The Last Goodbye

For my last assignment as an Exodus January intern, I delivered a bag of warm clothes to a newly arrived family from the Congo.  They had been in the States for three days.

I stepped into their apartment at 5 o’clock and was met by a warm greeting and smile.  The father limped to the door, aided by one of those medical contraptions that grips your leg in its vice while you hold it like a cane.

The mother sat on the couch next to their small daughter.  The daughter looked about six and had brightly colored beads wrapped into her bouncy pigtails.

I delivered the clothes with a smile and then made to leave.  The father stopped me.  He said that their caseworker hadn’t yet been to visit them, but had promised to come today.

He thought I was their caseworker.

He thought I had come to visit.

I tried to help fix their phone line and teach them how to use a rice cooker (at which I failed miserably).  But what they really wanted was a friend.

In broken English (actually, it was pretty good, but he called it bad), the father told me that he came to the U.S. to learn English and have neighbors.  He was lonely.  His family was lonely.

I was desperate.  This family needed friends.  I called the caseworkers at Exodus, but they were with other clients.  The demand for help is so great and the staff so thinly spread.  Sometimes what seem like true necessities (clothing, electricity) obscure other necessities from view – necessities like fellowship.

No one could come to see this family tonight.  Neither could I; I was expected at home and, when I called my mom to explain the situation, she asked me to come home quickly because the sky was darkening and the roads were icing up in our neighborhood.  She wanted me safe.

I told the Congolese family that I couldn’t stay and was very sorry.  They let me go with a, “God bless you.”  The father walked me to the door and raised his hand when I turned around at my car.

I said goodbye and walked away from my winter with these refugees.

I felt sorrow.

I want to come back.

One Name on a Piece of Plain, White Paper

Files.  Piles of folders.  Stacks of dividers.  Reams of forms.

On them were names.  Birthplaces.  Medical information.  Family ties.  Alien numbers.

Each piece of paper bore the same uninteresting resemblance to the one that preceded it.  Every sheet had plain, black type spaced evening across its surface.

Uninteresting in appearance.

Weighty in significance.

Yesterday, I entered information into newly-created case files for soon-arriving refugees.  These people hail from Myanmar, from Thailand, from Iraq, from Somalia.  One even comes from Rwanda.

Their information is boringly presented and skeletal in nature.  It doesn’t convey the essence of their person.  And, from time to time as I processed their information, I forgot to pray for them and wonder about their character.  I just entered their information.

Then I saw one of the Exodus caseworkers listed as the U.S. tie (relative) for a hopeful refugee from Myanmar.  I double-checked the U.S. tie’s name.  Yes, it was the caseworker, one of my good friends at Exodus.  He sat in the chair next to mine.

I paused.

Then, I turned to my friend and said, “[Lian], I’m processing your brother.”

“Really?!  How do you know?”

Lian’s face was full of laughter and happiness.

I showed him his name on his brother’s sheet.

He laughed delightedly and asked when his brother would arrive in the U.S.  I said I didn’t know.

Lian referred to the funny occurrence 15 minutes later.  “You processed my brother?  Hah!  How wonderful.”

I made sure to enter his brother’s plainly-typed information with extra care.

The Complications of Gender

Today, I experienced the uncomfortableness of cross-cultural communication between sexes.

Typically, I shuttle refugee families to and from Social Security appointments and medical screenings.  A few times, I’ve driven just mothers and children.

Today, I drove four single men who varied in age from 19-37 to a Social Security appointment.

I struggled.

The families always seem kind, deferential, close-knit, quiet – sweet and gentle.  With many, there’s an air of peace about them.  These young men seemed like any other young men, albeit ones who were communicating across a language barrier.  There was some flirtation on this trip.

Part of me wanted to be just as friendly and open with these young men as I am with the families and mothers.  But another part was vividly aware of the cultural boundaries and implications; my friendliness and openness could be construed differently when directed towards single, young men rather than towards families.

Frankly, I’m not sure how to deal with these sort of situations.  We laughed, tried to communicate and teach each other words in the others’ language, and turned on the radio – actions I take with all of my clients.  But I always felt a bit awkward because the car-ride didn’t feel as professional; it felt a bit flirtatious and bold.

I plan to ask some of my female Chin friends about the encounter tomorrow; perhaps they can shed some light on how I should behave in a similar setting – communicating across a cultural divide complicated by gender.

Of Romance and Lullabies

I don’t have any radical insights to share today, just a dear story.

This week, I twice shuttled the same young lady and her 11mo. baby to the local health department.  The first time, I struggled to communicate with her.  I’ve found that it’s much easier to communicate with Myanmar men than with their wives.  With the men, I share education.  But for the women, most find their identity as a mother and wife.  I have neither a husband nor children.  So, at first, I found little about which to converse with this young mother.  She was 21, only a year older than I, but she already had a child and had been married almost two years.

When I looked at my schedule two days later, I saw that I would again take her and her baby to the health department.  I was desperate to converse with her.  I prayed that I would be a blessing and that we would form some bridge of friendship.

