Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Asia / Refugee Stuff: Illiteracy and myth among Southeast Asian tribal peoples.: The Hmong.

In the previous (down one!) post I discussed the "boundaries" of states in Southeast Asian in pre-modern or early modern times.


[I did my best to describe the meaning of the map below. Suffice it to say that the darker territories are more culturally and economically integrated into the dominant society.]

In the areas of southeast Asia that were less integrated into the dominant society, lived a variety of peoples, peoples who today constitute the minorities of China, Thailand, Laos and Burma. Many of these cultures were pre-literate and had no system of reading and writing, at least until contact with the West, an event that often took place in the early twentieth or late 19th century. Today, due in part to conflict over the definition of the boundaries of the states that make up the dominant culture of their reason, many members of these cultures have become refugees.

As stated, traditionally many of these people were illiterate and lacked a means of reading and writing.

This was in marked contrast to the people of the dominant culture in the region, for instance the Burmese or Chinese, who had systems of reading and writing.

Therefore, although illiterate, these peoples were aware of not only reading and writing but also its importance and power.

They turned to myth to offer explanations as to why they did not have reading and writing.

In this post and the next, I will discuss the myths surrounding literacy and illiteracy among two of these peoples, the Chin of Western Burma/Eastern India and the Hmong (also known as Miao or Meo) of Southwestern China and nearby areas of Laos and Thailand. Both cultures are represented among refugees to the United States.

The Hmong, are a Southeast Asian people who live in Thailand, Laos and China (where they are known as the Miao.) Many Hmong were recruited by the CIA in Laos to fight Communism and after the war many became refugees.

According to Nicholas Tapp's anthropology work, "Sovereignty and Rebellion --the White Hmong of Northern Thailand" (1989, Oxford University Press, Singapore) there are several Hmong legends aimed to explain their illiteracy.

Tapp argues that the Hmong define themselves in large part by the absence of characteristics that mark the Chinese, a people with whom they have had much contact and friction. (Tapp, p. 126)

Tapp includes the following story:

This is why we Hmong have no books. It was like this. Long, long ago, Hmong were the eldest sons. They went to the fields to make a living for themselves, but they did not, could not, study books. According to the elders, a long time ago, everybody moved, and crossed the great waters. The Mab Suav (Chinese and others) carried their books on their heads, so that they would be able to learn letters. But we Hmong were so afraid of our books getting wet that we could not do that, and we were hungry, so we ate them all up. That is the reason why now we can only be clever inside, in our hearts and only remember in our hearts, not in books. Before that, we had books of our own. That was in China, where I have heard the Hmong still have books (writing). (Taken from Tapp, p. 122.)

Here's a second similar story intended to explain Hmong illiteracy. Although taken from Tapp, this one is taken from the 1937 writings of William Hudspeth, a missionary to these people.*:

Before the Pollard script, books and a library were unknown. The great majority of these tribesmen had never handled even a sheet of writing paper or a pen. They had heard that once upon a time there were books: a tribal legend described how, long ago the Miao lived on the north side of the Yangtze River, but the conquering Chinese came and drove them from their land and homes. Coming to the river and possessing no boats they debated what should be done with the books and in the end they strapped them to their shoulders and swam across, but the water ran so swiftly and the river was so wide, that the books were washed away and fishes swallowed them. (Taken from Tapp, p. 124.)

A third, related tale comes from Tapp, page 126, this one having been recorded by a missionary to Northern Thailand in the 1960s.:

Why ever did those horses have to eat the books of our forefathers, many, many years ago? These Meo kings were the first there were in the whole great northern kingdom. Indeed in those days we had a land of our own. A Meo king ruled over us. We were the most powerful nation on earth. But the wicked Chinese were more cunning than we. They fell upon us in great hordes. They had better weapons than we had. We fought bitterly and courageously, but it was in vain. The Chinese knew no mercy. They murdered, enslaved and pillaged. We had to surrender. But not quite everyone gave in; whoever could escape did so. When the exhausted fugitives came to a wide river they rested, leaving their packs among the bushes. They were all overcome with sleep. When at last they woke up---O horror---the horses had eaten up the Meo books! Not a single one remained. Since then we have possessed neither books nor script . . .

Tapp also spends a considerable amount of time explaining the significance of literacy in Hmong culture and the emotional impact of finally being given writing by missionaries.

* Tapp does not give Hudspeth's first name. I learned his first name here.:


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Asia / Refugee Stuff : South East Asian Cutural Boundaries and the modern world.

Ah! I wish I could go back to graduate school and make writing and researching about Asian culture and history the focus of my life. Alas! It shall not be so anytime soon.

Therefore, for the moment, I must be content to speculate, pontificate and elucidate in these pages instead of elsewhere.

One of the joys of academic research is when you get those wonderful "Eureka" moments. That great "Ah ha!" feeling sweeps throughout you and you realize that a great deal of once complex information suddenly makes sense and fits a pattern. (Of course, one must be careful of assuming this feeling actually means your conclusions are making sense. Conspiracy theorists and schizophrenics, for instance, are blessed with brains that misfire this way all the time. Still, the sensation is blissfully exciting, which explains perhaps why schizophrenics and conspiracy theorists spend so much time lost in their own odd thoughts.)

