What I Learned From Refugees

In light of current events I’m reposting a blog about  tutoring refugees in 2015. Two facts: 1) They need support. 2) We won’t be able to help them all.

But here’s a challenge: our government, under Democrat and Republican presidents, has not and cannot do as much as people wish. I urge you to consider thoughtfully and prayerfully doing something that makes life better for at least one refugee. Protesting makes a point, but volunteer hands and feet, and private pocketbooks, speak louder. There are opportunities everywhere.

This could happen to any of us. (two photos by anonymous friend)

Heartbreaking Statistics

For the first time since WWII more than 50 million refugees worldwide are displaced permanently, and the number is climbing. The media has shown

 

Syrian refugees in 2015 seek safe refuge in Europe.  Photo courtesy of the UN Refugee Agency.

 

many disturbing images. In the summer of 2015, I tutored refugees in an English as a Second Language class. Fresh off the planes, they came from Burma, the Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Cuba. Here are some impressions:

KFC, Cheesecake, Ice Cream

“I like KFC. It–it is good,” says the middle-aged Iraqi woman, when asked her favorite American foods. “Oh, and cheesecake is very delicious,” she adds. She tells me she spent four years in Jordan after fleeing Iraq. She wants to work as a chef. One of her adult sons is with her in the U.S., but she worries about the other one still in Iraq. “It is very dangerous,” she says.

When her U.S. son picks her up from class, he asks how his mother is doing. His English is good. I suggest he might help her with homework. He frowns, “I want her to learn to do it herself.” I gently say she might learn faster if he helps. There’s silence. I don’t think this idea is going to fly in entrenched cultural roles.

“I like ice cream,” smiles the petite, shy twenty-year-old from Burma. She draws a picture of her former home—a thatched hut on stilts. Now she lives in a city apartment with her sister and brother-in-law. She enjoys listening to Christian music on her iPhone and wants to be a tailor. She is always early to class with homework completed.

Afghan Brothers

“My father is old; my mother is happy; my girlfriend is beautiful.” These are the sentences using adjectives that two Afghani brothers create. They have only been in the U.S. a few days. Their English is poor, they say, because they have spent five years in Hungary, followed by four in Turkey. They yawn a lot from jet lag and are cautious. After asking their ages, I realize they were ten and eleven years old when they left Afghanistan.

The Congo Family Refugees

As summer progresses the Congo family from a Burundi refugee camp is a joy to tutor and a mystery. During their first time to class, they have only been in the U.S. about 10 days. Trauma is evident in tense bodies, sad eyes, and the way they interact with one another. They speak mostly French and Swahili. I notice the depressed mother and 22-year-old daughter have several scars on their arms; the mother has scars across her throat. The son, about 21-years-old, seems healthy, but he misses classes because of sickness and doctor appointments.

From the start, they are A students. The daughter tells me she has seven brothers and sisters. About a month later, the daughter reports her three middle school brothers have arrived at the airport. Mom will not be coming to class anymore.

Cubans and Iraqi Refugees

My tutoring also includes a beefy mechanic from Cuba, who is interested in learning about the Craigslist classified jobs. A sad Cuban woman comes to class only twice—she is grieving the eight-year-old son she left behind with grandma for economic opportunities. She says it is never possible for her son to come to the U.S. I don’t know if this is true, but it is true for her at that moment.

Most of the refugees I meet are motivated to work and want to make lots of money. Sometimes they are disappointed they cannot have the jobs they dreamed about. In the case of the Iraqis, many are white collar professionals, who risked their lives to help the U.S. military. Now they must work at lower-paying jobs like valet parking, janitorial work, and housekeeping and restaurant services. Still, they are the fortunate ones who won the residential lottery.

Kevin and Vicki Witte with 12 of their Nepali friends, former refugees now settled in Colorado. (photo provided by Vicki Witte)
Kevin and Vicki Witte with some of their Nepali friends, former refugees now settled in Colorado. (photo provided by Vicki Witte) Find Vicki’s insightful blog at:

Is a Nickel Worth More Than a Dime?

World Relief offers a free study guide download and first chapter of this book at https://www.worldrelief.org/seekingrefuge

In class, students and teachers smile a lot and use hand gestures. I learn too.  For example, I never thought about how foreigners must discern that even though a dime is smaller than a nickel, its value is twice as much. Initially, they confuse a quarter with a nickel.

