Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Portrait #37: Trying so, so hard

The other day I was taken on a home visit to meet two refugee families. These visits are always absolutely heartbreaking and I'm not sure I fully understand how the caseworkers who do this everyday, often several times a week, handle it emotionally. How do you look into the eyes of someone who has seen hell and just wants the simplest little bit of help? How do you do this over and over and over again - to the point that you have no more help to offer?

The second family was definitely one such visit. My guides, representatives of a local NGO, wanted me to meet the lady of the house. Her dream is to complete her PhD in English but it is currently impossible. If that had been the entire story, it would have been sad. But that didn't even scratch the surface.

She is several years older than her husband and they have a beautiful 4 year old daughter. In their home country, they lived in a city outside of the capital and she was an English teacher at the university level. She has a degree in English and a Masters in Education. She'd received threats since the war began, mostly from fundamentalists who wanted her to stop teaching - particularly to stop teaching the language of the invader. But she had refused to stop.

Then, about two years ago, she was pregnant with twins. Since she was already in her forties, the family was very excited about her new babies. But then one day, they came. They took her husband away and she didn't know what happened to him - but when he came back he'd been beaten badly. Then they beat her mother. Then they put a knife to her daughter's neck and told her that if she screamed or made any trouble at all, they would kill her daughter. Then a woman dressed in conservative Shi'a garb came and started beating her, aiming for her belly.

Sure enough, she lost the babies and shortly thereafter the four of them - husband, wife, daughter and wife's mother - fled. They came to this country with nothing and soon had even less. Her mother passed away a few months after they arrived and they've all struggled with health problems since the attack. They rent a small two-room flat in a Damascus suburb. It is set up with great tender-loving care, with thin winter blankets currently hanging on the wall to hide the worst water stains and peeling paints. The NGO representatives that introduced me to this family pointed at the two mattresses on the floor that constituted the living room/sleeping room. They told me that they had given the family those mattresses and they were also sponsoring their daughter to go to daycare. Daycare classes have made a tremendous difference in helping her move on from the trauma of what she saw as a mere toddler. They also mentioned that 2 of the NGO employees are taking English lessons with this woman - that way they learn some English and she has a bit of income.

The English teacher has been unable to find work. She can't pay her rent each month so she stated bluntly that she will probably have to sell those two precious mattresses to pay the next month's rent. They barely have enough to eat, but hospitality dictated that they went out and bought colas for all four of us.

Then she pulled out two books and handed them to me. One was a book of proverbs in English, each accompanied by 4-5 line explanations of the meaning in Arabic. The other wasn't actually a book, it was about 50 stapled pages which upon close examination revealed a basic English-Arabic dictionary. She explained to me that she had written these and found someone who helped her type them up. I can only imagine the way she had saved pennies to buy the notebook in which she wrote the first draft.

Then she'd found a publisher who would print a few dozen copies of each book and sell them. She could keep half and he could keep half. But he had not come through and so far she hadn't earned but a few small dollars from that enterprise. But she was trying.

The hardest thing, she said, was that she is an educated, cultured woman from a social class that values the finer things of life, including learning. But here she is poor, she is not respected, and she has to make decisions out of desperation, just to put a roof on her family's head and food in their tummies. It was beautiful to see how they three of them love each other and support each other, but when I left I had trouble looking her in the eyes.

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