Recently while reading "In Search of Asia" I had such a moment while viewing this map. The map is entitled "Centers of power in Southeast Asia at the end of the Eighteenth Century" and appears on page 98 of the 1987 edition of "In Search of Southeast Asia."

Essentially what the map shows is the extent of cultural power and cultural influence in various centers in southeast Asia at the beginning of the modern era. At the time the kingdoms and cultures that are now dominant in Burma, Thailand and Vietnam did not have boundaries in the sense of anything resembling the modern sense of the term. And the role of the king was often different than in Europe of the time as well. Simplifying greatly for ease of transmitting a concept, the king hd less of a political role and more of a ritual role in the lives of his citizens. His power was not seen as uniform through a given geographical territory. Instead, his power radiated outward from the center, becoming weaker the further one was from that center. Instead of there being a strict boundary to the state, instead the state just sort of faded away becoming less and less important until it faded away altogether at the edge of civilization. Then came the rugged lands of hills and forest and jungle, the lands where the uncivilized people who existed outside the pale of civilization.

And that's what this map shows. The black "core area" is the center of the civilized area. Beyond it is a gray realm, where civilization exists but there's a certain lack of sophistication although the people are still part of the dominant culture. Light gray is a "fringe area" and the striped lines represent the areas where two different relatively equal states vie for control.

Now if one examines the map of Burma what you essentially see is the way in which Burma is divided between a dominant, Burmese culture, and a surrounding area with many other minority cultures. And it is from these minority cultures, i.e. the Karen, the Chin, that many refugees come. And to some extent the reason they come here is over a dispute over their relationship with the central government of the state now known as Myanmar.

In neighboring Thailand this map also shows the difference between the areas where hill tribes (some of which overlap with Burma) live.

As for Vietnam, the map shows the area where the so-called montagniards live.

A similar map could easily be made for China.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Refugee Stuff: Running a Furniture Donation Program: ==Communication

Several posts ago, I emphasized the importance of coordinating your assets.

I also emphasized that the purpose of a furniture donation program is to find people who have more stuff than they need, convince them to give you their excess useful stuff, then arrange to give it to people who have less stuff than they need and do it in such a manner that the first group feels so good about it that they not only wish to give you even more stuff, but also wish to tell all their friends about this and then encourage their friends to do the same.

Now it is very unlikely that all this is going to happen spontaneously. It might, but don't hold your breath waiting.

Therefore, this can best be done by communication.

Your organization will need a way to communicate with potential donors.

I intend to spend the next few posts discussing the ways in which these communications can happen and how I feel they can best be done.

I also intend to discuss the content of these communications.

Refugee Stuff: --Running a Furniture Program --organizational structure(s)

This is a document prepared for use at the furniture program. It was created after a couple months working in the furniture program.

As stated, there were several problems in the program. This document was designed to help facilitate goals and achieve them while bringing some of the problems which existed at that time into the open.

I feel it did this with some success although (allegedly due to budget cuts) I was soon dismissed from my position and replaced by a volunteer college intern.



Greetings! On Wednesday, November 19, 2008 at 7:00pm there will be a meeting to discuss and clarify goals, procedures, needs and other matters related to the USCRI furniture program. The purpose of the meeting will be to identify and clarify these goals and needs and then develop constructive means in which to work towards achieving them within current parameters.

The meeting is intended to be small and is, essentially, open to either USCRI staff or by invitation to people who have had involvement with the furniture program.

Primary purpose is clarification of goals, needs and realistic procedures to meet these needs and achieve these goals. A written record of the meeting will be kept and provided to

An underlying premise of the meeting is that the USCRI furniture program is intended to help address the material needs of the refugees we serve in an efficient and economical manner, while handling donations in a manner that provides for the refugees served while presenting a positive image of USCRI to the public, including donors, potential donors and businesses and not-for-profits that we work with to achieve our goals. Although the Housing Coordinator is also supposed to handle housing needs, i.e. finding apartments, this has not been done. This will be one of several issues discussed.


The Housing Coordinator is in charge of the following:

1. Processing and receiving donations of material goods.
2. Delivering large quantities of donated goods in usable condition to the refugees.
3. Delivering small quantities of donated goods in usable condition to the refugees.
4. Purchasing low-cost furniture when necessary.
5. Finding Housing.
6. Picking and delivering materials for use in the office.

 Processing and receiving donations of material goods.
 Delivering donated goods in usable condition to the refugees.

The third area will resolve itself if systems are put in place to improve the first two areas.

 Finding Housing.
 Picking and delivering materials for use in the office.

Although there are undoubtedly areas of area #4, purchasing low-cost furniture, that could be improved it is suggested that this area be ignored for the following meeting. The problems that do exist hinge primarily on poor information gathering and processing requiring in a continuous series of emergency decisions that could better be handled in a slower, more systematic manner.

It is hoped that problems will not just be identified, but solutions will also be suggested.

Volumes of goods and people to be served and processed can and should also be discussed throughout the meeting. (There is a very large problem in this area.)

There are, quite frankly, problems from top to bottom that need to be addressed. (USCRI-Albany does not, for instance, have any systematic procedure in place to dispose of bulky trash and therefore it piles up in the storeroom. Nor does it have anyone who is addressing the problem or who will communicate about addressing the problem )

Ways to work within the current system to address these needs will also be discussed.


