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.

Hospitality in Thanksgiving

We were dining at a Chinese restaurant last year when our hostess joyously mentioned she had attended her first Thanksgiving dinner after living in the U.S.A. for over 18 years. Parents of her daughter’s friend had extended the invitation for the traditional turkey and all the trimmings. I was happy she was thrilled to experience this American tradition. But it struck me as sad that it had taken years for her to get an invitation. Besides the word “Thanks-giving” during this season, one word keeps popping into my thoughts: “hospitality.”

I recently attended a workshop for sensitizing social workers in their interactions with the poor. “Hospitality” was bounced around a lot. Greeting a “client” with a handshake, offering a cup of coffee, using facial openness like eye contact and smiles, and seeing problem-solving as a collaborative effort–all suggestions came under “hospitality.” Of course, these are small gestures for big problems, but they certainly have meaning for most people. The 40 social workers seemed empowered.

Massasoit (1580-1661) sachem (chief) of the Wampanoag people and lifelong ally of the Pilgrims.
Massasoit (1580-1661) sachem (chief) of the Wampanoag, lifelong ally of the Pilgrims. This larger-than-life statue is displayed in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Massasoit holds a peace pipe.
William Bradford statue
Statue of Gov. William Bradford (1590-1657) stands today in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Bradford participated in the Plymouth Thanksgiving of 1621 and wrote Of Plymouth Plantation.

When Sachem Massasoit and his 90 Indian men ate with William Bradford and some 50 Pilgrims I am sure hospitality was in play. Massasoit’s men brought five deer for the feast, which lasted three days. We know Pilgrim men went “fowling,” so there would be enough meat. Birds, including turkey, were roasted and stuffed with onions and herbs. The feast probably included corn porridge, berry sauce, squash, fish, and nuts. Those four Pilgrim women, who survived that first winter (and the indentured servants, children), must have been bone weary with very soiled aprons! I digress, but what a picture.

It’s interesting to read about the epistemology of the word hospitality. You can go down a long road of discovery, but I don’t want to bore you. Let’s just stick to a few interesting tidbits. Thanks to Online Etymology Dictionary, we find hospitality:

–is rooted in the 14th century word hospital as the “act of being hospitable,” from Old French ospitalité “hospitality; hospital (the caring of a stranger)”;

–from Latin hospitalitem (nominative hospitalitas) “friendliness to guests,” from hospes (genitive hospitis) “guest; host”;

–the word hospice or “rest house for travelers” appears in the 18th century, particularly among monks traveling through the Alps. As we understand the word today, hospice, as a “home for the aged and terminally ill,” was first used in 1879.

It was an “ah-hah” moment to read about the definition of “host” or hospitis.  The word is a compound of host and guest. Its usage can lead one to the altar of the Eucharist where we, the guests, are interlinked to the provisions of our most powerful Host, the Lord of hosts. Do you think there is something meaningful here for our Thanksgiving 2015?

There are darker words that circle the hospitality family, words like “hostage” and “hostile.” They’re kind of like the obnoxious guests who spoil the Thanksgiving meal. Hostage comes from the Old French where, among other uses, it was the name for the person held by a landlord for unpaid compensation. Hostile, from late 15c., Middle French, means  “belonging to an enemy” or directly from Latin hostilis “of an enemy or characteristic of the enemy” and hostis: simply “enemy.” Since a stranger could either be an enemy or a guest, one can appreciate this ancient fork-in-the-road usage.

A little bit farther back in epistemology,  the Greek word for hospitality has some contemporary interest. You know this word in Xenia, Ohio. In 1803, the Rev. Robert Armstrong suggested the Greek word Xenia for the town because it implied friendliness and hospitality to the xenos (guest). Xenophobia is “the fear of that which is perceived to be foreign or strange.” Does this resonate with any attitudes you’ve encountered about the millions of refugees today who, just like the Pilgrims, seek a safe harbor? I agree; it’s a complicated topic.

A small boat rests on a Greek shoreline surrounded by discarded orange vests and other debris.
This refugee boat made it to a Greek island last month.

The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag could have gotten it all wrong that Thanksgiving in 1621, but they didn’t. Both groups reached out beyond their comfort zones. Both were giving and receiving. Both groups were thankful for a good cultural exchange. Because they did this under wise and honorable leadership, they experienced a peace between each group that lasted throughout their lifetimes. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than the alternatives.

A little girl's white patent shoe rests on a red life preserver surrounded by rocks.
One little refugee loses her shoe.

 

 

Hebrews 13:2–Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.

 

 

To view some three-minute videos on Plymouth in 16202-21 check out: www.history.com/topics/mayflower

Tutoring Refugees; What I Learned

For the first time Since WWII there are more than 50 million refugees worldwide, and the number is climbing. The media has shown many

Refugees seek safe refuge. Photo courtesy of the UN Refugee Agency.
Refugees on the move seeking safe refuge. Photo courtesy of the UN Refugee Agency.

heartbreaking images of refugee sufferings. This summer, I tutored some refugees in an English as a Second Language class. Here are glimpses of my experiences with people from the Congo, Burma, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Cuba–all who had been in the U.S. less than a month.

