Friday, November 16, 2007


This city's entire landscape seems to have changed due to a recent influx of refugees here. Since the time I lived here, a lot has changed, and the biggest changes seem to be connected to the refugees. There's a general sense of bitterness against these millions of newcomers to the country whose arrival has not been overall helpful to the nation's economy.

However, I was quite pleased to learn that one of my dear friends has dedicated her life to finding ways to help them. I'm so impressed with what she's doing that I've been helping her out during my free time, which has so far mostly meant being a substitute English teacher at the school she has started for them (very few of the children are given spots in the local schools), and accompanying her on some family visits. I've been so impressed by this disanfranchised segment of the population, and here are some reasons...

- The children really are children - they're not too proud or jaded to show it. Last week we took the students on a field trip to the local zoo. The bus was overcrowded (more than two people per seat) and we got there 15 minutes before the zoo closed, but the kids were not daunted. As we rushed around taking in the animals, they ran from one cage to another, eagerly and obediently taking one look and then running to the next. Then after we'd seen the animals, there was a playground. I doubt you have ever seen such a large group of children so excited to slide down a slide. There was a queue of about 15 kids at a time, just for a quick roll down the slide - ranging in age from 5 to 15.
I don't know how many of these children really had a childhood - I do know that many of them have been busy fleeing their country and moving around for the last few years. It was so refreshing to see these kids who thought the simplest of diversions really was exciting. Not everyone was happy with the bus conditions or the choice of a zoo for our field trip, but everyone was determined to have a good time.

- The smallest things do not get these kids down. At the school, classroom conditions are awful. It's one room the size of a double bedroom in which two classes meet at a time. Twice now, I've been given responsibility for two combined classes of 30 boys total, 9-13 years old. It's crowded, they don't all have seats or pens, and I'd think something was wrong if I could actually keep them all under control! Sure enough, I've had to dig deep to my past as a teacher to keep enough discipline in the class to do anything productive at all!
Today I think class was quite boring and unproductive as most of the time was spent in discipline and kicking boys out of the room. Now, I'm just sub-teaching and there's not a curriculum set up yet, so keep in mind I had no idea what I was supposed to be teaching, beyond "English" - oh, and they're all at different levels! Ok, I'm trying to convey how unlikely it seemed to me that anyone would actually learn anything.
But the thing is that they still tried to learn. They weren't mad at me for long when I kicked them out. They came back obediently and tried again. Their biggest discipline problem was that they couldn't stay in their seats because they wanted me to call on them. And then afterwards, when I passed some of them in the street, they all greeted me in the sweet enthusiasm of boys. I'm just in a bit of shock, I think, at these pre-teen boys who seem to WANT to go to school (on the weekend, no less)!

- Refugees, it seems to me, are people who speak of the worst things in the most everyday of terms. They're the people who save pictures of a family member who was tortured to death, and tell the story with great pain, but convey it as something that happened and now it's time to move on... Last week one woman told me of her three brothers and her nephew who were killed, how everyone in the family had abandoned her and her nieces/nephews, leaving her with the responsibility for raising 9 children. Another girl told me that her brother was killed as they were traveling. Another girl told me that her father and uncles were all shot, but the bullet went in one side of her father's face and out the other, so he survived. They told me these things in the same matter-of-fact tone I'm writing it here. They all have suffered so much, but there seems to be a sense that there's no point dwelling on it, it's better to move forward. There are, of course, many who also don't seem to be pulling out of their past. In fact, my friend is concluding that the biggest need in this community is for psychological counseling (a type of training sorely lacking in this part of the world).

- Many of these refugees are highly committed to dignity. In general, I've been very impressed by their cultural background, how they place such high value on education and development. Even when they're struggling to put food on the table, they still make the effort to dress nicely, to make their beds comfortable, to treat guests honourably.
I've also heard some absolutely horrifying stories of others who are not acting with dignity at all. I've learned of families who are selling their daughters for money, for example, but there is so much shame in that it doesn't surprise me that I haven't met them myself yet! I think I'm trying to get my head around the fact that fleeing one's countries can bring out the best in some people and the worst in others - and I mean a really amazing best and a truly horrifying worst.

- Most of the girls I've met have two favourite places: the place they are from and the place they dream of moving to. They simultaneously live in the past and in the future, but much less in the present.

- Many of the boys and men are unable to work legally to support their families, but in the neighbourhood, where the school is located and where many refugees live, there are two layers of stores: the official ones in real buildings, and the informal economy, stands lining the streets. There are boys selling cigarettes, men selling pickled products and sweets (I assume their wives cooked these treats at home for the men to come out and sell), people polishing shoes... demonstrating economic resourcefulness. I doubt they are making much, but they are trying, and how can one not respect that?

