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.

1 comment:

tony said...

I'm glad that you're bringing light to refugees. I think its not just a problem in the Middle East but world wide. So many people have been and are being displaced from their homes by famine, political instability, etc... I'm always struck by Jesus' call to the take care of the least, the lost and the broken. This is a major problem and thanks for bringing up the discussion.

Just FYI, I'll be once again in DC Jan 4-7 for the American History Association meeting. So if you're around we should meet up for some warm coffee.

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