“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 me 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. But there’s silence. I don’t think my idea is going to fly in their entrenched cultural roles.

“I like ice cream,” smiles the petite, shy twenty-year-old from Burma, who wants to be a tailor. 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. She is always on time to class with her homework completed.

“My father is old. My mother is happy. My girlfriend is beautiful.” These are the sentences using adjectives that the two Afghani brothers come up with in a practice session. 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 and are reserved. After asking their ages, I realize they were ten and eleven years old when they left Afghanistan.

As summer progresses the Congo family from a refugee camp in Burundi is a joy and a mystery. During their first time to class, they have only been in the U.S. about 10 days. They look weary and sad, and speak only 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, the family members are willing learners and attend when possible. The daughter tells me she has seven brothers and sisters. And sure enough, about a month later, the daughter reports her three middle school brothers have arrived at the airport the prior evening. She shows me their pictures on her new cell phone. (Refugees need cell phones for job calls.)

My tutoring also includes encounters with a beefy mechanic from Cuba, who I help understand 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 her mother for better economic opportunities in the U.S. She says it is never possible for her son to come to the U.S. I don’t know if that is true, but it is true for her at this moment.

Most of the refugees I meet seem motivated to work and make money. Sometimes they are disappointed they cannot have the job they dreamed about when they thought of America’s opportunities. Most have to start out with beginning jobs like valet parking, janitorial work, household and kitchen service.  As soon as they get employment they quit coming to ESL classes. In my community, Lutheran Family Services shepherds a refugee for about a year before he or she is expected to be independent. Volunteers and sponsors help with the process, and the U.S. government provides some funds for rent and other necessities. Salvation Army is a great resource for furnishing apartments.

Through tutoring this summer, I met Vicki Witte, an experienced volunteer, and asked her two questions: 1) What should an average American know about refugees coming to the U.S.? Her answer: “Don’t be afraid of them. They’re regular people; they love their families; and they’re generally very kind and hospitable.” And, 2) What has surprised her in this work? “Refugees are survivors. I’ve been surprised at the degree to which they are adaptable and resourceful.”

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)

While tutoring, I am curious about so many topics I would like to ask the refugees I meet. But it is not possible. We smile a lot and use hand gestures. Teacher Cameron uses the time wisely to get as much information covered as possible. 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, a quarter may get confused with a nickel.

And, how about 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 did not have access to these systems in their countries. During one class session Teacher Cameron goes over the basics of a health clinic and pharmacy. When one doesn’t speak or read English how can one understand what “running a fever” is? Do they understand the meanings of such words as constipation, diarrhea, or indigestion. Will they give the proper dosage of a medicine to a sick child? Can they accurately tell the doctor which body part hurts? So many acts we take for granted must be learned.

In my short time as an ESL tutor, my greatest reward was seeing several refugees become less stressed at summer’s end. Their body language was more relaxed, and there were genuine smiles and some joking. I enjoyed the young, confident Iraqi whose wife was expecting a baby any day. He was proud that he went to the gym and lifted weights to stay in shape. “I eat only chicken and fish,” he declared several times. He loved playing competitive class games to learn English.

A teacher will sometimes say he or she gets more out of teaching than the students get from the learning. In my encounters as a volunteer tutor this seemed to hold true.

Reese Witherspoon, starring as a social worker in "The Good Lie" movie greets three Sudanese refugees at a Kansas airport.
In “The Good Lie,” a good movie on refugee experiences in the U.S., Reese Witherspoon, as a social worker, greets Sudanese refugees arriving at a Kansas airport. Photo courtesy of Alcorn Entertainment/Warner Bros.

For example, do you know the difference between an immigrant and a refugee? I didn’t think about definitions before this summer. An immigrant has more choices in migrating to another country and can usually pick the timing. A refugee is more a victim of circumstances. Because of war or natural catastrophe, a refugee will not go “home.” Living in a refugee camp for nine years is not uncommon. Refugees must wait for someone–some country–to adopt them, one by one. Children and women are not very safe in many of these camps.  I learned the U.S. is one of the few countries that will take refugees who are not in good health. There are approximately 70,000 refugees per year currently admitted to the U.S.–this number is 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 at a training session answered, “Who knows. But it is no secret that the government doesn’t do anything for free.”

When writing this blog I recalled an airplane flight from Chicago to Fargo that I took several years ago. Aboard were about six people, most likely refugees, some dressed in traditional Asian garments. Their faces showed the stress and weariness of a long journey. Unfortunately, the elderly grandpa, had soiled himself, and the smell was horrible as I sat in the back of the plane with this family. There was nothing that could be done, but I remember thinking the plane looked and smelled like a third world country. My attitude was not hospitable.

After we walked through Fargo’s terminal security, to our right stood about 20 family members and friends waiting for the smelly group of “refugees.” There was much excitement—lots of chatter and big smiles.

To my left, waiting for me as a surprise, were my two beautiful, blond nieces, Nicci and Katie. My greeting party wasn’t as big as the Asian group, but the joyful feelings seemed similar. There is nothing like experiencing the smiling presence of loved ones in reunion. It is a slice of love, in the homeland of the heart. This can overcome distance, disaster, and war.