January 28, 2008

the rant

Posted in Frustrations at 12: 11 pm by MK

I spent my morning at the Dept. of Social Services attempting to help A. & K. apply for public assistance.  A. earns $9 an hour. K. doesn’t work and they have 3 children. A family in this situation does not qualify for public assistance.

I’m frustrated on a number of levels. Here they are:

1.  System failure. A. & K. are currently spending about $300 a month to heat their apartment. As they receive food stamps, they should have automatically been enrolled in the county’s Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP). This never happened.

2. Affordable housing. The federal refugee office (USCRI) set up A. & K. in an apartment that costs $800 a month, not including utilities.  There is a refugee grant that covers housing expenses for the first 6 months in the country. After that, it is expected that refugees become employed and pay all of their own bills. At $9 an hour, $800 a month in rent is not feasible. It’s ridiculous actually. They need to move into public housing. And at this point, I’m trying to find out about emergency public housing. But what frustrates me (beyond the obvious need for more low-income housing) is the fact that USCRI put this family in an apartment they clearly would not be able to afford after 6 months! Where is their relationship with the local housing authority?

3. IOM Loan. In order for A. & K. to travel to the U.S. from their Thailand refugee camp they were given a loan from the International Office of Migration (this is standard for all refugees). This no interest loan totals about $3,500. The current monthly payment is $96.

4. A’s frustration.  When A. & K. made the decision to come to the U.S. (they had other countries to choose from) they were told that as political refugees they would be well care for. Right now A. just wants a job that provides him the means to support his family. We’re talking basic needs here, okay? Food, housing, clothing, shoes. The basics. It seems as if they have come upon every possible road block so far. At this point, A. thinks that perhaps they should have stayed in Thailand. Life in America is far from what he was told it would be.

5.  English lessons. Where are they? I think A. attends one class per week, but is that really enough? And what about K.? Just because she is a woman and the primary caregiver English lessons are not an option for her? What services take into account that many Burmese refugee women cannot attend English classes because they do not have childcare?

Why do people become homeless? No, it’s not because they spent their money on a large screen TV or internet access as some ridiculous blogger wrote about today (that’s another story…).  People become homeless because they do not have the means to pay their bills keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.  Minimum wage doesn’t cut it. A country without universal health care doesn’t cut it.  An employer that says, “sure we offer health care, but yeah it’s probably too expensive for our employees to afford” doesn’t cut it.

And it sucks to know they only way out is to work within the system.


December 9, 2007

A new job tomorrow . . .

Posted in Employment at 7: 07 pm by MK

A. begins a new job (his first job in America) tomorrow.  A large party-tent manufacturer in the area has hired about ten refugees for manufacturing jobs.  The refugee office checked it out and the work is safe and indoors (which is a plus for A.).  He’ll make about $8.50 an hour and also receive health benefits.  The company is also providing transportation to and from the job.  A. seems more nervous than excited about the opportunity, and I can’t blame him.

Hopefully this will work out well.  As refugees have all the same rights as American citizens it is important for them to be treated as such, and not be taken advantage of.  The problem is that they may not realize what rights they are entitled to, and without strong advocates fall prey to any variety of problems.  But, I’m going to stay positive and hope that the job is great and its a step towards financial independence for A. and K.

November 7, 2007

The Dinner

Posted in Cultures, Family, Food at 4: 19 pm by MK

I really don’t think our multicultural dinner could have gone any better.  I must admit I was a bit anxious leading up to Saturday.  We changed the dinner menu at the last minute opting for more of a variety of foods rather than one main course.  P. and I figured this would help to alleviate the what if they don’t like it concern by offering more than one option.  Once my dad and I picked up both families and brought them back to my house, everything was really enjoyable.  Highlights from the big event:

