It was another unusual day out with my refugees yesterday, but while memorable, the results were not so much fun for me.  I‘d brought a Bhutanese family to the Refugee Clinic and while visiting the bathroom, I popped my knee.  This was an anomaly for me, as I’d never had any problem from my knees before.  The Resident got me an ice pack and I attempted to soothe the knee while the three children were examined and received two vaccinations apiece.  Alas, the staff was not allowed to dispense to me any pain medication, but they relented on giving me an Ace bandage.  Also, my car was parked three long city blocks away and it was pouring rain with a strong wind.  Would a taxi driver consent to such a short ride, even with the offer of a big tip?  I decided to brave the conditions (and risk damaging further my knee), instructing the family to wait for me in the lobby, away from the foul weather (they also did not have a single umbrella amongst them).

The 10-year-old boy was again car-sick and did not want to get back into my car, but he was over-ruled by the rest of his family.  He sat in the middle position in the back, and I told him to close his eyes.  Note to self: be prepared with barf bags and ginger candy.

The other factor was that the morning visit had taken so long that it was already noon.  We were all hungry.  During our wait, I’d asked the teen daughter if they were able to find their favorite foods and she said that they have not found an Indian grocery store.  The family is Brahmin Hindu and their customs are most similar to those of Indians.   I later learned that there are no Indian shops in South Philly, but the Nepali Interpreter told us that his wife shops at two stores in West Philly.  Well, we were off for an exploration, then!  I found the store easily and there was even a small parking lot on the side.  The family selected items from the freezer, but I pointed out that none of those items were ready-to-eat.  Upon query, the lady of the store (the owner?  A relative?) led us to the back of the store— mostly obscured from the main store floor– where they offered a simple menu and the entertainment of a Bollywood movie on a large flat-screen television set. The family selected samosas and sodas from glass bottles.  I ordered a hot tea, and it came Nepali style, with milk, sugar, and spices.  They were delighted, especially the mother who was finally able to find her legumes and spices, which I bought for them as she wasn’t prepared to shop.

When we returned to the car, the ill-disposed boy (who’d suffered from a headache and heartburn after regurgitating) fell asleep, so I was able to go the faster route on the highway.  After depositing the family at their home in South Philly (and making the extra effort to slam shut all the doors– something they were too polite to do)—and it was still raining— I drove myself to the Emergency Room of the hospital nearest to my home.  The staff took two X-rays and discharged me with crutches and a knee immobilizer— something akin to a foam and metal cast.  I’ve just accepted an appointment with an orthopedist for Monday, where I could get a MRI of the soft tissue damage.  I wonder how long it will be before I can drive again?  Being an invalid is no fun, but who’s whining?

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.

I made a quick trip into South Philly this afternoon to see my refugees.  The Inquirer had been running a series on violence in the schools and yesterday’s concluding piece was on South Philadelphia High School, where all of our teen refugees are enrolled.  I have high hopes for the new principal (sixth in five years), but it’s a tremendous task– last year, the school had the greatest number of reported incidence of violence in the whole school district.

My newest family is doing well– the boys/young men say their classes are not hard and not too easy, although the state-mandated standardized tests are a waste of time for these new English learners.  I delivered to them a converter box, so the television I’d dropped off earlier can now get reception.

I only got to see the middle daughter in my first family and she says that she does feel safer in the school, although she’s never had an interaction with the new principal.  The elder sister– the most fluent and the most academic– was at work in an after-school program nearby, so I didn’t get to speak with her.  I delivered to them the Sunday essay, “Burmese Nights” from last week’s NYTimes Magazine.

No word yet on employment for my two refugee candidates.

The Refugee Job Search or How Not to Conduct a Job Interview

Act II, Scene I

Advocate is seen driving to the home of Burmese Refugee, Candidate #1, in South Philadelphia.  He’s not home, so she waits on the garbage-strewn sidewalk.  Up he comes, driving a red car, which is nicer than hers (not hard to do, says her long-suffering Husband).

Advocate (astonished): Whose car is this?

Burmese Refugee (serenely): Mine.

Advocate: You have a license!?  How long have you been driving?

