Today (written on 9/22/2011) I visited my family after a long day of classes. I had left my last class feeling very angry, irritated, and plain old tired. Three hours later after visiting with my family, it is amazing how clear-headed and refreshed I feel.
While I met 3/4 of the family last Friday, today was the first time I met the eldest sister. From the start, it was clear that this she is the glue and the heart of this family. She has a constantly smiling face and upbeat, 100mph voice, no matter what the subject of conversation. With the best grasp of English in the family, this sister is not only an uplifting presence but she is clearly also the family’s ambassador to their new lives in America. She openly explained to my partner and me her family’s story– of how her family had moved from Bhutan to Nepal many generations ago, how her grandparents and parents had grown up in Bhutan, how the Bhutanese government changed their views of people of Nepalese heritage when she was born, how her family was forced to return to Nepal, and how her family lived in a refugee camp for 18 years. She used the word “difficult” to describe her story. I could only imagine how difficult it must have been and how any vocabulary, no matter how advanced, would most likely be lacking to describe such a journey. Yet, as she told this story, she never stopped smiling and she said that whenever she thinks her parents appear to be thinking of “difficult things,” she dances and sings to make them laugh. Her indomitable, optimistic spirit is amazing and, I think, a huge reason why I returned from my visit so happy.
In addition to hearing the family’s story and meeting the eldest sister, today was the first time I was able to help the younger sister with her homework (Pythagorean theorem), the first time I prayed with the family at their altar, and the first day I shared a meal with the family. I am very excited for many more “firsts” with the family- including taking them to the library or finding them a Buddhist temple. I am looking forward to building a close relationship with this beautiful family. I got on the El after my visit, smelling like aloo and daal- full in the physical sense but also full in the way that comes from having connected with other human beings.
I actually had a great first meeting with my family! I heard that others were having trouble, so I went in very weary of what may happen, but it turned out alright. It was a little awkward at the beginning because the mother of our family doesn’t speak English really well, but we were getting along well enough, and her 4 year old daughter was the cutest thing I have ever seen! Her mom put on Nepali music and this little girl was dancing holding a hello kitty umbrella! It was seriously adorable and kept the mood light, which I think made it a lot easier for a first meeting.
It was a crazy night because my partner and I only planned to stay for a half hour or so, and ended up staying for three! The mother made us coffee and brought out apples and grapes for us to snack on. And as soon as the kids realized we were there to help, they busted out the homework! It had been along time since I simplified math equations, but strangely enough I had a good time doing it! The oldest son, who’s 16 needed help with his environmental science homework as well and it felt really good to be helpful. he spoke English well for someone who has only been here since June, but still struggled with understanding words like biodiversity and such, which let’s face it, those words are hard for people who are fluent English speakers.
It was a great night and I only hope the rest are just as fruitful!
We are beginning another year of our befriending project with refugees coming to Chicago. Several students were able to continue working with families and their resettlement agencies over the summer and that helped us bridge the gap between semesters. Of course, we hosted World Refugee Day http://www.wrdchicago.org/
again in June, but we are eager to increase our efforts again now that students are back to school.
With the passage of time, our connections with the different ethic communities in the refugee population have grown and we enjoy the support of new community leaders who want to promote our program. I have greatly enjoyed working with our friends in the Burmese Karen community lately. This population deserves help in adjusting to life in America, which would be difficult for anyone in their position. On Saturday I had another meeting with a Karen woman who has been a supporter of our work and a great help to the Karen people in Chicago. Setting up partnerships between students and refugee families is not always easy because the families do not speak much English and rarely have phones. My friend has graciously offered to serve as a facilitator and promoter of our program — making referrals of interested Karen families and setting up meetings with students. Of course, she does all this while working M-F for up to 10 hrs per day as a cafeteria dishwasher and taking care of two children and a husband. Meeting kind people like this is what makes it all so rewarding.
At our meeting, her husband served me a cold pickled tea leaf salad (Lehpet Thohk) and a steaming mug of instant coffe-cappecino type drink — yum-o. I raved so much about the salad that she sent me home with a mix for it that she purchased at the local Thai grocery store. Can’t wait to make my own. Of course, I brought bananas and clementine oranges and promised to bring her some fresh tomatoes and onions from my garden in exchange — she was thrilled to learn I was a “farmer” because she and her husband were also farmers. We then commiserated on how difficult it is to farm and to get used to city life in Chicago! She was excited to tell me about other refugees who had gardens in the neighborhood. That really rekindled my interest in pursuing the goal of assisting in the development of refugee gardens here.
Burmese Karen wearing Thanaka
Each time I visit, I remember our original meeting. I was introducting some students to a newly arrived Karenni family and we had learned that a translator lived in that apartment building. When we knocked, she arrived grogily at the door wearing smears of thanika on her cheeks — thanika is a Burmese cosmetic paste. She apologized in broken English that she had been working the graveyard shift cleaning airplanes at O’Hare, about 1.5 hours away on the L train and had been sleeping. Still she kindly agreed to help translate the introductions — though it proved challenging because she did not speak Karenni and was forced to communicate in Burmese, a second language to both parties. The linguistic talents of many refugees in several languages never ceases to amaze me!
Fortunately, I have managed to stay in touch with her and her family periodically since then and they are now helping many of the new arrivals from the Burmese refugee camps in Thailand. How these people have suffered is truly astounding. That same afternoon, her husband showed me some heartbreaking video that has been posted on YouTube of Karen villagers fleeing from the bruttle Myanmar army. Click here for one example of many that can be found which describes this terrible humanitarian situation http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZfdQwy9TR4E&feature=related
. Refugees are resilient people who are survivors of some of the worst imaginable things! They truly deserve our help.
This blog contains experiences and reflections of students who are enrolled in Anth 361: Refugee Resettlement, a Service-Learning and Civic Engagement and Leadership course at Loyola University Chicago. Please follow appropriate blogging etiquette (for example, the recommendations at http://blogs.suite101.com/article.cfm/blogging_etiquette and this recommended Code of Blogging Ethics http://blogethics2004.blogspot.com/ when posting to this blog. In addition, please limit each posting to no more than 250 words.
Because of the sensitive nature of this blog, posts are not allowed to contain refugee family names, addresses, photographs, or other such information that would represent an invasion of personal privacy of these individuals or the supporting refugee assistance agency. Please contact me or your teaching assistant if you have any questions about how to post to this blog or how to include web links or other supporting materials.
Students are expected to post once per week according the schedule provided in class and students are encouraged to respond to the other postings so that we can advance our conversation about the issues we encounter during this experience. The ultimate goal of this exercise is to improve understanding about the issues faced by refugees in America through self-reflection about our own experiences with the members of this community. In addition, our efforts provide a public forum for describing the refugee resettlement experience in the US.