Bureaucracy is a disease of modernity and a refuge for the coward. These are strong words, but I’ve seen that it’s so easy for a functionary to just say no, to disregard the needs of the petitioner, who often does not have a voice.
Today’s assignment was to help a Bhutanese young man complete his school registration. He’d taken his language placement exam three weeks ago, but we had to wait until last Thursday for his first physical— without my escort— and we had the immunization record in hand. Unfortunately, it did not list varicella (chickenpox) nor hepatitis B. The staffer at the Enrollment Center took note of our plight and argued for his case, that his next scheduled appointment will be in mid-May, so that would effectively rule out his matriculation for this school year. Eventually, we made our way through the system and got permission to start school, pending his next round of immunizations.
While we were waiting for authorization, I noticed that my young man had gotten pale. He was not counting on a positive outcome. Being already 20 years old, he did not have many months left for a public and free education. I tried to reassure him that we’ll head to the health clinic and demand that they rectify their mistake (or did they run out of those mandatory vaccines?). His father had told me that the bureaucratic system in place back in the refugee camp was horrendous, with hours of waiting on foot (no chairs provided). Under-the-table bribes were the only way to get anyone to exert any effort.
While at South Philly High, I chatted with the office staffer and learned that the school has been designated as a Promise Academy, in which the school year will be lengthened and Saturday and afternoon sessions added. Furthermore, every member of the teaching and professional staff will be interviewed for re-hire by the new principal. What an opportunity! What promise! However, from my vantage point as an advocate, I saw that it could also be a crutch for functionaries to remain rigid in their routine, as if they would be punished if not every t crossed and every i dotted. I was grateful that some people exerted themselves today, by being mindful of what it means to tell a eager young man he cannot start school.
Note: there are wonderful programs happening in this country if you know where to look. I learned today that there’s a program to keep track of the educational needs of children of migrant farm workers and they have coverage in Philadelphia and nearby Chester county! Programs like these make me proud to be an American.
I’ll start with a rant but bear with me and I’ll move on to good news. My refugee kid had two appointments at Children’s Hospital today, neither with the benefit of a translator. The Translator had alerted me to the oversight last night, even though she was present at the time we’d agreed to today’s appointments. Someone forgot to file the request, but no one admitted fault today. Instead they said that the family has to ask for it each time. “Write it on her file,” said I, but they were too busy (or too jaded) to care. They did not offer the phone translation service, but I also did not want to wait the extra time for it to be set up (we were already pushing three hours between both waiting areas). The child got her first set of braces today, with a bar between the shoes. She is to wear them 23 hours a day and night, with an hour off for bathing. She is to return in three months to be re-fitted and checked for progress.
My exciting news is that I have a lead for employment for the refugees! Most of the Asian ones were farmers before they were uprooted from their homes. Brainstorming about job opportunities, I called my landscaper, who’d won professional awards, including at the world-famous Philadelphia Flower Show, which ended last week (he did not exhibit this year— too busy). He is willing to interview two candidates for the coming season. They want someone young who could lift up to 100 pounds. The more English fluency, the better. Now, the Case Manager and I have the difficult task of selecting from amongst all the refugees who want work, especially outside of a warehouse. The landscaper’s office manager is a cynical guy— he’s been hiring for several seasons already and only about one in eight candidates actually work out. The character shibboleth will be work ethic — someone who is willing to work hard and to persevere. I want this line of employment to stay open, so I want us to pick well.
Life and its uncomfortable complications are often viewed in stark black-and-white terms by the young. I distinctly recall decrying with disdain that some women seem to use abortions as contraception. Then I matured and learned to consider the nuances of other people’s decisions. This past week, I was faced with an ethical dilemma: a young refugee mother sought an abortion. They were already struggling financially— her husband’s salary barely covers their monthly rent—and they have a young child with a severe chronic condition. They despaired over caring for an infant.
I appealed to my Rabbi and he asked if the woman has other means of going? I said that my role would be as escort and advocate, because I know how to ask questions. So, he said, my presence would be “value-added” to prevent the woman from being misguided or misinformed. Another issue would be how I might be judged as an Orthodox Jew seen going into Planned Parenthood, both by HIAS as well as by the general passersby near the clinic.
After much soul searching, I decided to escort the woman to her medical-consent appointment today but I’ll not attend the actual termination on Friday (as it’ll cut into my Shabbat preparations). I finally got through to the private foundation, Women’s Medical Fund, which gives financial assistance to women for abortions. I described the woman’s financial situation and was told that she does qualify for assistance, but they had already dispensed that day’s funds.. They do ask the clients to consider this a loan and for them to re-pay a token amount. I wish there were something for her like the Israeli Just One Life organization, so that she could be supported to bear her child.
Today when I arrived at their apartment in South Philly, it seemed as if a neighborly watch had been instituted on behalf of the young mother. One woman was seen leaving their premises and another was sitting inside. I was greeted with the news that they wished to cancel today’s appointment— no abortion for them after all! The husband and wife were both smiling, so it doesn’t seem as if there had been any coercion on the community’s part. It was a simple matter of dialing and waiting for the receptionist at Planned Parenthood to cancel a life-shattering procedure. Next, I could try to find the husband a job that pays more than $7.50 an hour, so that they can afford to support an additional member of the family.
The family newly assigned to me today is different in two ways: their country of origin—Bhutan—and their religion—Hinduism. This family became refugees in 1992 when Bhutan began to expel ethnic Nepalis, a policy that resulted in the expulsion of one-sixth of the country’s population [Human Rights Watch]. Living in a camp in Nepal– in a bamboo hut covered by a plastic sheet— for 19 years, this family has raised four children, with the two youngest never having known life outside of a refugee camp. The father told me their camp was so densely populated, it resembled South Philly, with its closely situated buildings.
When I received the message from HIAS’s Executive Director about the impending Congressional vote, I immediately called my two Senators. The dismissive reception on the telephone, especially by the aide for the newly elected Republican Senator, Pat Toomey, does not bode well for their voting to sustain funding for the refugee program.
I despair that this Congressional term will be marked by governmental cuts across all kinds of social programs. The cuts to the refugee program, including the ones already approved for refugee status and immigration by the State Department, will fall upon people who have already suffered greatly from political persecution. They need help in getting acclimated culturally, learning English, finding jobs. They all want to become responsible members of society. This country owes them this, after having invited them to come to our shores. This country became great from its diverse immigrants and we cannot turn our backs on this noble heritage.