B.R.: About five months.  (The family has only been in this country since July.)

They get into Advocate’s car and she drives the 17.6 miles to the Landscaper’s office.

At one point, she questions aloud about the veracity of MapQuest, but defers to its superior knowledge.  Outside of Philadelphia, she is lost, trying to find the street address.

Advocate (calling Office Manager):  I’m lost (not an unusual occurrence)!

Office Manager: You’re very close.  We’re upstairs at the club house, on the golf course.

Advocate: But there’s no street number!

Office Manager: There’s no need.  We get no visitors.

They park and walk all around the grounds, trying to find a building with the aforementioned purple sign for the Landscaper.  Finally, they enter the main club house.

Advocate:  Where’s the Landscaper’s office?

Club Staff Member: Oh, he’s upstairs.  You take the stairs around the corner.

They blunder up the fire stairs instead, and open the door to a suite of rooms, each with a massage bed.  It is the Club Spa.  Office Manager answers her yahoos.  They enter a cramped office behind the Spa.  Office Manager is wearing a foot brace; a pair of crutches is propped by the wall.  They chit-chat about his injury and he hands them an application form.  Advocate helps Burmese Refugee formulate appropriate answers, such as job history.

Advocate: He’s married.

Office Manager (peering at the application form):  There’s no room to write that in.

Advocate (smiling): It’s because you’re not supposed to ask that question, but I’m telling you he’s married.

Office Manager: Oh, that’s good, because he has responsibilities and would be more reliable.  (Then going whole hog)  Does he have children?

Burmese Refugee: A girl– a year and four months.

Advocate (who does not mention she has spina bifida):  And his wife’s expecting!

Office Manager writes it all down.  Then more chit-chat.

Office Manager (to Advocate): You’re Jewish!?

Advocate (proudly):  Yes, I’m a Chinese American Jew.

Office Manager holds up his hand.  Advocate realizes that he means to high-five her, so she holds up her hand to meet his.  Burmese Refugee looks on, puzzled.

Advocate (breaking all rules of job interviews):  He’s also a Christian.

Office Manager:  That’s okay.  Some of us are Jewish and take off for the Jewish holidays.  The ones who do not, can continue working.  (More chit-chat.  To Burmese Refugee:)  You have a 50% chance of landing this job.  You realize we’re interviewing another candidate?  (They finish the interview.)

Advocate (to Burmese Refugee): You want me to drive you home?  Or do you want to try out the public transportation route?  (Burmese Refugee choses to be driven home.)

Office Manager:  Oh, it’s easy with GPS.

Burmese Refugee (calmly): I have GPS.

Advocate (astonished for the second time):  You have GPS!?  I don’t have one!

Office Manager:  It only costs about $40-$50 for one.

Advocate: Yeah, but you have to learn the how to use it.

Office Manager: Not if you get the voice-activated kind.

Advocate: Can you get the kind with a sexy male voice?  (wondering whose voice would that be?  Comment later censored.)

Advocate: When do you want someone to start?

Office Manager: As soon as we meet the other candidate.  When can that be?

Later, Advocate gives a verbal report to Case Manager, telling him about the scene early that morning.

Flashback scene:

Translator:  I’ve given him [Burmese Refugee] a job as a waiter at my restaurant!

Advocate:  So, why am I doing this?  I’ll ask the Case Manager for another refugee.

Translator:  No, I want him to go on this interview.  My job will be long hours.

Advocate recalls her father’s years of toil in a Chinese restaurant since their arrival in this country.

Back to present scene:

Case Manager:  If the Translator has offered him a job, then he should take it.

Advocate:  Yeah, he wouldn’t even have any commuting costs.  But what about Candidate #2, Eritrean Refugee?

Case Manager:  Oh, he’d be a better candidate!  He’s taller and bigger and his English is better.

Advocate:  I hope they think so.

Later, Advocate reports to Husband.

Husband:  We’ve always managed before without a GPS.

Advocate:  But I’m always getting lost in my assignments!

Thinking of her refugees, who have a better sense of direction than does she.  Her linguist daughter has told her that other cultures prize geographical intelligence more than do Americans.  Advocate was absent when they were teaching map skills in school.