When I drove her to the health department with her baby, we developed a friendship. Before, she had sung a beautiful, simple lullaby to her baby while we drove.  I loved the lullaby and sung it to my mum when I got home.  On this trip, I told the young mother that I had shared the lullaby with my mother and that we had both been touched by the lyrics and melody.  She smiled and laughed.  Then, a few minutes later, she sang the song to her baby.

I was overjoyed that we were both trying to be friends with what we had.

For the rest of the trip, we found a conversation topic that almost all girls love discussing: romance.  She told me the story of how she met her husband.  She had thought of him as a brother when she was a child; he was sixteen years older than she.  She laughed delightedly when she said, “But now, he is my husband.”

When she was little, he had told her parents that he would marry her when she grew up.  Her parents suggested him as her husband when she was older.  She accepted him because, “He is true to God and a good man.”  The sweet happiness in her voice was poignant.  The idea of an arranged marriage is foreign to me (as is the large age gap between the two), but the love that she held for her husband touched me.  We found a common connection in spite of the difference in culture.

On the way home from the health department, we just listened to music.  In a previous post, I shared that I realized I can be silent when shuttling my refugee friends.  But on this day, the lack of conversation was sweeter because of the friendly conversation that preceded it.

Learning from a Car Crash

Last Friday, I had my first car wreck.  I was slammed on my passenger’s side while I was proceeding through the intersection; my car ended up in a ditch.  It was totaled.  On the one hand, I am incredibly blessed by the experience; I escaped with minimal soreness and abrasions.  God is incredibly kind.

On the other hand, the experience is one of the first semi-traumatic experiences I’ve had.  For the next few days, I’ve felt angry, ashamed, and tearful.  I’m actually pretty embarrassed to record this incident (it was both my fault and the fault of the driver that hit me).  But I’ve picked up a tidbit that may help me as I continue in my internship.

In the aftermath of the accident, sometimes I just wanted silence; I didn’t want to speak or be spoken to.  I just wanted to be quiet.  The refugees with whom I have the pleasure of interacting have been through more traumatic experiences than the one I just underwent; perhaps they also just want silence instead of conversation.

When my clients fail to grab on to my attempts at conversation (for reasons other than a language barrier), I should let the attempt to speak go.  Instead, I think I should remain silent.  If they want to speak, I will speak.  If they want to just drive, I’ll just drive.

The Window Reveals the Sky

The following post details my Thursday.

——-

As we approached each yellow light, I hoped we would enter the intersection before the color shifted to red.  The silence in the car was impenetrable except by quickly snuffed snippets of conversation.

I spent the majority of today shuttling two Malaysian men between their houses and the two main Indianapolis Social Security offices.  Neither spoke much English; one could only smile at me and murmur, “Okay,” when I dropped him off – he didn’t know how to thank me in English.  I tried to break the ice several times – pointing at the raindrops, repeating the English word, and then asking for the word in Chin (their dialect) – but they briefly responded (or stared at me in confusion) before resuming silence.

On one level, I had an uncomfortable, tiring day since I couldn’t communicate with my clients.  On another level, I felt deep concern for these refugees.  I struggled to communicate across a language barrier for a day; these men will have to surmount the same barrier for the next few years (maybe even the rest of their lives).  What difficulties they must face!  First, they flee their country.  Then, they must learn a new language while they navigate a new world – a world culturally, geographically, and demographically different from their own.  Today, I stared through my window of uncomfortable communication into the vast sky of change under which these refugees now walk.

 

Hardly Working

I feel like I’m hardly working, but I’m exhausted each night after a full day at Exodus.  I’ve served as an intern at Exodus Refugee Immigration for three days; my heart is full with new friends who hail from amazingly different cultures and harshly different lives.

When I picked up a small Chin family for their health screening, the wife welcomed me warmly into her home.  She immediately offered me coffee (much better than American coffee, including Starbucks) and had me sit down.  Her husband thanked me for the very nice accommodations; I looked around at the apartment: a small, one-level living space that held one kitchen, one living room, and one bedroom.  It was sparsely furnished; I wouldn’t have called it nice, yet he described it as, “very nice.”  I was humbled by their gratitude for a space in the U.S. and their eager hospitality.  Their son was just over a year old; he smiled and played with me with innocent exuberance while his parents prepared to leave for the office.  Yet his father told me later that they had fled the country in the floor-boards of a small car.  These amazing people have experienced terrible persecution but exude more kindness than most Americans.  We waited for three hours at Social Security; I loved every minute of it since I spent it with these marvelous people.

I similarly enjoyed my next day, when I took an Iraqi family to their medical screening.  I waited, again, for three hours while each family member was examined, interviewed, and immunized.  During that time, I had the joy of conversing with the family members.  Two of the children spoke excellent English; one of them spent considerable time trying to teach me simple Arabic words.  Her brothers looked on with humor while I tried to wrap my tongue around the foreign sounds.  Like the Chin wife, the Iraqi family offered me coke, tea, and coffee as soon as I walked in the door.  They exude such kindness and hospitality.

Again, I feel like I’m hardly working; I’ve spend most of my time conversing with people I’ll miss when I leave Exodus.  I’m planning to ask my supervisor if I’m allowed to invite these families to my home for dinner. 🙂  The question might be a silly one, but I want to maintain communication with these refugees.