This is a multi-step process and it can be seriously improved at each and every step. However, these steps must be coordinated or we will have problems.

1. Solicitation of donations.

2. Coordinating and processing requests to donate items. (Including refusing requests.)

3. A coordinated drop-off procedure for people who can bring in donations by themselves.

4. Picking up donations.

This is a complex operation and involves several steps.

1. Recruiting and retaining qualified volunteers.
2. Acquiring use of a vehicle.
3. Planning routes and times for pick-ups.
4. Coordination with Arnoff’s to use the freight elevator.

5. Storage of items in a manner so that they can be kept in good condition and then found and used as needed.



This requires several steps.

1. Awareness of a need by the Housing Coordinator.

This requires that someone within USCRI-Albany be aware of the need and then communicate the need to the Housing Coordinator including all relevant information.

Problems exist throughout this area.

This applies to both existing clients as well as new arrivals.

2. The need needs to be assessed and then compared with what we have on hand or can easily acquire.

3. The items then need to be delivered to the clients in a useable condition.

This requires use of a suitable vehicle and two people qualified to deliver it.

4. The items then need to be assembled and explained to the clients.

This often requires translation.

5. It is an extremely common occurrence that during this process problems with the apartment are identified and communication with the landlord or their agent needs to happen.



This requires several steps.

1. Awareness of a need by the Housing Coordinator.

This requires that someone within USCRI-Albany be aware of the need and then communicate the need to the Housing Coordinator including all relevant informnation.

This applies primarily to existing clients.

2. The need needs to be assessed and then compared with what we have on hand or can easily acquire.

3. The items then need to be delivered to the clients in a usable condition.

4. The items then need to be assembled and explained to the clients.

Although there are problems in this area, they are not as serious as when I arrived.



Refugee Stuff: Running a refugee furniture program: Communicating needs

I think it's pretty obvious that when I assumed the position of furniture coordinator at the refugee office, the situation regarding furniture, and for that matter the situation regarding the office itself, was a mess.

Not only did people on the outside of the agency have no idea what the refugee center wanted, they also had no idea who to ask or where to go to find out that information.

If, for example, they called the office and asked, likely as not, the person who answered the telephone had no answer for them or gave them inaccurate information. (More on this later.)

The head administrator, as stated, was in over her head and preoccupied with such weighty matters as helping refugees "find their voice" instead of helping them find furniture as promised and contracted.

Because she was always behind and busy covering up mistakes instead of fixing them, I decided to do something about it and sent out a mass e-mailing to explain to general donors what we wanted. (Remember, if you tell people what you want from them, they are more likely to give it to you.)

Here's an excerpt. (I have, due to time and e-mail changes, lost the portion of the document where I introduce myself.)

Although it looks very obvious, believe it or not, prior to this there was no document of this sort for distribution to the general public or potential furniture donors.

The response from the public was positive and it helped straighten out a great deal of problems with a furniture drive that was being organized in the state health department that was finding themselves increasingly frustrated with dealing with the head of the refugee center who was unable to tell them what they should and should not give to the center.


We need basic furniture that is usable as is. Tables, chairs, full and
twin size beds, shelves and couches are all in constant demand.

We do not have the facilities, manpower or space to do furniture repair,
even minor touch up, sanding and basic repair. Also, since our mission
is to provide people with furniture they can use immediately upon arrival,
we cannot fulfill this mission by expecting our clients to do this

Although, naturally, many of the refugees are able to repair furniture,
others are not. It's our job to provide all the people who arrive with
basic furniture upon arrival, long before we are able to sort out which
people can repair furniture and which cannot. Therefore we only accept
furniture that is usable as is. Since assuming this position, I've spoken
to several furniture pick-up and delivery charities and they all turn away
a great deal of material. Sadly, we are forced to do so too.

(Should someone out there wish to repair furniture for us and have their
own tools and facilities to do this, then I would love to communicate with
you. Also should someone have a few basic tools that you do not need, such
as wrenches, screwdrivers. etc. that could be used to assemble beds and
such that would be something we could use. Honestly, I'm not looking for
anything fancy here, just a screwdriver set and a couple wrenches for when
I do not bring my tools to work. No circular bench saws please, no matter
how beautiful. )

For reasons of space and manpower, we do not accept clothing, except for
winter clothing. Please bag and clean them first.

We do accept bedding. Please bag and clean them first.

We also do not wish to accept toys and electronics, especially such things
as stereos with no speakers and computer printers that do not come with
computers and video games that probably belong in a museum. Should you
have some good quality, unwanted, usable-as-is electronics please check
with us before donating. For electronics, if we can find it a good home,
we'll gladly accept it and pass it along. If not, we'd rather not take it.

We do accept kitchenware, but ask that people remember that we seek the
essentials. Sometimes we receive "gimmicky" kitchen tools that people
decided they didn't wish and in such cases, we often don't quite know what
to do with them either. (An exception is rice cookers, which are in great
demand, should people wish to donate them.) Plates, silverware, cooking
pots, and drinking glasses are all in demand.

In all cases, please use common sense and if in doubt check first. (I
mean, who was it who donated the lava lamp to the refugee center anyway? I
mean, I think it's cool, but it just doesn't fit our needs.)

We do
provide tax receipts for donations if requested.


