Hello everyone! My name is Katrina Badowski. I am a sophomore at Loyola University Chicago as an Anthropology/Sociology major and Psychology minor. I am currently enrolled in Anthropology361–Issues in Cultural Anthropology: Refugee Resettlement. In this Service-Learning class we simultaneously study the issues of forced migration and refugee resettlement throughout the world and immerse ourselves in the local community of refugees in the Rogers Park area. A classmate & I are assigned to a specific refugee family, who we visit at least 3 hours a week; then we are to post weekly blogs about our experiences. This is my first blog! (Just a heads up they won’t always be this long).
My partner Christina Chen and I have been assigned a refugee family that moved from Nepal to America in February 2010. Ama is the mother, Afa is the father, Di is their 12-year-old daughter, Dep is their 8-year-old son, and Billy is their 2-year-old son. They are ethnically Bhutanese, but 18 years ago, before Ama and Afa met, their families were forced from their homes in Bhutan to live in Nepalese refugee camps. It was not until afterwards that Ama and Afa were arranged in marriage. In 1 of 7 camps in Nepal, they started their family amongst 130,000 refugees. Once it was decided that they were to come to America, they got their immunization shots and packed a suitcase for each person that could not exceed 40lbs each. Afa’s mother and brother came with them. They had a connecting flight in Paris, which was the first time they had experienced elevators and human conveyer belts (nevertheless airplanes). They had another connecting flight in New York before arriving in Chicago. This was the first occasion they had seen snow. The 7 of them now live in a 1-bedroom apartment in a building with a broken intercom and dysfunctional elevators; many refugee families from all over the world currently reside in this apartment building as well. They now have a refrigerator and running water, things they did not have in Nepal. Afa works at a thrift store and is the sole provider of the family. He also attends ESL classes (ESL=English as a Second Language) along with his brother. Di and Dep walk 10 minutes to school. The family uses food stamps (US federal-assistance program to provide food to low- or no-income families) at the local market.
You might be surprised to know that I have attained all this information completely through communicating with this family during the 4.5 hours Christina and I spent with them this week. We met them for the first time on Saturday, 09/25/2010 at 1:30pm which lasted for 2 hours, and then visited again on Sunday, 09/25/2010 at 1:15pm which lasted for 2.5 hours. I am very impressed and ecstatic about the progress we have all ready made in getting to know this family. Stepping aside from the facts however, I would like to share with you some of my experiences and reactions.
Because the intercom was broken, another family let us in the apartment building while they were coming back from the market. Upon arriving at their apartment door for the first time, Di opened the door without knowing who we were and agreed to let us in when we asked. Christina and I later reflected that this is a safety concern for the children, especially for the fact that she was home alone at this time. We attempted to communicate to her who we were but she looked confused. We asked her where her parents were and after a couple attempts to communicate what we were asking, she signaled us to follow her down the hall to another residence. There we learned that relatives lived in the same floor, and they frequently shared much of their time together in each other’s places. There we met Ama, Dep, Billy, and Grandma. We quickly mimicked the way they pressed their hands together in front of their chests, as in prayer, and slightly bowed while we said “Namaste” as they had done to us. Then we walked back to their apartment down the hall to visit.
Their living room has 3 beds, a table, and 7 or 8 lawn chairs against the white walls. We went to sit and I noticed a backpack with Tinkerbell on it. Overly eager to connect with the children, I immediately commented to Di about how cute it was and asked her if she liked Tinkerbell. I was quickly taken aback when I found out she doesn’t know who Tinkerbell is. I saw her folder with Cinderella on the cover and asked her if she knew who Cinderella was. She said no. Looking back, I shouldn’t really have been surprised, but I was. I took for granted that a 12-year-old girl living in America would know who Tinkerbell and Cinderella are. She doesn’t even know what Disney is. A similar phenomenon occurred when I commented on Dep’s Chicago White Sox T-shirt that he was wearing. He does not know who the White Sox are—the MLB team of the city that he lives in. These instances illustrate the interesting aspect of refugee culture in America. They obtain many of their items through Salvation Army or donations of the like, and as a result they wear or use many things that have American symbols, words, or pictures that they do not know or understand. I had never considered this affect of refugee resettlement and so it blew my mind that these people know so little about the country and culture that they now live in. It doesn’t even phase them. They are unaware of the things that they don’t know, or even of the things they don’t have. I immediately self-reflect about the American culture, and specifically my own life. Name brands and fashionable items are an important part of my life. This family may not even know what these concepts are. I feel selfish and spoiled in this instance of realization that my American materialistic culture has affected me so much. We hope for Christmas gifts and designer bags while people halfway across the world hope to wake up to their parents and children still alive and well. We do not even think about these people but literally millions of them are making that very wish right now, even as I type this.
Di and Dep are the easiest to communicate with because their young minds can adapt to the new language quicker than adult minds. We often rely on them to translate between us and their parents, uncle, and grandmother. In one conversation I asked Di if her family had any pets in Nepal and what kind of animals were native to their village area. She told me that they had a pet cow that provided them with milk, and that wild elephants and monkeys would frequently come out from the jungle. I was very impressed with such an exotic description, and assumed that the wild animals were magical and pleasant experiences. I excitedly asked her “Did you get to pet and ride the elephants? Did you play with the monkeys?” She explained to me that the elephants were “bad” because they were a threat to safety and the people would have to flee the village to avoid danger that the elephants may cause. Monkeys were similar (although she did say that some were friendly). I felt very naïve to assume that wild animals from the jungle are just as they are portrayed on TV and in cartoons in our culture. I think Di understood that it was an honest mistake so she laughed. I am glad we can talk and laugh together about her old life, and I am very interested to learn more.
The family had never before used internet before living in America; now they absolutely love it. They (especially the children) are always on YouTube and Facebook, which is a convenient device to learn about American culture but still cherish their old culture by looking up videos and keeping in touch with fellow refugees in America they once knew in Nepal. Di showed us a video on YouTube of her and her friends performing a traditional Nepali dance at a local Refugee Festival earlier in the year. She looked beautiful in her traditional Nepali outfit, while she was in her element dancing to the traditional Nepali music. I told her that I, too, love to dance. She became very excited about this common thing we shared. Even though we belong to different cultures and have completely different pasts, we can still relate to one another through such a simple interest we share. I showed her some internet videos I am dancing in, and she loved them. It turns out she showed her friends after we left, and the next day they all asked me if I could teach them “American dance” next time I come to visit. I am SO excited to share this with them and make them happy. I am glad I have their approval and that they like me. For a while we shared dance videos with each other on the internet. One thing that concerns me is that the children have unrestricted access to the worldwide web, a concept that their parents do not comprehend as dangerous. They may inadvertently run into dangerous or inappropriate content for their young eyes and be exposed to things they shouldn’t see. Or worse, make relations with online predators. If such an event happens, their parents would have no way of knowing. I will definitely be watching over this throughout the semester.
This blog is all ready way too long and I still have so much to share! I will be posting again soon, seeing that I visit tomorrow morning. I hope you enjoyed learning about my experiences thus far, and I hope you have gained awareness about the issue of refugee resettlement! Follow me because I would love to share as much as I can to spread awareness and common knowledge about people like these that I work with. This is something I all ready really care about and I know my dedication and passion will only grow deeper as the semester progresses. I am very excited!