  • I think A. has some carpentry skills that may be helpful in his job search.  Our home is a work in progress, and while we’re 90% there in getting everything finished, we still have some missing molding and exposed insulation (yes, that’s a whole other story!).  A. communicated that he would know how to fix things in our house and could help.  The way he inspected P.’s work, made us think that he has some definite building skills.
  • Kids are unbelievably adaptable and resilient.   It was so endearing to watch all the children interact.  From the helpfulness of the older kids, to the not quite yet ready to share younger kids it makes you realize that kids are kids no matter if they are born and raised in the U.S. or in a Thailand refugee camp.  I think their behavior speaks more to the strong family units the parents have created.  You don’t need to speak English to know that their families are strong and well-bonded.  And thanks to C.S. for the coloring books and crayons– a definite hit.
  • My mother was amazing.  She had two things going for her:  a wonderfully uninhibited personality and 30 years of experience as a public school teacher.  She jumped right in with both the parents and the kids, interacting with them and making them feel comfortable.  She’s also very expressive with her hands and facial expressions–it’s amazing how much that can accomplish when it comes to nonverbal communication.
  • Some cultural norms aren’t easily dismantled.  There were 9 adults and 5 children at the dinner.  My plan was for the adults and the one-year-old to sit at the table (that’s about all my table could fit comfortably) and the 4 remaining children would sit around our counter peninsula (we had bar chairs and stools for them).  As I tried to seat everyone, I quickly realized that the women would not sit at the table with the men.  And the older boy was not going to sit with the women and children.  So the women and girls ended up sitting around the peninsula and everyone else sat the table.  Our Burmese friends seemed quite comfortable with this arrangement, while my family and I felt so uncomfortable.  When is it appropriate to push someone else’s cultural limitations?  Is it ever appropriate?
  • At the end of the meal, A. let out a very loud and calculated belch.  I think this was his way of saying he liked my food, though I’m not sure. . .
  • When P. and I went to dinner at their house we brought chocolate chip cookies.  Our Burmese friends brought us a birthday cake from Price Chopper.  While I of course wish they had saved their money, I really appreciated and understood the gesture.
  • The biggest food hit was my mom’s pumpkin cake.  They loved it.  Mom had made it in a bunt pan, which until we showed them the pan, the shape of the cake was perplexing.
  • My dad is certainly not a big guy.  He’s a bit under 6′ and thin.  He does, however, eat a lot.  I think from the perspective of A. and K. and the other family he is big, and they were laughing at how much he could eat.  I could only imagine what they’d think if they met my husband’s brothers and watched the three of them devour a meal!
  • The digital camera was a hit.  We took pictures of everyone and then let the kids use the camera and take pictures, which they thoroughly enjoyed.
  • I can’t wait to do it again.  I’m looking forward to future dinners and getting to know my new friends even better

November 2, 2007

Beef Stew

Posted in Cultures, Family, Food at 3: 37 pm by MK

Tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. we pick up A. and K., their 3 children, the couple they are friends with and their 2 children, and bring them all back to our house for dinner/lunch. The menu will be beef and barley stew, bread, salad, and pumpkin cake and apple pie for dessert. Sounds pretty American, right? We’ll see how it all goes over . . .

My parents are coming up for the weekend and so they’ll be here for the dinner. Funny after I told A. and K. that they live at a distance. . .I’m probably going to confuse them now! My good friend C.S. will also be joining us. So that makes a total of 9 adults and 5 children. This is going to be great…

And I think this will be the first time they’ve ever had a meal in (or for that matter, ever have been) in an American home!

October 31, 2007

How much space do we need?

Posted in Cultures at 9: 28 am by MK

As I’m thinking about Saturday’s dinner with the two Burmese families, I can’t help to wonder what they’ll think about the size of my house. Now P. and I don’t have a large house when compared to American standards.  And it’s a far cry from a McMansion, as a standard center-hall colonial.  But A. and K. live in a three-bedroom apartment, where the whole family (mom, dad, and the three children) sleep in one bedroom (the other bedrooms are used as storage).  Their concept of space is very different.  I imagine they’ll think it odd that two people need the space of a two-story, 3 bedroom, 2.5 bath home.  And when I look at it from their perspective it makes me wonder why exactly P. and I moved out of our lovely 3 bedroom apartment into our house.  Was it for the investment of home ownership? Or did we simply follow cultural expectations of buying a house after getting married.   And, really, how much space do we actually need?

