Tuesday, January 26, 2010

When a 23 year old supports 9 people on $1,000 a month.... and yes, I'm talking about America

Last week Isaac and I talked over a steaming cup of sweet nescafe (nobody does instant coffee like Southeast Asians! - seriously) with the refugee couple from Burma that we meet with weekly. Our curriculum topic was life stages and events, but the conversation went all different directions. It was one of those meandering conversations that touches on so many things and ends up in a bit of a heart-to-heart.

This sweet little couple has stolen our hearts. She is timid, quiet, pretty, and sweet. He is 23, and yet bears the weight of a household of six people on his shoulders. Despite that, his demeanor is happy and he always makes us laugh with his jokes. Most of the time it just feels like hanging out with friends from another country, but when we walk away and I think objectively, I struggle to comprehend their lives. 

Yesterday Tee Reh told us he wanted to go to school, and I got all excited and told him about a program for refugees that one of the churches here in Dallas puts on. He listened with interest, pondered it, and then defeatedly said,  "I don't know how I can go to school." He knows it costs money and laid out his budget for us. He lives with his pregnant wife, her mother, her sister, and her two younger brothers. The two brothers are in high school, the sister works part-time, and the mother and wife stay home. They all live together in a two-bedroom apartment. The mother and sister stay in one room, Tee Reh and his wife stay in another room, and the two boys sleep in the dining room nook behind a partition. Tee Reh washes dishes at a local restaurant at minimum wage for about 38 hours a week. He brings home about $1,000 a month. Their rent is about $600. Once utilities have been taken out they have about $100 to work with for the rest of the month, plus more if the sister gets work.

$100 for six, soon to be seven people to live on for a month. He also told us that his father and step-mother are being sent to Dallas from the refugee camps in two months. This is good in some ways, it is always good to see family. Still, they are also old and they most likely won't learn English. That is two more people that will rely on Tee Reh's income. In four months he will be supporting 9 people on $1,000 a month at the age of 23. 

Tee Reh can do it, but these first few years are the hardest of all. English is hard, the American world feels unfamiliar and cold, and money doesn't go far. They ache for the jungle, for their community. They struggle to adjust. 

It will get better. 

I just wish I could make it easier NOW. I wish I could tell them we found a house they could stay at for the same price. I wish I knew where he could find a better job that didn't need advanced English, education, or the ability to drive or use computers. It's just not that easy. It will take time and hard work. Fortunately, he is a hard worker and he has a joy that will care him through the difficulty.  Still though.... what can we do... as a church body?

The man that first introduced me to this huge apartment complex filled with refugees sent out an email this week with this in it:

Kathy has been overwhelmed by needs at the apartment community of refugees that she oversees. Many times she has been called upon to rush someone to the emergency room because of a life threatening problem. And then she has to sit with them for hours to make sure they are actually seen by a doctor and properly taken care of. Since they speak little or no English, they are often overlooked in situations like that and therefore do not receive the proper care. Also, many have lost their jobs due to the recession and we have had to step in to provide food and other necessities to families who literally don't have a drop of food at their house. ...

We decided to give gift cards and bags of toiletry items to a new group of refugees from MM (side note from Kacie: this is the group I work with). They have come to Dallas this past summer...  On Christmas Eve, one of the men (who translated for us that day) was helping us bring things from our car to deliver to the families and he was wearing only a thin nylon jacket and no hat. As you may remember, it was very windy and snowing that day and the wind chill factor was about 25 degrees! I asked him if he had a warmer jacket but he said that was the all he had. So, I dug into the trunk and found a jacket that had just been donated and I also gave him my (pink) stocking hat. He was so grateful. Knowing that even colder weather was on the way to N. Texas (the coldest in 14 years, actually) we decided that we needed to help this new group of refugees and provide them with some warm coats and hats. Most of them came here in the summer time so the refugee committees who handled their cases on their arrival didn't provide them with any warm clothing. So we bought over 50 warm coats and 75 stocking hats from the factory store. Plus we were able to give them many sweatshirts, fleece warm ups, etc. that had been donated from various sources as well. We also noticed that some of them only had flip flops for shoes, so we rounded up used shoes and also bought some new ones for various people who weren't able to find a pair that fit from the used ones. Can you imagine waiting at a bus stop on your way to work wearing a thin nylon jacket and flip flops in 20 - 25 degree weather? And since they all came from a very warm jungle region (where the refugee camps are), they are simply not used to any cold weather at all.

It gets me all riled up. It's here. It's in our city, it's 10 minutes from my apartment. How can we NOT care about them?


Togenberg said...

Amen amen amen

The Bald Guy said...

Hi Kacie, I know you've been working with the Burmese family from your earlier posts. My question is, how did they and up in the United States in the first place? Is the situation in Burma that bad now that they had to flee? And if yes, how and why did they chose USA? They could have easily moved across the border to India, Nepal, China, Sri Lanka and found work as laborers maybe.

On the other hand, it's just too awesome that you managed to do all that for them. It's just amazing to see the way The Good Lord works to bring people closer and keep humanity alive.


Kacie said...

Very good question, Ramit! They are originally from Myanmar but they are not ethnically Burmese. They are from the north, where there are many minority people groups whose home is in the mountains and they are now persecuted by the Burmese government. These people groups are the Karen, the Karenni, the Chin, the Lisu, and many others. You can read about it here: http://newsx.com/story/57281

The Burmese government over-taxed them, took away their land, conscripted their men into the army by force.... and eventually many fled. They fled the country by the thousands over the years - most to the Thai border, which was closest to them. Thailand won't let them into the country as workers (there are too many of them) so they built refugee camps for them in the jungle. They are not allowed back into Burma, and they are not allowed into Thailand. So they waited in refugee camps until they were recognized as homeless refugees by the United Nations, and then allowed to immigrate to another country that would accept them. The two families I worked with waited in camps for seven years before the US allowed them to come here. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees says that Thailand is hosting about over 100,000 refugees from Myanmar so far 50,000 have been resettled just in the past few years. The rest are still waiting.

justaweeblether said...

That is so much for him to bear! My social worker brain kicked in immediately and wanted to find solutions for them. I don't know Texas: do they qualify for food stamps and WIC? Are there any refugee programs in the city that offer aid? Can he be trained to work as a translator?

About us, we have been a part of a church for just about a year now. It is a bit larger than we normally like and we are both not outgoing enough to introduce ourselves to people. Once my 50-60 hr work schedule settled down enough small groups had convened for the summer. We did start a small group in Sept but we just meet at a restaurant after service. It is more like a lunch club. We have not really developed anything more than a superficial relationship so far.

A Fine Balance was definately disturbing, yet it was written in such a matter-of-fact manner that it didn't give me the complete and utter dispare feeling I would have otherwise felt. That would have been incredibly depressing. My heart sank at the end and I found it do ironic how it ended for the individual who had the least amount of tragedy in his life as opposed to those who really lost everything.