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 14, 2007

Finally, a real conversation

Posted in Literacy Needs, Myanmar, Refugee at 10: 44 pm by MK

So I went to pick A. and K. up for the nutrition class and dinner but when I got there I discovered that A. had already left and K. was definitely not going. K. had visitors: a couple, their two-month old baby (an absolutely adorable little girl) and an elderly man who I think was somehow related to the couple. K. immediately welcomed me in and insisted I join them for dinner. Well the smell of coconut and spices was so good I couldn’t say no. The male visitor, I’ll call him D., had been in the U.S. for ten years (he’s also Burmese) and could speak English pretty fluently. He explained that K. had made a traditional Burmese dish for dinner: coconut soup that you pour over noodles. It was fantastic.

So upon realizing that I was sitting with someone who could speak both English and Burmese, and seemed eager to talk, I realized this was my chance. I could actually ask all of the questions I have wanted to, but couldn’t. I learned so much in a simple two hours.

First a little background on D., he’s pretty amazing. He told me that he married his wife in 1987. In 1988 when the first Burma violence began, she left for a Thailand refugee camp and he stayed behind to fight against the government. He wasn’t reunited with her until 2003; she had waited for him, most of the time not knowing if she’d ever see him again. Wow. He has some physical scarring and is missing both arms below the elbow. From what he told me, I got the impression these are wounds from the war. In a conversation we had about children (yes, he and all the Burmese folks I’ve met are pretty much in shock that at 30 I don’t have any) he told me that he was glad to finally have a child. He feels that by having a child she will be able to fight for his and her country after he is gone. He kept stressing how important that is: to have his children continue the fight for freedom in Burma. He said that he cannot be happy until the war in Burma is over.

So, he translated a conversation between myself and K., and it felt great. For the first time I felt like I really communicated with her, really got to ask her my questions and answer hers. I felt like we bonded.

Information I’ve discovered:

In Burmese culture it is not acceptable for K. to tell me what she needs when I ask her if she needs clothing or things for the house. D. couldn’t quite explain it, but I’m assuming it has to do with pride and taking charity. However, if she tells D. and he tells me, that’s okay. I could then bring things to her as presents. What does she need? a blanket. That’s what she asked for– a blanket. My heart literally broke. They are also clearly in need of warm clothing, jackets, etc… This I can help with; I’ve already started to go through my closets.

Bigger news: K. is expecting! She just found out and seems partially worried, partially excited. She said that when she arrived in the U.S. she had asked her case worker for birth control, but never received any. So this baby was not exactly planned. And she hasn’t yet been enrolled in Medicaid, so she’s concerned about seeing the doctor. She does have a doctor’s appointment on Tuesday. I’ve already e-mailed the case worker to ensure she’s getting the prenatal care she needs.

But K. confided in me that she’s not exactly pleased with her case worker. The details as to why make me concerned, but because she asked for my confidence I don’t feel comfortable discussing them here. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this information, but I’m glad I’m aware of it.

After we got through all this, the doorbell rang and about ten other people, poured into the apartment. The network of Burmese families is really strong and I’m sure provides such greatly needed support on all levels. I said my goodbyes and asked D. how to say “thank you very much for dinner” in Burmese. They all laughed at my terrible attempt, but it felt great to see K. smile. It felt great to start figuring things out.