We have a storeroom . We rent a van. Then we take it out and move it to
where it is needed. We use volunteers to help. Some of our volunteers are
refugees. Many are not. I am a half-time paid employee, but I started out
as a volunteer English teacher at the center

We do furniture pick-ups and would like to do more, but the need for
pick-ups is greater than our ability to keep up with them. (Again, this
is not uncommon for furniture pick-up and delivery charities.)

Currently we can only do pick-ups during business hours on weekdays. I do
hope to change that but it's surprisingly complicated and doubt if
anything will change during the next month or two.

Should someone be able to donate a secure storage space in Albany or the
surrounding area, that could facilitate things. Clearly several issues
would need to be discussed, but if you can donate a storage space for
furniture and make it accessible to us on weekdays, evenings and weekends,
then I'd love to talk to you.

We would also love to discuss alternatives to renting a van for furniture
pick-ups and deliveries. Should someone wish to help us in that area,
again, we'd love to talk to you.


Yes, but please keep in mind our office is a busy place.

It is open on weekdays from 9:00 to 5:00, and Wednesdays by appointment.
Expect to wait a few minutes after arrival. It is normally full of many
people, some with urgent needs. (If you've never seen our office, it
resembles a clinic of some kind but with people speaking six languages.)
Our office is located in the Nipper building (with the giant dog on top)
on Broadway in Albany.

Light things can be brought up the elevator through normal pedestrian routes.

Should you wish to donate heavy items, such as furniture, this requires
that we coordinate use of the freight elevator to the rear of our building
with Arnoff's Moving and Storage. Please call ahead or contact me directly
should you wish to bring them in. Please do not bring furniture or heavy
items on the regular elevator. It contains some sensitive sensors and if
items are dragged across the floor or exceed weight limits, it could
require a visit from a repairman.

Nevertheless, should you wish to bring us furniture that we can use,
please rest assured we would love to speak to you. E-mail me at this

Any questions, e-mail me. We also seek landlords who would like to rent
apartments to recently arrived refugees involved with our program. Again,
contact us for details.

Peter Huston
Housing Coordinator,


There you have it. A simple document that filled a specific need and clarified a great deal.

By providing such a document to the people who need it, including not just the potential donors but people within your organization who are likely to communicate with potential donors, you can save yourself and others a great deal of time, increase efficiency and avoid a great deal of frustration.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Refugee stuff --random thoughts, events & images

First, let me say that there are many refugees from many backgrounds. On the other hand, a casual reader of this blog will notice that my interests seems to be focused on the refugees from Burma. I make no apology for this, although I also wish to state that I mean no disrespect for other refugees. It's simply that with a strange Asian background this is naturally where my interest would gravitate.

The hill "tribes" of Burma are related to the minorities of China and the other areas of southeast Asia. The history overlaps. (For instance, I took a course on the Mongol expansion and the Mongols conquered Burma in the 13th century in a battle that is often described in military history books.)

The language interests me as does the culture. (Burmese is a non-Western tonal language with a phonology that is alien to an English speaker, and although I have not progressed terribly far, I still feel confident saying that it is much easier than Chinese.)

After four years of living abroad and several years of academic study of Asia, it fascinates me to watch large portions of an Asian culture transplant itself here.

Some images: A dozen or so Karen men, recently laid off from a plant that paints cars, playing soccer on the fringes of Albany in the shadow of the FBI station.

Rensselaer has added a new Burmese focused grocery store, Win's Grocery, that stocks such things as canned coconut milk, shallots, fish sauce and noodles. The owner is a Burmese, not Karen, man who clear has suffered the effects of an explosive at some point in his life. His left arm is missing and the fingers of his right hand show exaggerated stubs. He is accompanied by his daughter, a little girl around four, who sits on a stool behind the counter. While shopping with a Karen friend, I try out my measly Burmese and do so in such a way that not even my friend can tell what I'm trying to say. The little girl laughs and I ask her if my Burmese is good. She giggles and tells me that no it is terrible.

I soon stand corrected. "Canaw bama lo nian nian pyaw dait deh." is the proper way (I think) to say "I speak a little Burmese." (I could be wrong.)

This weekend, Easter Weekend, is also the New Year for much of Southeast Asia and several of the refugees.

Saturday night was a Nepali celebration at RPI college and included local Nepalese immigrants, graduate students and refugees of Nepalese descent from both Bhutan and Burma. Dinner was served.

Sunday morning in Rensselaer a Burmese New Year festival is being held at a non-descript, run-down old ramshackle building that now serves as a Burmese monastery and temple for the Buddhists from Burma. Although the entrance signs were exclusively in Burmese, I entered as people had told me it would be fine to do so. I saw a few familiar faces, but most were strangers to me.

I soon found myself ushered to sit at a table with, oddly enough, mostly White folks with a wide spread of food, food that to my surprise included meat, something one would never see at a Buddhist celebration in Taiwan.

The table was directly in front of the primary altar.

I found myself seated with a few of the refugee center staff across from, of all people, its director, although she soon left. I introduced myself and began talking to the young woman next to me, and she explained that her relative taught the refugees poetry and photography. I considered asking her if this was really what the refugees wished or needed to learn but it was neither the time nor the place. (Truth is a friend of mine is taking a photography class for refugees. He says it's not bad and a good chance to practice English.)

Due to the demands of my other job, I soon left.

