough time.”
For a few agonizing minutes, all I hear is Mary’s uneven gasps for breath.
“One year,” she sighs, and the line goes dead.
As I gently replace the phone back to its cradle, my emotions are as raw as Mary’s. I know that every case I work on will be personal.
I appreciate like never before how much I can help someone. With one phone call, I realize, I can change the course of someone’s life. I know that my actions matter. I vow to never undervalue my ability to serve.
I know that I’m not just an intern, not just a high school kid. I am responsible. The constituents need me. I am the last few fraying threads of the societal safety net, and I’m determined to catch them—every last one.