Thursday, April 10, 2008

The refugees

Imagine being a 13-year-old girl, living with your family in Baghdad, Iraq. You and your older sister, brother, and your parents flee Iraq in 2007 and go to Turkey. Another older brother ends up in Sweden. After nine months in Istanbul in a perpetually less-than-permanent situation, not being able to attend school, you, your sister, and your parents are granted refugee status by the US and end up in Tucson, Arizona. You don't really speak any English, and it's the middle of the school year. There's nothing to be done but drop you in seventh grade at the nearby middle school and enroll you in a token ESL program populated almost entirely by native Spanish speakers. Welcome to America!!!

A few months ago, Jeremy and I were recruited by a volunteer at the International Rescue Committee in Tucson to help this refugee Iraqi family figure out life in America. Ostensibly, we would just be tutors, but they warned us we would probably have to help with all kinds of random getting-settled situations. And that has certainly been the case.

Miriam and I go to their house at least once a week to help Hind, the 13-year-old, with her homework. Or rather, I help her with homework and Miriam gets pumped full of sweets and attention from the rest of the family or any fellow Iraqi refugee friends who happen to be visiting. It's just like old times, really.

In addition to 7th-grade math homework, which is really fun to do since my brain had pretty much counted on being done with all that, I often have to help Hind decipher letters sent home with her from school. Once, a long, important-looking letter ended up being nothing more than the school administration announcing the retirement of a teacher. When I finished explaining to Hind what it was all about, she asked me something to the effect of, "so, why do I care?" My answer was that I didn't know.

Yesterday afternoon, she was in a tense mood when I came over and she immediately handed me another official school letter. She had been able to understand it just enough to know that it was about the status of her progress in school...and she'd also been able to misunderstand it just enough to think that it was telling her she would be held back a grade. I was very happy to be able to undeceive her (what it was actually saying was that she was considered "below grade level" in English skills and thus would continue in the ESL program. Well, duh.)

Of course, you can take the Arab out of Arabia but the Arab sense of hospitality remains. Every time we go, we are pumped full of pseudo-Tang (seriously, where do they get that stuff??), date-based sweets, Coke, and plates of fruit provided with a knife for peeling/cutting. This list would include tea and coffee, but of course we went through all that on our first visit to their house (I think they're still getting over it).

The Arab sense of propriety remains, too. I went there once to help Hind study for a test (on the surface area of cylinders, cubes, and prisms), but she had stepped out for a few minutes by the time I got to the door. Her dad answered, and appeared to be alone in the apartment. I knew he couldn't expect me to go inside if it was going to be just him and me, and sure enough, without even mentioning it, he woke up the older sister just to show me she was there, too. Jeremy went over for a visit one time and found himself in the opposite situation - only Hind was home. So he had to stand outside awkwardly for a while. Then a male IRC volunteer came over, too, but it still wouldn't be proper for them to go inside. So they all stood outside around the open door until Hind's dad finally showed up.

Other odd tasks have included helping the older sister study for her driving test, searching out a power cord for a donated phone (Radio Shack strikes again - I'll write about it if I remember), and helping the family of four obtain cell phones (a guest post from Jeremy will be forthcoming, or else I'll just ghostwrite it).

The happy news is that their family is generally doing very well, even for the seventh grader. I think she's done a good job of making the most of a sad situation, and I look forward to deciphering official school letters and homework instructions for many weeks to come.


Liz Johnson said...

Yeah... there's not a whole lot of support for refugees in the US. It's sort of like they're supposed to survive on nothing and just be grateful for it. I was always irked by that in my previous job.

I'm glad you're able to help, though. FUN for all!

Shannan said...

good for you guys- thank you for giving Americans a GOOD name.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

I'm delighted you're there to guide this family through all the difficult and puzzling situations that come w/ the adjustments traumatized refugees must make. And even though it might not seem like they get much official help, I think their motivation to work hard to prosper will carry them through these hard times.

My grandparents stepped off the boat not ever having heard a word of English in their entire lives, until Ellis Island. Even their American-born children didn't speak English until the day they began school. And there was no ESL or other assistance provided. For this reason, immigrants of previous generations stuck together in communities and occupations, for security and safety. The unfortunate fallout was that most of them didn't move up in the world--Grandpa stayed a coal miner until his forced retirement (mine accident) and those of his generation generally didn't speak English or read/write very well, or develop higher skills.

I'm impressed at generally how well modern immigrants are able to adapt and contribute.

breanne said...

Bridget, you have never met me, but I am a BYU student about to study abroad in Jordan and I stumbled across your "adventures in Jordan" blog while searching for information about BYU students who went to Jordan last year.

I just have to say, your posts are hilarious and insightful (especially on your Middle East blogs), and your writing just invites the reader to feel the experience for themselves. I have enjoyed reading some of your posts from Syria and Jordan and wish you would have written a blog from when you lived in Russia!

(PS, I hope it is ok that I posted a link to your Syria/Jordan blogs on my Arabic blog!)

Amy said...

That was so interesting!! After reading that post I just looked up the IRC in Seattle. It looks like a great thing to volunteer for!

BTW, is the pseudo-tang Tampico? If so they probably got it at Food City!! (I used to shop there).

Bridget said...

Amy, I don't think it's Tampico, only because my impression is that it's a powdered mix. Isn't Tampico already made? I don't know. I'm obviously not familiar enough with fake juice drinks. :)

Amy said...

Yeah, Tampico is already made, it must be something else. :)


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