Wednesday, June 10, 2009

My refugee family - finally, an update!

I am a mentor for a refugee family through World Relief. Or rather, I was their mentor when they first arrived, and now we're just friends, and I love it. Soon I need to write about what it actually looks like to mentor a new refugee family, but today is just stories of my visit to see the Nawi family!

I haven't seen them in AGES, because the last few times we tried to get together I got sick or other things got in the way. I finally stopped by last night, and as always things were unexpected, cross-cultural, and hilarious. This family is from Myanmar but they spent 7 years in Displacement camps in Malaysia, and I speak Malay (or at least the Indonesian variant). So - we have some common language, but there is still definite communication breakdown!

In any case, I thought I'd understood when we spoke on the phone that they had family that would be arriving soon. However, when I arrived at their new apartment I was greeted by Chan and Tum and little 4 year old Boi Hnem, AND Tum's brother, sister, brother-in-law and niece. They apparently arrived a week ago and still have to fill out all their paperwork and go through the red tape to get jobs and housing and all of that. It's so much fun to see Chan and Tum able to welcome family and be their cultural guides. I'm sure the extended family is still going through culture shock, but it must help to have family around.

The other thing that really cracked me up was our inevitable discussion of finances. They struggle financially, there is no doubt about it, and most people I know wouldn't even consider living in the apartment complex that they live in amidst tons of other refugees. The constant outflow of bills is so discouraging them (legitimately), and they also scrimp along so that they can send significant cash back home to their family in Myanmar. I love the family value. However, despite the struggle to pay rent they also were proudly displaying a massive flatscreen, wide screen TV that is about three times the size of our tv!

It cracked me up, because it's so typical. In Indonesia we always marveled that you could drive through a shanty town built of plywood and cardboard and tin roofs, and still you'd see satellite dishes spread throughout the area. In the developing world, TV is a priority even for the poorest of the poor. I was actually told by the refugee coordinator that trained me that she'd been in to refugee's homes and found them with three tv's stacked on top of each other! So funny. It also just takes time to learn the value of certain items and realize what is cheap and what is expensive.

Still... how hilarious is it that when I noted their new TV, Chan said that little Boi Hnem (four years old) told him that their tv was too small and she wanted a big tv like her friends had, and so they went and got one? Hah - the indulging of small children is so Asian as well.

I hope to see them again soon. It's a balancing act - I want to bring them into my world, but my world is also uncomfortable for them, so most of the time I just enter their turf and sit and chat a while. I love to bring gifts but I don't want to set myself up as a wealthy white person - their patron. No. I want to be a friend and resource to them. We've taken them to the mall, which was fun but backfired a little because then they are tempted to buy expensive things that Isaac and I wouldn't even consider getting! We took them to the fireworks at Fair Park last summer and they seemed to sort of wonder why we thought it was fun to sit in the grass and eat food like hot dogs and nachos. Hah! Asians generally dislike cheese (that's a huge generalization, but that's just the cultural past) and they say they always remain hungry until they've had rice. On that trip I took a bunch of pictures and they LOVED that and have them framed in their home, and sent them home to Myanmar for family to see.

So ... hilarious. I want to find another fun outing to take the whole family to so they can see more of American life.


Sturgmom said...

That's so wonderful! What an amazing blessing. How did you get involved?

On another note- one of your posts about taking care of the elderly inspired me to volunteer for a local organization (good) but when I contacted them, they NEVER responded (bad). So frustrating. Not an excuse to quit, but irritating nonetheless. Also, not your FAULT, but I wanted you to know that the Lord is definitely using you in ways you might not have considered! Thanks!

weelass said...

The TV thing is true in the Philippines as well. I remember taking powdered milk to the families in the squatter villages and they would have a cell phone (which I only got recently myself) and a TV (which we don't even have).
I don't remember if they liked cheese in the Philippines, but I'm guessing they did as they had 3 cheese ice cream. :P They didn't like berries and cinnamon there.

Annette said...

Great story! I had a good giggle at the TV comment. It's SO true, even in South Africa, we would marvel at people who would be looking for small jobs to put food on the table, and have threadbare clothes and holes in their shoes, yet whip out a fancy cellphone to make a quick call!It boggled our minds!

Being a mentor sounds interesting, you must tell us more sometime!