Refugee news: Albany, Times Union

From yesterday's Times Union.

It's not a bad piece, although I know the guy featured, he's a friend of mine, and wish it had shown a little more of his grinning, joking, usual self. I mean, everything here is true (except oddly enough he doesn't speak Vietnamese, although he does speak two dialects of Karen --not sure how that happened) but I thought it would be more balanced to show his tough side too. They also omitted that he has a year of college, earned in Thailand, which somehow didn't get mentioned, and was active in student groups in both college and high school, probably because it wasn't shared. I also think it's important to remember that culture shock works in such a way so that this is the point in the process where he's going to be feeling down.

I do think it's important to remember that the refugees who get here are a very small percentage of refugees. They are the lucky ones compared to many of their peers who are still in Asia or stuck in camps or war zones around the globe.

But, anyone who has read much of this blog knows I can sometimes get unnecessarily negative. Perhaps I'm doing it again.


A long way from streets paved with gold
Burmese immigrant finds life far from family and culture has its problems

By SHARON HONG, Staff writer
Click byline for more stories by writer.
First published: Tuesday, April 14, 2009
ALBANY The Burmese young man sat at the small kitchen table in his apartment on Delaware Avenue and stared at an e-mail from his old teacher.

"My dear friend in America," began the letter that wove an account of ramshackle shelters and hungry children. The correspondence arrived unexpectedly from his teacher at the Umpium refugee camp in Thailand.

X the name he uses is a member of the Karen tribe that has long been persecuted by the Burmese government. When X was 13, his parents paid a Karen soldier to let their son accompany him to the Thai border. X lived at the camp for seven years. He came to America in August.

Despite the uncertainty of life there, the camp meant rations, shelter, education and the comfort of being with his own people. The e-mail found X dejected and disappointed. He felt powerless to help the people whose plight he knows well.

"They think here I have two, three jobs and lots of money," X said. "They don't know it's hard to live in the U.S."

After losing one job, he is employed again. Yet in the land of plenty, he wonders if he'd be better off going back to the camp.

While permission to come to this country as a refugee means a chance to start over again, for some life in America has been harder than they expected.

Already at a disadvantage because of language barriers, the newcomers now face a rising tide of laid-off workers looking for jobs in a staggering economy.

"I'm worried about rent, electric bill, phone bill," X said back in January after he'd just been told he was no longer needed at a factory in East Greenbush.

For two months, X went to grocery stores, restaurants and hotels asking if they had any openings. He cut his hair. He'd learned some basic English at the camp and took a few classes locally, but his accent is thick and he suspects it kept him unemployed.

"I tell them I work hard, I am strong," X said, frustrated that lack of fluency masked his ability and intelligence.

Even though he'd never been to school in Burma, he completed his high school equivalency in Umpium, one of nine camps on the border that have sheltered families fleeing Burma and the fighting between its military junta and ethnic minority armies.

At the camp, he also picked up three other East Asian languages Thai, Hmong and Vietnamese on top of his native Karen and Burmese.

Unlike other immigrants, refugees, who have been designated unable to return home for fear of persecution or death, require no special visa for employment or length of stay.

When they are resettled in a community, they receive six months of support for housing and services through a nongovernmental agency like the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants or Catholic Charities. Last year, New York became home to 3,632 refugees of some 60,000 admitted nationwide.

Most of the 224 in and around Albany came from Burma, now called Myanmar.

At Emmaus Methodist Church in Albany, interns from local colleges assist refugees with day-to-day needs and skills training, and volunteers teach English, but competition for work is intense.

"The network is under great strain because when everyone and their cousin is looking for jobs, the supply of good jobs is just gone," the Rev. Denise Stringer said, noting that the most recent arrivals are hit the hardest.

Emmaus' project manager, Francis Sengabo, who checks on refugee families daily, said they are often first on companies' chopping block.

Himself a refugee from Rwanda who has been in Albany since 2007, Sengabo knows of 10 families here for a year who have yet to find and keep a job.

Pushpa Adhikari, head of one of four Bhutanese families in the Capital Region, was prepared to struggle in America. A former social studies teacher and graduate of North Bengal University, Adhikari lived for 18 years in a refugee camp.

"I spent almost all my youth there," said Adhikari, a slim man with large brown eyes. When he opted for resettlement with his wife, grandmother and 4-year-old daughter, he knew he wouldn't get a job teaching right away, so he was ready to face a line of less-than-dream jobs.

Adhikari was hired as a sales associate at Walmart after several visits to the office asking to see the manager.

"The hardest part is showing what potential refugees have that employers don't know," he said. "Simply applying online is not showing that. Face to face, you can talk to me and see how I am."

X now works at the Sealy factory in Rennselaer, where a number of Burmese refugees have found work sewing mattress covers.

The walls of his windowless bedroom are covered with photos from Umpium.

Like most young people his age, X likes hip-hop music, movies and sports, especially soccer. But he doesn't have much free time and it hurts to remember he is here alone.

Some days he is upset and wonders if he'll ever be more than just a worker in a factory. At times, he agrees with the older Burmese couple he has been helping with paperwork that life might be happier back in Thailand less free, but familiar.

Sharon Hong can be reached at 454-5414 or by e-mail at shong@timesunion.com.