(And this question reminds me of when we went furniture shopping for our new house:  all of the furniture was huge! Far too big for our living room and sun room.  I couldn’t imagine the size of the rooms needed to accommodate the couches and chairs in all of the furniture stores.   We ended up going with love seats in the living room . . . )

October 30, 2007

What would you take?

Posted in Refugee at 11: 28 am by MK

P. posed an interesting question on his blog: If you were forced to leave your home tonight (knowing you’d never return to it) and all you could take with you was one small bag, what would you take?

Funny, just after I wrote that question I realized how privileged it is of me to be able to ask the question as a hypothetical . . .

October 29, 2007

Mae La

Posted in Refugee camp at 10: 23 am by MK

A. and K. met at Mae La, the refugee camp on the border of Burma and Thailand. The Thailand Burma Border Consortium Web site offers a lot of information about life in a refugee camp.

Here’s a glimpse: the below chart outlines the daily rations provided for a refugee. (Supplemental nutrition is provided for pregnant women and children under 5 years old.) Remember: A. spent 18 years of his life living at Mae La. I hope this makes you stop and think as much as it made me.

Rice 15 kg/adult; 7.5 kg/child <5 years
Fortified Flour (AsiaMIX) 1 kg/person
Fish Paste 0.75 kg/person
Iodised Salt 0.33 kg/person
Mung Beans 1 kg/adult; 0.5 kg/child < 5 years
Cooking Oil 1 ltr/adult; 0.5 ltr / child < 5 years
Dried Chillies 0.125 kg/person
Sugar 0.25 kg/person

Spicy Dinner

Posted in Food at 10: 12 am by MK

I love spicy foods.  And yesterday proved that even more.  P. and I went to A. and K.’s house for dinner.  Every dish:  beef, chicken, shrimp, and all the dipping sauces were so spicy P. and I were both blowing our noses and drinking lots of water while A., K., and their other guests just laughed and laughed.  But seriously the food was great; I think cooking lessons will be needed.

The other guests included another couple and their two young daughters who were friends with A. and K. in the refugee camp and just got to the States last month.  A.’s language skills are growing more each time I see him.  Although I think it may have more to do with his confidence in trying to speak English than the actual skills.  We communicated well through some minimal vocab words and lots of gesturing.  He told us that his mother and father were both killed by the Burmese government when he was young.  And because he moved to the refugee camp at such a young age, he never had the chance to go to school.  He’s grateful to be safe in the U.S. and have the chance at a new life for himself, and, most importantly, his children.

Dinner was fun and P. and I reciprocated the offer:  everyone will be coming to our house on Saturday.  Now the hard part will be choosing the menu . . .

October 28, 2007

20 Buddhist Monks

Posted in Buddhism at 2: 00 pm by MK

This past Friday I forgot that I lived in a city in upstate New York. I went to a Burmese temple in a neighboring town to celebrate the Festival of Lights (the end of Buddhist Lent) with my new friends. The temple was a small two story house nestled in a row of houses on a semi-busy street. I arrived and entered through the main entrance to a kitchen full of people, children, food, and shoes. I was told to keep my shoes on and ushered through the kitchen, out a back door, up an outside staircase to enter the second floor through another outside entrance. I slipped off my shoes and walked down the small hallway into a large living room filled with people: a small group of Westerners, a group of Burmese, and twenty Buddhist monks.

I sat with the westerners (mostly folks who work or intern at the refugee office) and kept trying to take it all in. The monks were eating around short, cherry colored tables. Eventually bowls upon bowls of food were put in front of us, and we were encouraged to eat. The westerners were served dessert first, although the Burmese ate it last. As one Burmese man told us, “We serve Americans dessert first because we know you like appetizers.” The dessert consisted of mango, custard-like squares, samosas, sweet sticky rice with coconut, among other things. We were also warned not to fill up on dessert, more was yet to come.

