Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Refugees in the winter with a growing family

I can't get our refugee friends out of my head. For those of you that are new readers, I mentor a young refugee couple from Burma that arrived here about six months ago. You can read about me meeting them here. This family has been motivated and fun and Tee Reh is great with English.

This week's meeting was eye-opening. Isaac was busying writing his final papers, so I went alone in pouring rain and COLD weather. When I finally made it to the new apartment, I walked in to find Soh Meh watching TV with a young guy. This was new. Actually, a lot was new.

- This is the first time it's been flat out COLD since they've come here. They were all wearing coats and gloves and hats inside because they keep their heater off to save utility bills.

- Turns out the young guy is Soh Meh's younger brother. Turns out that they moved in with her mom, sister, and three brothers. That means six people in a one-bedroom apartment. Luckily they don't have much stuff, but one side of the living room was filled with beds all pushed together. I have no idea who sleeps where, but it could be just what they're used to.

I noticed Soh Meh's stomach last week, but didn't want to ask if she was pregnant until I was a little more sure - you never know how open or discreet a culture is about pregnancy. The first day I met Tee Reh and Soh Meh I asked them if they had children, and he said no, maybe later. Confirmed - she is pregnant!

They are right about it being difficult to pay for kids, and suddenly I felt the burden that Tee Reh must feel now. I thought before that he was just supporting his wife on his minimum wage salary. Now I realize that he and his sister-in-law are supporting four other family members, and soon will add a baby? Phew. Oh, and all of that with no form of transportation other than one pink bike that Tee Reh rides to the bus stop.

- the TV was new too. As a matter of fact, they had two tvs. Actually, it turns out they found both of them in the dumpster. One is broken and the other only works half the time. Classic.

- Today was the first time I helped this family with their mail - I used to do that with Chan and Tum every week. Tee Reh pulled out a letter from their bank offering them "free health insurance", and he puzzled over what he needed to fill out. I quickly read it and confirmed that it was spam and told him to just throw it away. Spam is so dangerous for these families that are just learning English and can't discern what is a medicaid form that the government MUST have, and what is a form from some company that just wants your business and money.

- Tee Reh has (correctly) understood that learning to use a computer would be an invaluable skill for him. In my opinion, it would open up his job possibilities in a big way. They now have an old Dell computer, but we discouraged them from getting the Internet until they were familiar with the basic workings of a computer (like... starting with how to double-click a mouse!) and they could afford it. Tee Reh pretty quickly picked up how to use a computer and has quickly moved to the point that he really needs a full Microsoft office program. He really needs Windows Media Player, Excel, etc. Anyone know the best place to get an inexpensive version? He also asked again about the Internet, and I told him, again, that it would be helpful but that it's expensive. He told me he could get it for $35 per month, but that too is expensive on their meager income.

- Since this was the first time I realized that Soh Meh's family was in America, I asked a lot of questions about their family. Turns out that both her father and Tee Reh's mother died in the mass exodus out of Myanmar when they were teens. The Burmese government economically strangled the entire ethnic minority community, sometimes also resorting to physical violence. Eventually they had no choice but to uproot and head over the border to Thailand, where they were put in refugee camps where they lived for 7-14 years. Tee Reh said that he doesn't know anyone that still lives in their area in Burma, but he does know people still participating in guerrilla-style warfare against the Burmese government - like the Free Burma Rangers.

- Tee Reh also showed me a bulletin from the church they go to. They are Catholic, but I assumed they were in an ethnic Catholic church. Nope, they go to Saint Patrick something or other church. He said they first sit in church (he didn't understand the word "mass" when I said it, he just says church), and then they sit in a Sunday school class. I asked him if it was all in English, and he said yes. I asked him if he understood, and he said no.

So - I left and came home and just couldn't stop thinking of them. I still think they have so much potential. They are young, Tee Reh is smart, they will work it out. But... this week more than ever before I'm sobered by the burden on their shoulders. Soon to be seven people on two minimum wage incomes. Soon to be seven people in a one-bedroom apartment. The difficulty of learning English. Battling the cold and the electricity and grocery bills.

My heart breaks for them, and for the fact that there are thousands of families like them in that same complex on Park Ln.

Last year after spending a weekend helping to lead a youth event in partnership with Invisible Children, I was similarly burdened by the weight of difficulty, pain, and suffering in the world. Somehow, though, this is rather perfect to feel in this advent season. It is only in light of the great suffering of the world that the message of Christmas makes sense. Indeed, it is dark, but He has come, He is coming, and He will come again!

Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born
Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother
And in his name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of hope in grateful chorus raise we
Let all within us praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!


Togenberg said...

If they have been Roman Catholic for some time and are familiar with the liturgy, they might actually understand quite a lot of the service if not the English words. Not the homily and the announcements, but most everything else.

I hate spam and junk mail and how it hits vulnerable people!!!

Kacie said...

Yeah, Troy, they have always been Roman Catholic but I think it's mostly because their whole tribe is. We've questioned them about their faith and their understanding is so low, it's incredible. The lack of knowledge even of who Jesus is...