'Refugees as a Valuable Workforce'

What: Albany Job Service Employer Committee forum

Who: Discussion with Sister Marianne Comfort, refugee services coordinator for Catholic Charities, and Zoeann Murphy, Albany field director, and Bakary Janneh, and Noah Kucij, job developers, for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants

When: Wednesday , 8 a.m. registration and breakfast; 8:30-10 a.m. program

Where: Albany Pump Station, 19 Quackenbush Square

Cost: $25. To register, call Cathy Bucci at 462-7600 Ext. 153.

Volunteers wanted

The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants is looking for translators and volunteers to teach English, mentor refugee families, help set up apartments, and teach skills.

Contact Jen Barkan at 459-1790 or got to the USCRI Web site at www.refugeesalbany.org

Refugee Stuff --Running a Furniture Donation Program --the problem of storage. Part Two.

Last time, see below, I was writing about storage problems.

I mentioned that our agency had a large storage area but access was controlled by a moving and storage company which was also the landlord.

As mentioned, this agency suffered from several problems relating to lack of internal communication and general disorganization, a situation further exacerbated by the sad fact that people did everything on an emergency basis, when in fact, the bulk of the emergencies they had were caused by lack of preparation, poor management and the odd policies of their parent NGO.

Therefore the members of the agency often did not follow or respect the policies of the moving company, their landlord, and there was constant friction over access to their own storage area. (When I was hired and put on the job, no one took the time to alert me to the landlord's policies in this area. In fact, no one seemed to consider them least bit important. It was not until the landlord called me to task for inadvertently breaking these policies that I even knew they existed. Hopefully, I will write a future post on the topic of "When doing business do not offend the people you must do business with," but the moment I wish to stay on task. Let's just say that the first thing I did the day after offending the landlord who controlled access to the storage area I needed to do my work and fulfill my mission was to sit down with him and work out a framework for a positive working relationship. I then did my best to follow the parameters of this agreement despite being saddled with several lunkheads for co-workers.)

Essentially our agency had a great storage (although badly misused and mistreated) except we only had access to it during business hours of 8:00am to 4:30pm, which was the hours when the moving company normally left the doors unlocked.

Therefore we could not move our own furniture outside of these hours except with great effort. (Again, more details to come hopefully.)

Also, because of mismanagement, and because our normal agency business hours were from 9:00am to 5:00pmm despite the fact that most moves were greatly pressed for time, our agency always started the moves an hour after our limited time to use the elevator had already begun.

Although I went time and time again to the management to complain about this nothing was ever done. --probably because she did not think in terms of quantitative analysis. (and was, perhaps, instead concerned with helping people "find their own voice" instead of helping them get the kitchen chairs she had promised them!)

Anyway. Do the numbers. 8:00 am to 4:30pm. That's just 8 and a half hours of work time.

By starting an hour late she was throwing away 2/17 of the day. That's almost 12% of the moving time.





One policy I wished to implement was that we acquire a second storage area, one to which we would have access on weekends and evenings, the times, coincidentally when volunteers are most available.

Therefore how can one obtain storage areas:

1) You can rent it. Go look in the yellow pages. Find storage areas. Check prices.

2) You can get it donated. There are people and organizations out there with garages, barns, storage sheds and even buildings (churches, parsonages, empty public buildings, schools, summer camps in winter, etc.) that they are not using and would love to have you find a valid use for.

And be imaginative.

Remember, your storage area does not need to be permanent although it does need to be around sufficiently long so that it is an asset to your organization instead of a looming problem waiting to happen.

I know of one agency that contacted a local supermarket chain and got them to donate a large truck trailer (minus the truck) which was then parked in an empty lot and used by them to store donated furniture.

3) And remember, do you actually need to use the storage area for all furniture in all cases? In at least some cases, it should be theoretically possible to just pick up furniture and deliver it to the people who need it without putting it in storage. [Again, hopefully a bit more on this later.]

I'd love to hear what others have to say.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

April 7, 2008: The Manswers appearance four months later.

It's been four months since my appearance on national television on the TV show MANSWERS.

On one hand, few people can say that they were flown out to California on an all-expense paid trip to appear on national television. Personally, I don't think that's a bad accomplishment. It most certainly puts me as part of a small national elite.

It does, for instance, seem to be a sign of some sort of success, something that an author could put on his resume as a sign of accomplishments.

On the other hand, here's what I've discovered. After four months, three people in my circle of acquaintances, not counting those I told, saw me and recognized me.

These were one of the barmaids at the Saw Mill, the local biker bar where I sometimes hang out, a plumber who I do aikido with, and a local bodybuilder who is the only person ever who has encouraged me to consider steroids. (This was done subtly, years ago, once and then dropped, and is no big thing, but just so you know there is some anecdotal evidence that there may be a linkage between steroid use and watching Manswers. For the record, I do not use steroids and never have. I am very proud though that I can bench press 230 pounds without steroids.)

I have come to realize that, interesting though each of these people may be, and they are in fact interesting, lively people who make the world more interesting just by being themselves, none of them really read many books. Although I enjoyed the Manswers appearance, and would do it again, Manswers viewers do not seem to be readers and to go there to promote a book does not seem to make much sense.

I did, however, get to see L.A. again and get good Mexican and Vietnamese food, both of which I enjoy and both of which are hard to get in the Capital District and got put up in a nice hotel and did something few people get a chance to do, make a fool of myself on national TV.

