My refugee family lived in a village in the minority Chin state in western Myanmar, on the border with India. The military junta was conscripting all the men and boys for heavy labor, transporting weaponry within the country. Their father died on one of these forced marches two years ago. The family fled that night and traveled into Thailand. However, the youngest daughter, aged 11 at the time, was separated from them at the scrimmage at the bus station. The promised Next Bus never arrived, so they lost touch with her and she ended up in a Christian Community House where she was able to attend a Chinese/Korean Christian school. The mother and elder daughters got rounded up and sold into bondage to a rubber plantation in Malaysia. They worked long days until a friend was able to post enough ransom money to free them. Miraculously, they found their sister/daughter in church one Sunday! The mother and elder daughters all worked in Malaysia (the youngest was enrolled in school) until their petition for Refugee Status was granted. They do have relatives in America– their father’s brother lives in Chicago and an aunt lives in Maryland– but they ended up in Philadelphia because their refugee portfolio got awarded to HIAS here.
Based on oral testimony of the eldest daughter, without a translator
Today I was interviewing Senior Volunteer for a new feature for the revamped HIAS website, to be launched in September. I mentioned that Prominent Congregant from my shul has many, many items to donate and a deadline to get things out of his house before his big move. Together, we hopped over to visit and she determined what will be picked up by Professional Mover and what will be picked up by me in my Ford sedan.
This volunteer wanted to respond to my last post. She has been working with just one family from Day One and she showed me the many notes of thanks written to her in rudimentary English with poor spelling. She has definitely been appreciated in her role as American Friend. She also has been working creatively in other areas on behalf of the refugees, but you’ll have to wait for the website’s launch to read all about it.
While I was recuperating from my knee injury, my father-in-law cautioned me against driving people in my car. In case of an accident, any of my refugees could sue me, even if I’m not at fault– and that would be one way to emulate American custom! When I questioned HIAS about their insurance policy, they confirmed that they only had secondary coverage, meaning I’m not covered by their plan.
Since recovering, I’m been wondering how I should proceed, if I’m not to resume the work that I’d been doing on behalf of the refugees. Yesterday, I had my meeting at the HIAS office. I told of my confusion that my efforts to reach out to the refugees have not resulted in any deepening relationships. Don’t they value having an American Friend? It’s a cultural difference, said the Social Worker. They think of us as the Government, said the Director of Development. Me, a representative of the U.S. government!? I declined to take the Foreign Service exam while in college because I couldn’t endorse all of our country’s polices, specially overseas. I recall that when my daughter and I used to volunteer for the Jewish Relief Agency, which delivers monthly parcels of food to the poor, we were debriefed thus: many of the clients in the northeast speak only Russian, so we’re to identify ourselves as “Chabad.” No, I’m not a practicing Chabad Jew and I will not identify as such.
The upshot of the meeting was that I was offered the opportunity to write a feature for the new website to be launched in September, in which I’ll interview the different people associated with HIAS— clients, staff, board members, and volunteers. I could also lead acculturation workshops, expanded from the present single session to a series of weekly sessions, for each new family. Or I could return to working with one family at a time. But once the family becomes busy with work and school, it’s hard for me to find a time to be with them, as I’m only available during the school day. In a role reversal, it is my college-graduate daughter who is teaching me to set limits on my time.
Just in time for the holiday of Shavuot with its agrarian setting and the message of hachnasat orchim (welcoming the stranger), I got to hear a presentation by Paul Leiba, the new Director of Development for Leket Israel.
Founded eight years ago by Joseph Gitler, Leket Israel combined two formerly small food-rescue organizations into an enterprise that now serves 55,000 clients daily. Fully supported by private donations, it employs 80 people, operates nine trucks that do food runs by day from corporate kitchens, and deploys thousands of volunteers for the nightly runs for pick-up from catering halls and restaurants. Their field-rescue missions help farmers by harvesting produce from the fields that the farmers cannot sell because the items do not conform to consumer expectations for color and size. Because volunteers tire easily in the field, Leket Israel also employs 22 full-time pickers who are mostly Israeli Arab women. Leket may well be the only graduation. By dint of unusual circumstances as well as personal choice, my daughter left for college by herself with only two bags and she has never asked us to drive her to or back from Chicago. She will be moving to her new apartment without our assistance. Her father has given her money for her living expenses, but we have friends who told their children that they are on their own after college (or they could move back home). I’m glad our daughter is motivated to being independent.
Babies thrive best when they have a safe and stable environment with nurturing caregivers. We endow our children with the resources of our families. They proceed to negotiate with the outside world on their own terms, drawing upon the family capital but also drawing on their own strengths and talents.
Immigrants are motivated for success by choosing to leave their families, their people, their land. You could say that they are pre-selected for success. However, as my Rabbi has noted, even individual hard work needs the benefit of siyatah d’shmayah (Heavenly assistance). So, I am relieved to conclude thus: my refugees do need help while they are learning the language and mores of our culture (and more than the 180 days that HIAS is contracted to provide). The Social Worker had cautioned me about not beguiling them with American generosity; however, she’s met refugees who came off the plane with so few possessions that they filled only two rice sacks! So, I’ll try hard not to pamper them needlessly. They will land on their feet and succeed, and I serve as their Advocate, the “angel” (if I could be so bold to say so) who could give them some assistance along the way.