Not long after I moved to the Tri-Cities, I began volunteering with the refugee agency World Relief. I had some exposure to refugee work in the Fort Worth area through friends at Catholic Charities and some writing work I did with Chin young people in Dallas. My heart continues to feel an affinity with Southeast Asians, after so many years working with ethnic groups along the Burma-China border, and it seemed natural for me to connect with the local refugee community in Kennewick.
My default when talking to the volunteer coordinator was to tell her I could teach English as a Second Language. I was quickly given a beginning level class of mostly Somali women (I blogged about that earlier this year). Not quite what I had been expecting. Soon, though, I was also assigned to be a mentor for a newly arrived Karen family of seven. The Karen are a heavily persecuted ethnic group from Burma, and this family had spent time in refugee camps in Thailand and arrived in Washington only two weeks before I met them.
I don’t speak Burmese or Karen. They don’t speak English. But every Tuesday afternoon I go to their house and help them with any errands that might require a car or “translator.” Now, like I said, I don’t speak Burmese or Karen. But I can translate standard English into a very simplified English that they can understand, so that when a clerk hurriedly asks for their “date-uh-birth” I sloooooowly repeat “birthday” until they get it. And they usually do get it.
We’ve gone to the local Department of Licensing to get their official Washington photo IDs.
We’ve gone to WalMart to pick up prescriptions (a true act of compassion on my part, given my aversion to WalMart), where I taught them to look for Equate brand products to save money whenever possible.
We’ve gone to the Asian market and to WinCo. When we go grocery shopping, they find enough friends in their apartment complex to fill up both my front and back seat, and they buy enough groceries to fill up the trunk. I’m reminded of trips to B Mountain in Yunnan, where I would drive the truck full of village friends in the cab and their goods in the bed.
A couple of weeks ago I had my first experience helping my Karen friends with a WIC food voucher. I had never seen one before they handed it to me. Every state does it differently, so I hear, but in Washington families are given a voucher with a very specific list of items that they can purchase. My friends’ voucher was for 2 gallons of milk, 1 quart of milk (I don’t get it, why the odd amounts?), 1 dozen eggs, 16 oz of rice (that will last approximately one meal for a family from Burma), 16 oz of beans, and 2 containers of juice. It was like a scavenger hunt for me to go through the store and find the items for them, to show them which products and sizes were eligible for their voucher.
I’ve been overwhelmed through this whole process — overwhelmed on their behalf. How difficult it is to arrive in a foreign land, have so little money, and not be able to do much to change the situation and support your family better. Learning English is difficult, learning to navigate a new system is confounding, leaving behind a previous life is heartbreaking. I know my Karen friends would rather farm their own land on a mountainside in Burma, grow their own rice and raise their own chickens to feed their family. But that freedom was taken away by a hostile army.
My own memories of adjusting to life in a new country are vivid, but I went to China willingly — and I went with a college education and plenty of money in my bank account. My own experience is nothing like the upheaval the Karen and Somali and Iraqi refugees in the Tri-Cities go through each day as they adjust.