Monday, July 28, 2008

Portrait #39: This is the honeymoon stage??!!

They came to me together, as a family, thinking I could help them. I could do little more than give them an address and a name, and a bit of random advice. How can I even pretend that that comes close to enough?

But what they need is the big stuff, the things I can't provide. What is the little stuff? What is there that I could give them?

They told me that they arrived in this country 10 days ago. The mother of three children (16, 13 and 4) was the leader of the family entourage that called me this morning saying that they were outside my building looking for me. I'd talked to her on the phone twice but hadn't called back yet because I still didn't have any information to give her. I had told her that I'd call her this morning but she interpreted that promise as an invitation to come visit. I was glad to meet them, but what could I do for them?

She walked in with her brother-in-law and two of her three children. Her brother-in-law had been here before, two years ago, then he'd gone back home. Now he was back, this time with his brother and his family. They're not going home. The rest of their family lives abroad - spread across Europe and America, but the two brothers have been left in the Middle East living the lives of refugees. They left because her husband was threatened at work, her brother-in-law had been kidnapped and beaten, and they were under constant threat - was it because they were Christian or was it because of where they lived?

In the last 10 days they have managed to find by coincidence (or perhaps Providence) an association for refugees - but for refugees from a different country. That association will help them but only for a fee. But at least they now have a roof to put over their heads - they don't know anyone else here. Her family is all still back home and his family all lives abroad. Their first month's rent has cost them nearly 30% of their savings, though. When I asked how much money they had left to live on, she said, "Only enough for a few more months," and pulled out her wallet. While I chatted with her daughter and brother-in-law, she counted her cash and then carefully put her wallet away again. "We have US 750 left," she told me. Her rent for the first month was $400.

Her husband trained as a veterinarian of some sort, but because of the difficulties in their country, he had been working in the laundry service of a local hotel. Her brother-in-law had had a job doing office administration. Her daughter has one year to go before entering the college-prep course, and she has two younger sons who should also be going to school. The first and last thing they asked me about was traveling. Because they have family abroad, they are attempting to get a family visa to America. They have also been to the UN to register as refugees - their appointment to do so is in three months' time. "Can you do anything to speed up the process for us? To get them to look at our papers and send us to America?" I explained that the system is very structured and that's the one thing that for sure I can't help with. I asked them to invest in the present, because the resettlement process won't take less than a year - it could take many many years more than that, in fact. Should I have told them - could I have told them - that they are not guaranteed resettlement in the first place? Perhaps they know that already.

Her brother-in-law said he knows he will have to stoop to a low level, potentially a very low level, to work. She told me her husband is ready and willing to take any job he can find to help the family survive. She knows that while her dream is to be resettled to the West, she needs to focus on the present. "The first thing I must do is ensure my family's protection," she said and went on to explain how they are only eating the bare minimum of cheap food so as to make their small wad of cash last as long as possible. She put me on the phone with her sister-in-law who lives in America. Then her mother-in-law in America got on the phone to thank me for looking out for her dear ones. She was in tears, and all I could think of to say was that I wished her peace and rest in her spirit. They are getting a little bit of help from their America relatives, but apparently they are barely surviving on a minimum wage salary themselves!

We talked about getting the children into school. I hope that the organisation I connected them with will help the children register for school this year so that they don't have to fall behind. Of course, I know it will be a difficult transition to a different school system anyway, but they must continue with their lives. Their mother agreed with me wholeheartedly about that. Meanwhile, their uncle said he wants to make sure they get into school so that the family will be guaranteed residency in this country for the next year. He also told me that he is seriously willing to bring an American woman over here just to marry him and take him back with her. We joked about it and laughed, but I could see in his eyes that he really was willing to do anything. "It wouldn't have to be a real marriage," he said, chuckling, "Just for the visa."

I suggested he think hard about small business ventures he could do - something that wouldn't require purchasing property since he's not allowed to do that here. He's not allowed to work legally either, which means that even if he does find a job his salary would be low and he would be risking police attention every day at work. So maybe he could start a home-based business. His sister-in-law chimed in that she and her daughter could perhaps take in sewing projects. As long has her daughter stays in school, I said, and she agreed. They left with profuse words of gratitude, as if my spending half an hour with them telling them all the ways in which I could not help them was the greatest gift ever given to them.

1 comment:

Mignon said...

Thanks for writing this.

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