Most outings with my refugees become adventures in Western acculturation, such as the use of seat belts (I showed the two boys sitting in the rear of my car the (unsanctioned) trick of moving the shoulder strap behind them, as it was cutting into their necks) and how to fold their pizza slice for easy biting when the plastic fork and knife proved ineffective. The unintended spectacle came when one of the boys innocently shook his soda bottle to mix the contents— No, don’t do that!— thereupon showering the table with its contents. And, they do tend to become carsick afterwards; my husband warned me against feeding them, but if I believed that, then I’m in the wrong line of work.
The initial meeting with my new assignment, a Bhutanese family, was unsettling in some unusual ways. The twin boys (of two sets of twins in the same family, rare for Asians, especially without in-vitro fertilization) uncanningly resembled my nephews when they were younger. The teen sister had multiple piercings, artfully distressed jeans, and a cross on her neck. The family is Brahmin Hindu, so did she know she was wearing a religious symbol? She said she liked it, and only much later, admitted to attending services at a local church. Her mother was not perturbed, but this does not surprise me as my own mother, herself Buddhist, was accepting of my brother’s turn to the Church and, later my conversion to Judaism. (Only my adoption of Orthodox practices proved unsettling for my parents, given the separations imposed.)
Yesterday was a long day at the new Refugee Clinic opened by Children’s Hospital. After one boy had his follow-up exam, we were told that the blood work kits for tuberculosis for him and his siblings were not available at that site, and to spare us a wait for a courier, we could go to the main building, 0.61 miles away. The Translator (a man with two graduate degrees and one son who’d studied at Oxford) assured me that they are used to walking long distances, so I left my car in its spot and we hiked over. When we arrived, we had to wait for the designated person, who never did show us her face. When I got impatient (as it was lunchtime), I asked if she was already out to lunch, literally. No, the reason for the delay was that the kits had not arrived there either (so why did she agree to our visit in the first place?). Whereupon, I shepherded my crew to the hospital food court and witnessed the antics mentioned above.
The Refugee Clinic is an innovation that some of the major teaching hospitals have recently instituted, to help train their residents in the issues of an international clientele. I particularly liked the fledging one run by Children’s Hospital— only one month old as of yesterday— because the staff was unusually friendly and the medical residents who volunteer for the clinic are really solicitous of the different needs of the refugees.
We were there for a follow-up because one boy had blood in his stool. The two Residents asked many questions about accompanying symptoms— no, he has no discomfort, no fever or chills, no sudden weight loss (in fact, he’s gained four pounds since arriving in America six weeks ago!)—but he’s had his symptoms for two years already, an unusually long time for a parasitic infection. The family had brought in stool specimens. When the Resident asked if the boy drank much, I interjected saying that all the refugees have complained about the quality of the water in South Philly and many choose to buy bottled water. This family had not done so, but the boy was not drinking much water either.
When the female Resident asked about school, the boy chose to talk about the free meals available at school— he liked the breakfasts but not the lunches, as American meat is too bland. The male Resident asked how was he managing with the language barrier, was he only speaking with his brother? I pointed out that children often play together without English fluency, as sports can be a universal language of its own. I mentioned that while the sister is in a high school with ESOL and a New Learner’s Academy (for those arriving with no English fluency whatsoever), the boys were in an elementary school without any ESOL programs, and probably without an itinerant ESOL teacher either. Such are the breaks in a poor school district. They’ll flounder for a while, but in a matter of months, they’ll be speaking English too, even if they wouldn’t be able to understand their social studies textbook.