And should you wish to see it again:


Refugee Stuff --Running a Furniture Donation Program --the problem of storage. Part One

At last! Now we begin to get away from the basics, get away from the the "common sense" big picture issues, and instead get into some specifics as to how exactly to run a refugee center furniture donation and distribution program.

First, just to rehash (and remember if you wish to review the previous posts please do so, starting from bottom to top, oldest to newest scrolling down the page, beginning in late March), the purpose of a furniture donation and distribution program is to find people who have more furniture and material goods than they need, convince them to donate the excess to your program, and then get the donated goods to people who do not have enough and can use them at the time they are needed in usable condition.

Interestingly enough, this is not an uncommon operation for a charity to be involved in.

Many, many cities have some kind of furniture collection and redistribution charity. These often serve a wide variety of populations. For instance, the Schenectady Home Furnishings Program tells me that their clients fall within several groups, refugees being just one of them. The others include economically disadvantaged and needy people, persons who have just suffered a house fire or other disaster that caused loss of their belongings and domestic violence victims who have had to relocate suddenly without being able to bing their furniture and many of their other belongings.

Based on my experience, many of these charities would love to touch base with others who do the same thing. By doing so they can swap tips, share overloads should they get too much of an item, refer clients who wish to donate but fall outside of their service area and more. Few feel threatened, in my experience, by hearing that someone else is trying to enter the furniture donation and redistribution field, although many will be too busy to chat at length. One actually suggested to me that we should establish a formalized Capital District network of such programs in order to facilitate communication and increase efficiency.

Which brings us to the issue of storage and a furniture donation and redistribution program.

Sometimes in order to facilitate this process it helps to have an area where you can store the furniture and other donated goods. That way you can get things at a time that is convenient for both you, the picker-upper, and the donor, who often is quite strapped for time. If you store them properly then you will be able to access the goods at a later time when you wish to give them away and it is convenient for the receiver to receive them.

To return to military analogies again, there's a series of jokes called "Murphy's Laws of Combat." There's one of these that says "In combat, a company of tanks, lost twenty miles down the road in the wrong place, is less useful than a man throwing rocks who is in a place where you can use him."

In other words, if you can't use something when you need it, if you can't find it when you want it, it's not useful to you.

And it is the nature of storage that when lots of things become stored together, things get lost. Then you accumulate junk, which often gets in the way of the other useful things, and they in turn get lost. Which means you often wind up with something that less resembles a storage program than it does a junk heap full of interesting exotica. (I hope to write more on this later.)

A well run storage area is generally an important part of a furniture donation and redistribution program. You should give the matter of storage some thought before you set out to to collect furniture and other material goods and do good in the world. If you don't, well, I get tired of saying it, but you will wind up with THIS. You don't want this. Nobody does.

So let's look at some of the options for storage areas.:

First, there is the "no storage area" option. Although difficult to do, people tell me that this is the procedure followed by the furniture donation and redistribution charity in Troy, New York. Although I have not had the privilege of speaking to its manager, his peers speak highly of him. Apparently what he does is simply make a list of people who wish to donate furniture and what they have, and then matches it up with a list of needs. When items match in an efficient manner, he then takes his truck and does a pick up from the donor and a delivery to the receiver with no storage in between.

This works for him.

However, it is my belief that it would not work for most people.

First, many donations prove to be useless and need to be turned away. (i.e. you arrive to pick up a couch and discover that it is ratty, useless, missing cushions and smells bad. The donor did not, for whatever reason, understand what you would accept and then you are placed in a position of having to turn the useless item away. This happens sometimes.)

Second, and this is particularly the case with refugees, donors often need things quickly. One serious problem with the center in Albany (as with many of its problems) lies with its parent organization which was unable or unwilling to give much advance warning of when refugees would arrive. It was not uncommon for us to be told that a family or refugees would arrive in Albany within, say for instance, three days, thereby putting us in a position where we had to scramble to prepare for their arrival. (I'm not sure why this was. My understanding is that many other agencies get better warning than we did as to when their refugees would arrive.)

You cannot reasonably expect busy people to drop what they are doing and arrange for you to pick up their couch in two days without giving them a darn good reason. And, quite frankly, we did not have one aside from our parent NGO had problems.

Remember, the goal here is to not just find people with too much stuff and get them to donate their excess stuff, but to have them do so in such a way so that they find it such a good experience that they encourage their friends to do the same thing. If you dump your problems on the donors, making your emergencies their emergencies, and do so week after week, people will not find donating their furniture to you to be a pleasant and satisfying experience. They will then donate their goods to another program or just throw them in the trash.

So in some cases, one can run a furniture program without a storage area. However in most cases you will need one.

We had a large storage room in the back of the area of our building which we rented from a moving and storage company. Access to the area was done primarily by passing either through the office area on foot after taking the pedestrian elevator or stairs or else by taking the freight elevator up through the area controlled by the moving and storage company.

At first this sounds ideal, but naturally there were problems.

First, access to the freight elevator was controlled by the moving and storage company. The moving and storage company had many expectations from the refugee center that although quite reasonable were just not being followed. Therefore friction was occurring.


Monday, April 6, 2009

Refugee Stuff --Running a furniture program --Remember your role in the refugees' lives.