When we “read” 1:00 p.m. we say, “one o’clock”—not zero o’clock. Some of the refugees do not comprehend our mail system or banking, because they do not have access to these systems in their countries.

Running a Fever?

During one session Teacher Cameron goes over the basics of a health clinic and pharmacy. How can one understand what “running a fever” is, when one doesn’t speak or read English? Could they explain to a doctor such words as constipation or diarrhea. Will they give the proper dosage of medicine to a sick child? Will they accurately tell the doctor which body part hurts? So many daily culture actions we do automatically.

In my summer as an ESL tutor, my greatest reward was seeing several refugees become less stressed. Their body language became more relaxed, and there were genuine smiles and some joking. They all said they appreciated America’s safety.

Do You know the Difference Between “Refugee” and “Immigrant”?

I thought these nouns were interchangeable. Now I know an immigrant has more choices in migrating to another country.  Because of war or natural catastrophe, a refugee never goes “home.” Refugees, many who live for nine years in a camp, must wait for someone–some country–to adopt them. Sadly, children and women are not safe in many of these camps.

I learned the U.S. is one of the only countries that accepts refugees with health issues. In 2015, there were approximately 70,000 refugees per year admitted to the U.S.–this number was down from the 100,000 per year that came to the U.S. under President Clinton. The government decides which refugees to take and from which countries. Why some countries and not others? A refugee worker I heard answered, “Who knows? But it is no secret that the government doesn’t do anything for free.”

We can always do better. The question is, “What does that look like?” Our political system’s failure cannot be an excuse for doing less or nothing at all. “Who is my neighbor?” is a soul-searching question that dances with “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” Each person must wrestle with the answers, and then hopefully do something to help, even if it is outside the comfort zone.

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A Blog About Refugees

Friend Vicki Witte spends a lot of time helping refugees, and she blogs about it at:

https://stand4welcome.wordpress.com/2016/10/18/american-dream/

A Good Movie

Reese Witherspoon, starring as a social worker in "The Good Lie" movie greets three Sudanese refugees at a Kansas airport.
I recommend the movie The Good Lie, with Reese Witherspoon. Here, as a social worker, she greets Sudanese arrivals at a Kansas airport. Some of the actors are former refugees. Photo courtesy of Alcorn Entertainment/Warner Bros.

Robert “Burns Supper”–Bag Pipers, Highland Dancers, Haggis

Have you heard of a Burns Supper? I was invited to one this month and was privileged to take in the Scottish tradition of honoring bard Robert Burns.

Robert Burns portrait
Robert Burns (1759-1796), portrait in public domain

 

The annual supper, going strong for 200-plus years, occurs worldwide around Burns’ January 25 birthday. It’s a great excuse for Scottish folk to come together and celebrate their culture and poet. The supper’s festivities may include kilted bagpipers, Highland dancers, poetry, whiskey toasts, and haggis. What’s not to like?

What is Haggis?

You may ask, “What is haggis?” Robert Burns, although a poet, was also a farmer. Sensible country folk know that on the farm when one butchers an animal, such as a sheep, one utilizes everything

Server carries honored guest "haggis."
Server carries honored guest “the haggis.”

except the baaaa. Haggis is a Scottish sausage made from sheep’s stomach stuffed with diced sheep’s liver, lungs and heart, oatmeal, onion, suet, and seasoning. It’s cousin is scrapple, made with cornmeal and pork scraps and enjoyed in the Mid-Atlantic states. 

Burns appreciated Haggis so much he wrote “Ode to a Haggis.” Here’s the last verse in English:

You Powers who look after mankind,

And dish out his bill of fare,

Old Scotland wants no watery, wimpy stuff

That splashes about in little wooden bowls!

But, if You will grant her a grateful prayer,

Give her a Haggis!

No Watery, Wimpy Stuff!

A somber kilted gentleman leads the haggis march.
Burns Supper is serious business.

Because of this epicurean fondness, at a Burns Supper, the haggis is the first course brought in with pomp and circumstance—bag pipers and drummers escort the meat held high on a platter to a center table. A kilted Scotsman addresses the haggis, reciting Burns’ poem. Theatrics may include a drawn knife that hacks a thistle (from a vase) and then plunges into the meat.

