Monday, July 20, 2009

Meeting a Refugee Family

This week I am meeting a new refugee family, and it is AWESOME. I thought I'd post what I wrote on my old blog last year when I met the first refugee family that I mentored.

Meeting My Refugee Family - March 2008
So... today the volunteer coordinator drove me over to meet the family that I’m matched with. From now on I’ll meet with them once a week. Well, turns out they are in the SAME apartment complex as the Karen (a people group from Burma. I found out there were thousands of them in Dallas and wrote about it here). The family that I'm paired with are also from Burma, but they are from the Chin ethnic minority. It’s a young couple probably in their late 20’s named Chan and Tum. They have a little girl named Van, who is four (a year later I can tell you we had her name wrong and she was actually three). We walked into their sparsely furnished but totally comfortable one bedroom apartment and greeted them in halting English, with smiles and awkward silences all around.

Then….. an epiphany. Unlike the Karen, who have been in camps in Thailand, most of the Chin were sent to refugee camps in Malaysia. We check with Chan, and he confirms, they were in Malaysia. I ask – do you speak Malay? He does, she doesn’t.

On the outside, I stayed calm, but on the inside I was FREAKING OUT. Immediately Chan and I entered into a 20 minute conversation in Indonesian/Malay. Some words are different, so it’s still an awkward communication, but … we’re speaking the same language! And… it’s Indonesian!

When I left the meeting that night I could barely restrain my total jubilation. When I finally got off the train and walked alone through the night to my apartment, I started praying aloud and found myself laughing and crying at once, and feeling the distinct sense that God was laughing at me the way I laughed at Isaac’s total astonishment when he opened the ipod I surprised him with for Christmas. It’s laughter brought on by astonished response to a surprise gift. Because while I’m getting involved in this to meet a great need on the part of these refugees…. Suddenly I find someone who speaks my language.

That is so huge to me. No one around me in the US knows Indonesian or understands the culture. There are few immigrants and no refugees from Indonesia. It’s next to impossible to find an Indonesian restaurant. So while I can talk about being an mk and people get that, the parts of the Indonesian culture that are a part of me (I was raised there… in some ways it’s just as much a part of me as America and English are!) are never used, never recognized. When we went to Indonesia last summer the most striking emotion was the huge sense of relief at being back in the Indonesian culture. All of the tiny below-the-surface cultural things that no one would recognize were INCREDIBLY familiar and comforting to me, even before we ever got to the island I call home. I felt like I could relax in a way I have never been able to in the US.

And so I cried and laughed my way home at the sheer joy of this surprise gift of Indonesian/Malay.

And at the same time I cried out for this family and the other refugees like them. As soon as Chan had realized that we could communicate, he asked me to translate for him to the refugee coordinator. I did, and it was heartbreaking. For a month after a refugee arrives, all bills are paid for them. After that, they receive some compensation for four more months. Well, Chan got a job pretty early on, after having been here for two months. Once he had a job, the government cut his food stamp allowance in half. Next month he will have to begin paying for their apartment.

He makes $1000 a month.

He said that he doesn’t have enough to feed little Van, who was sitting quietly at the table writing the abc’s . He said that he’s sending home money to “mama dan papa di kampung” (his parents in their village). He finished by brokenly saying, “Kami miskin” (we are poor).


There is plenty more to that story that I need to tell. I met with them regularly for about 6 months. We went to see the 4th of July fireworks and we visited the mall. We worked together on English (but abandoned that quickly), we filled out lots of paperwork, fought with Medicaid together, I served as a translator at little Van's surgery (quite an experience), and accompanied Tum at her request to Planned Parenthood (an even scarier experience). It has been quite a ride. I'll have to write about it and what it's like to be a mentor for a refugee family, but only after I write about what it's like to meet the new refugee family this week!

1 comment:

Troy said...

I've been meeting with my Bburmese refugee for a year now. Time flies! Though he is not Karen there are a lot of Karen people in his apt complex who he is friends with.

Good luck with your new family, K!