After all the dessert dishes were cleared away, the tables the monks had eaten off of were transferred to our group. As they were carried and placed down in front of us, I realized that they were completely filled with tiny dishes of food: spicy shrimp, cooked bamboo, beef, chicken, fish, rice, nuts, sausage, bitter greens, and so much more. The spicy shrimp were definitely my favorite, but everything was incredible. We ate until we couldn’t eat any more. After declining more dessert,the food was taken away. We picked up the dishes and passed them assembly style through the room and then down the inside staircase to the kitchen. Once the food was cleared, the tables were picked up and put away.

One of the monks came over to greet us through an interpreter. We were told he was the leader of the group, and was pleased to have us there. Actually everyone was so welcoming. At times I felt a bit awkward, but I never felt out of place. We learned that every four years Burmese monks from around the country choose a new location to celebrate the festival of lights. This year, for the first time ever, our city had received the honor. The majority of the monks there had flown in from across the country. At the end of the day they were leaving to attend a conference in California to discuss the current situation in Burma.

We were told that the monks were going to now lead everyone in prayer. Everyone came up from the downstairs, and most of the Burmese sat down on their knees facing the monks who sat in rows, one behind each other, facing the group. The head monk spoke for a few minutes and led everyone in a series of chants and prayers. Another monk then spoke for about twenty minutes. This was all in Burmese, so I don’t know what was said. I just sat cross-legged, my eyes closed at times listening to the rhythm of his speech.

After the half-hour ceremony, we all stood and were ushered outside. Above the house there was a square brick patio with a large gold pagoda in the center. We took off our shoes to step up onto the brick and everyone formed a large circle around the pagoda. We were then told that the monks would be coming out for offerings. Everyone had envelopes in their hands, which I assume held money. In order to be in the circle you had to give something, so for the Westerners who didn’t quite know what to do they had post-it note pads for us to give! At first I was thoroughly confused. And I had the luck of being the first in the line of Westerners with post-its. Nevertheless, the monks came out of the house, walked up onto the brick and walked the inside perimeter of the circle with their robes held out. I hesitated when the first two monks passed me. The third monk made eye contact with me, nodded and looked down at the post-its, so I placed them in his robe. The other Westerners followed suit. After the others emptied their hands of envelopes, they knelt down on their knees to pray.

The monks went back inside and we were told the ceremony had come to an end. Simply put: it was an amazing experience.

I can’t help but note two funny anecdotes:

During the final prayer chant inside the house, someone’s cellphone rang. I glanced around with the other Westerners, with looks of, “oh crap,” please don’t let it be my phone. We then watched the head monk pull a cranberry colored razor phone out of his robe and speak for a couple seconds. I guess cellphone etiquette is a very cultural thing.

I always joke with husband about his need to spend weeks researching a product before he buys it. And when he finds a product he likes, he’ll go to great lengths to only buy that exact brand/type. The latest was his socks: he has been searching for this specific sock brand, which he claims is the most perfect sock ever made. I would shake my head, not quite getting it, won’t any pair of socks do? For P., not so much. Well, all of the monks had his brand of socks on. I was quietly laughing to myself, wishing P. was there. It seems that someone else knows the secret of the socks.

It was a day to remember, to say the least . . .

October 26, 2007

Rewarding Experiences

Posted in Community Education at 9: 27 am by MK

Being a community educator is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. Last night’s experience teaching at the homeless shelter was both humbling and encouraging. There were 12 people in my class, all from diverse backgrounds. No one was required to attend so the folks that did were (for the most part) interested in what I was saying. Hopefully, I reached at least one person.

The shelter is beautiful. Just two-years-old it is modern, bright, and clean. The program manager seems like a good guy, and has a really nice relationship with the clients. The shelter has thirty beds and once you move in you stay as long as you need. Quite different from some of the 30-day stay places. The staff get to build relationships with the clients, and really help them get back on their feet, find a job, and a home. As as the program manager said to me, “There are a lot of misconceptions about homeless people. Trust me, we’ve had the best and brightest walk through these doors.”

Homeless shelters are always in need of volunteers.  If you can, seek out a shelter in your area and spend a couple hours a week helping out.  I know that shelters have a downside, I’m not trying to minimize that.  However, if you spend time in one I know you’ll find something positive, and when you do that’s what you’ll remember.

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