Drummer leads the server carrying the haggis.
Here it comes to a drummer’s tap-tap.

Two drummers twirl their sticks.

Diners are served thin haggis slices with mashed potatoes. The rest of the meal is more common banquet fare such as salad, salmon, polenta, roasted carrots, and cake.

Upstanding Whiskey Toasts

I don’t recall ever tasting whiskey until this past month. The warm liquor gets a thumbs up along with the haggis. A wee amount of whiskey is served to each guest. Diners rise “upstanding” and do five toasts with some light-hearted speeches thrown in. At my Burns Supper there were toasts to: the U.S. President, the Queen, “The Immortal Memory” of Burns, “The Lassies,” and finally “The Reply to the Toast to the Lassies.”

Burns did love his lassies. He had several illegitimate children with several women and nine children with his wife Jean Armour. While he farmed with his father and brother, Burns composed rough drafts of his poems without paper. With encouragement from his friends and in need of supporting his family, Burns published Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect to great success. Following, he wrote and helped collect many of Scotland’s folk songs into several volumes. Unfortunately, poor health resulted in his death at age 37.

You May Know Poems by Burns

After being invited to a Burns Supper,  I vaguely remembered as a student reading a few Burns’ poems like “To a Louse.” This poem is the one where Burns observes a louse on a pious woman’s bonnet during a church service.

That famous line: “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men” comes from Burns’ poem “To a Mouse,” after he accidentally destroyed the mouse’s winter home with a plow.

Burns’ poem “Auld Lang Syne” (For Old Time’s Sake) has given me my word for 2017: “kindness.” At Burns Suppers people sing this song in closing as they often hold crossed hands. Kindness is a good word to remember as we plunge farther into this topsy-turvy year.

Four children sing "For Auld Lang Syne"
Kindness For Auld Lang Syne

A “We Can Eat” Prayer

Burns Suppers often include the recitation of this meal prayer, which has 17th century roots. Tradition says Burns recited this prayer while attending a dinner given by the Earl of Selkirk.

Selkirk Grace (1)

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.
[The last line is often varied to read]
And sae the Lord be thankit

Selkirk Grace (2)

Some have meat and cannot eat,
Some cannot eat that want it;
But we have meat and we can eat,
So let the Lord be thankit.

Below are links to explore Robert Burns’ poetry and a five-minute rendition of Auld Lang Syne.

http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poets/robert-burns

 

 

 

 

Mountain Busting with Mustard Seed Faith

Mountains represent impossibilities. Mustard seeds represent faith.

For 2017, I am reflecting on what it means to have mustard seed faith. Jesus declares in Matthew 17:20 that we remove mountains if we have a tiny bit of trust in him. Do I believe this?  Atheist Philippe Petit has helped me form an answer. Here’s how.

“Le Coup”

In 1974, Petit, age 25, took a 55-pound balancing pole and illegally walked, knelt, laid down and contemplated the universe for 45 minutes on a high wire strung across the World Trace Center’s twin towers. He called the project “Le Coup.”

Philippe Petit, Aug. 7, 1974, AP credit

The highwire artist’s book, To Reach the Clouds—My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers, is poetic, obsessive, crazy, and specific about an impossible feat. His memoir starts out describing his ego: “Rebel poet? By four-years-old, disdain for my fellow man starts to show: I climb onto everything to distance myself.”

Petit’s parents legally emancipate him on his 17th birthday. He understands. By age 18 he has been expelled from five schools for practicing pickpocketing on his teachers and doing card tricks under his desk. A Paris street performer on a unicycle with impromptu high wire acts is the life for Philippe. He practices and performs, wowing crowds and provoking police.

Mountain Busting Begins with Enchantment and a Toothache

Philippe’s dream of a WTC highwire act begins in 1968 at age 18 with a toothache. While waiting to see a dentist he thumbs through a magazine and reads an article about NYC’s future World Trade Center. The towers will rise 110 stories and “tickle the clouds.” He is enchanted. He draws a line between the two towers. He sneezes to cover up the ripping out of the article. Under his jacket it goes, and he is out the door, without getting the tooth fixed!

Philippe tucks the article in a “Projects” keepsake box and forgets about it for a while. He begins to do more difficult tightrope walks and improvises equipment to  perform illegally on the towers of a Paris cathedral (1971) and the world’s largest steel arch bridge in Australia (1973).