Well, these are some of my observations from the past few weeks. Sometimes it's been hard to keep from crying when I hear the stories, and I want to learn as much as possible while I'm here, but I also feel there must be some way to help. How can I see such suffering and not do anything? Sometimes, I think it paralyzes me - since I can't solve everyone's problems I won't even try to do anything. My friend has had the opposite reaction, and I worry she is doing herself harm by spending so much time working to help them. I still have not come to grips with this question, and don't know if I ever will.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

a wedding

I just came back from a most unusual wedding experience. I'm currently in a Middle Eastern country that apparently is best left unnamed, at least as long as I'm here, but many of you will know where I am when I tell you that I feel like I've returned home.

Anyway, I'm staying in a town that is a suburb of the capital, but it can't have been too long ago that it was just another village. It still has the feel of a village, but with a lot of traffic. And quite a few city people are now mixed in with the village people. There is a Christian section to the town, so I don't stick out too much - otherwise I would, because it's a conservative area where all the Muslim women are quite conservatively dressed. The Christian women, on the other hand, dress modestly but in very Western dress.

So being a wedding of a member of "the family of this village" (the way we say here someone who is originally from this village, not just living here), it was a rather conservative wedding. I was the only woman who walked into the room uncovered - hence putting me in the same category as the dozens and dozens of little kids in attendance. Several of the younger women removed their headscarfs as soon as they walked in, revealing quite impressive hairdos beneath. But I'd never been to a wedding where so many of the women remained in traditional dress and apparently were not dressed up, even though we were in an all-women's wedding hall! Even the woman who was videotaping the wedding wore a headscarf throughout the evening, even though she was smoking a cigarette.

There were some other things that really struck me about the women at this party. There were many women wearing what looked like very simple clothing, not suitable for a party unless they were very poor. Some of them may have been poor, but apparently that dress was the traditional dress of this particular village. It was interesting to think that a village that has now become a suburb of a capital city has managed to maintain its identity and customs despite its absorption into the big city.

I was also struck by how many fair-skinned women there were, and even several blondes - natural blondes. I'd heard that this was the case, but hadn't really seen it before then: people who are from this area, like really from this area dating back generations, are often fair-skinned. It kind of puts a new twist on the common mantra that a blond depiction of Jesus is inaccurate! Who knows, maybe he was blond... As I sat there watching all the conservatively-dressed women, as well as the few who were in full party dress, I tried to imagine life in this village 100 years ago (or 1000 years ago?! They say that a famous New Testament story happened in this town): all these blondes walking around in black robes and big white scarfs...

The bride arrived, but before she walked in, some boys pushed in a very big and heavy suitcase - it seemed to me that it was kind of a big ugly thing to have at a wedding. Camera equipment, I wondered? Or perhaps decorations? Or perhaps connected to some tradition about taking her possessions to her new home? Wrong on all counts. It was an unknown number of dresses that she had made herself, and she would present herself in each one during the evening. These were some fancy dresses - I wondered how long her engagement was (most people I know here have somewhat short engagements) for her to have time to sew all these dresses, plus prepare for her new married life! She entered the hall in white and changed into pink, then red, then peach-coloured. That's all I saw before I left, but it made for an interesting party: she'd enter in a dress, dance for half a song on the stage, do a few poses for the camerawoman, then go to a side room to change. And we could barely see the stage, so it wasn't the most exciting entertainment I'd had at a wedding.

Which brings me to the thing that left me scratching my head. I was with the mother and daughter of the family with whom I'm living right now. A bit after us a neighbour and her daughter came in and we sat together, amidst a very tight crowd of very hardy women (my phone rang and they were not about to budge to let me out of the hall to answer it, but the music was way too loud to do any good while I was in the hall!). Anyway so the five of us kind of stuck together and the four of them kept exchanging comments and laughing out loud. Everyone else was looking rather solemn but not my companions!

Then, right as the bride was parading her peach dress, we left. Stood up and left (people were still arriving - after all, the groom couldn't come until she was done changing dresses, so we knew the party hadn't yet peaked) and they walked out giggling. I had no idea what it was about, between language difficulties and the volume of the music. When we got to the car I found out it was because they felt somewhat disgraced and were mocking the whole thing. They were thirsty and no one brought water. We'd been there about two hours and hadn't been offered anything to eat. And they didn't seem so impressed with the appearance of the other women, either. So all that laughing was scorn for the wedding itself, apparently! I am wondering how much of a snub it was for us to walk out when and how we did. And what a normal-respectable wedding in this village is like. And how many more dresses the bride had...