Faith in Tandem with Patience and Urgency

In between these feats, he reads a WTC article and is alarmed, thinking: “What if they [the towers] are completed before I link them for eternity? I must keep an eye on them. Once they are officially opened, it may be impossible to take them by surprise.”

Tired of Paris and encouraged by American girlfriends, Philippe visits NYC, Jan. 6, 1974. He’s too busy to visit the incomplete Twin Towers, until three weeks later. “I force myself to go meet them.” And when he sees them, and touches a wall, looking up:  “I cannot breathe. Cannot move, talk, think. I am dismayed, my dream dissolved. I feel fear. Glued to the railing, I am an invalid. I stare, I look, I glance, I observe, I watch. My scrutiny yields only two monoliths, beyond all scale, and carves deeper into me the word: Impossible…I long to flee but still the colossal magnet controls my destiny.

“Obscene Syllabic Obesity: Im-pos-si-ble!”

Philippe finds one tower exit door ajar and runs up the stairs. “I bump into construction workers as my body language declares, ‘What are you looking at? I’m the owner of these buildings!'” Then, at the top, among the construction, he views the other tower and sees “a word stretched across the gap between rooftops in all its obscene syllabic obesity: Im—pos—si—ble!”

Then, there is a mind change: “…teeth clenched, eyes half closed, in horror, in delight, I manage to whisper

Philippe on Aug. 7, 1974, between his WTC Twin Towers

my first thought (whisper, so the demons won’t hear): ‘I know it’s impossible. But I know I’ll do it!’ At that instant, the towers become ‘my towers.’”

Removing a Mountain Takes Help

Book cover of “To Reach the Clouds” shows Philippe accomplishing his dream. He crosses eight times that day.

What the rest of the story tells you is that Philippe cannot accomplish Le Coup without the support of a handful of imperfect people–some who are friends and others who are strangers. As one reads the book, one realizes all the individuals have their roles and come together in an amazing way. Philippe uses the word “miracle” several times in his book for the unexplainable coincidences.  It’s not difficult to understand that God is right there in the mix with Philippe and his little band,  giving them the desire of their hearts.

Against all odds, at sunrise, Aug. 7, 1974, Philippe Petit performs his WTC high wire act a quarter mile up in the air without a safety net. Of course, the authorities are freaked out and arrest him after he steps back onto the roof. But NYC loves a gutsy guy.

Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit in “The Walk” (Sony, 2015)

His punishment ends up being a free performance in Central Park. WTC officials give him a free life-time pass to visit the towers whenever he desires. Of course he first tells them how he worked around all their security protocols.

Topography Transformation

Sadly we know the towers do not outlive Petit. At age 67, however, the artist is still busy. He has an artist in

Philippe Petit
Philippe Petit

residence space in NYC’s  Cathedral of St. John the Divine. In Petit’s book acknowledgment he quotes the church’s retired Rev. James Parks Morton, his “spiritual father”: “Philippe does not believe in God, but God believes in Philippe.”

I like the thought that God has more faith in us than we have in him and in ourselves. And I am encouraged to believe if Philippe could do what he did with the object of his faith being his own abilities, I certainly can remove some mountains with the object of my faith being Jesus who said, “Nothing is impossible with God.”

I have much to learn about mustard seed faith, but this is my takeaway from Philippe:

<><Faith begins with an idea bigger than oneself. It begins with an attraction one might not fully understand.

<><Faith works with both patience and urgency.

<><Faith, although a gift, often requires preparation, perspiration, and perseverance.

<><Faith overcomes discouragement; the timetable of mountain busting is controlled by the one who created time and is not limited by it.

The challenge of mustard seed faith is to spy the mountain, accept it, and then work in tandem with the author and finisher of faith (Hebrews 12:2). After that, watch the topography transform.

Want More of Petit?

For more on Philipe Petit try his memoir and other books. Online, you can find numerous You Tube clips and a TED talk by him. I enjoyed the Academy award-winning documentary film, Man on Wire (2008), by UK director James Marsh and the biographical drama The Walk (2015), directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit. The Caldecott award-winning picture book, The Man Who Walked Between The Towers (2003), by writer/artist Mordicai Gerstein, began my interest in Petit. A beloved three-year-old and I read it often and then line up tiles and pretend we are high wire artists.