So far we've discussed some of the very basic, common sense things that need to be considered if one is going ot establish a refugee center furniture program. To review these read all posts labeled "Running a furniture program" and do so reading from bottom to top (alas, that will be oldest to newest, as that is the way a blog is structured.)

Today we are going to add one more to the mix, if you manage or work for a refugee furniture program, remember what your role now is in the lives of the incoming refugees. Your role is to find furniture for incoming refugees. Once you and the refugees understand this, then if you find them furniture, they will be happy with you. If you do not do this, then the refugees will not be happy with you. If your managers above you have their priorities in order, and know what is going on within their own agency, then they too will be happy with you. (Alas, because 'tis the nature of such things, some refugee agency managers do not have a clue as to what goes on within their own agencies and their priorities often put public relations above public service that may not be the case, but this is another issue.)

Also, remember what we said about assess your own resources? And the part about resources are limited? And that they must be used efficiently? It's quite important and we'll come to more about it later.

First a quote from the Times Union newspaper, again from the director of the maxed out, stressed out, mismanaged refugee center.

"Refugee life is all about waiting," she said. "I spent a lot of time listening to their stories and helping them find their own voices. A lot of them have been victims of torture, but they still have great hope. Their optimism is pretty magical."

First, if there is one resource that is limited, it is time. You will never, ever have as much time as you would like once you enter the refugee assistance field.

Therefore your time is limited. It must be used efficiently. If your mission is to get them furniture, then you must structure your time with refugees in such a way so that you are still able to get them the furniture which you have committed and promised to get them.

This manager, on one hand, complains that her center is maxed out. On the other hand, she says she has spent "a lot of time" listening to refugees' stories. Now if I know refugees, often when they tell you something it is because they hope it will help them get their needs met. This is the way they are. They are survivors who have made it out of some hellish situation and now are in a better, albeit far from perfect, one. They want or need things, so they try to find ways to get them. Often this involves telling people what they want. However, if the people they tell, do not give them what they want, they often lose respect for that person. Often when refugees tell you stories, they are not looking for sympathy, they are not looking to make friends, they are, in fact, looking to have their needs met.

Now, have I talked to refugees for "a lot of time"? You bet I have. But only when I was not working or when it was appropriate. If you want to listen to refugees, put them to work on solving their communal problems and then listen to them as they do it. Therefore, I used to listen to refugees while working on the furniture van after recruiting them to help while driving around town. And, I still talk to these people because they helped me and I try to pay back the people who help me.

This woman was hired as a manager. She is, by definition, supposed to bring a set of skills, skills relating to management, to her position, and through using those management skills make things run smoothly. Assuming she has these skills, her time could best be used by applying those skills to solve the problems she was hired to solve.

Therefore , let's say that, for whatever reason, it is deemed beneficial to the refugees and the center that someone spend a great deal of time listening to their stories. There are at least two different means to meet this perceived need. First, the manager could spend five hours a week, one hour a week day, listening to refugee stories. That would be about a half hour for a refugee twice a day, every day of the week, making her giving a half hour of listening time to a different refugee each week ten times a week . This is, however, one eighth of her paid time, and is probably not the best use of this time. It is also time in which she cannot use her highly essential management skills to handle other things that, allegedly, only a manager can handle.

Let's say instead that the manager were to spend the same amount of time recruiting other people, including volunteers, to listen to refugees. There's a lot of good hearted people out there who wish to spend time doing good things, things like listen to refugees talk about their problems.

I'm going to have to invent some numbers here, but let's try to keep things conservative. How about we say that it takes an hour to recruit a volunteer? This is strictly an imaginary number. Recruiting volunteers is a crap shoot. You give a talk to the right group and an hour later you have twelve people who eagerly wish to help. Give a talk or post an ad elsewhere you get none. Find the right volunteer, soon their friends start trickling in to help too and little by little the numbers grow.

Anyway, let's say we find one volunteer per hour that we spend on the task of recruiting volunteers.

That's five per week.

Let's say each volunteer then spends a total of five hours listening to unhappy refugees, before they get burnt out or busy and quit. This is probably a conservative estimate.

That's a total of 25 hours of time spent listening to unhappy refugees.

Which is better? Five hours of time spent listening to unhappy refugees or 25 hours? Which makes the refugees feel better? Which results in a better accumulation of information on the needs, wants, hopes and desires of the unhappy refugees?

However, things aren't that simple. As stated. there will be burn out and retention problems. Volunteers need to be patted on the back and told they are doing a good job. And, although by recruiting listeners, there will be benefits to the refugees through them having increased contacts in the community and so on, we still have not figured out a way for the information that the listeners accumulate to be put to use by the agency to improve services.

So let's modify this a bit.

Let's stick with the original (strictly hypothetical) estimate that it takes one hour to recruit one listener. And we'll stick with the estimate that they get burned out and quit after five hours, if left unattended and neglected. (Which they often have been in this agency. I started out there as a volunteer.)

But let's say, and again we are going to invent numbers, that if the volunteers are tended and cared for by management, then they burn out and quit at a lower rate.

Therefore caring and tending to volunteers is an important part of the management's duties.

So, therefore, let's say that the manager instead of spending five hours a week listening to refugees talk about their problems, instead spends three hours a week recruiting volunteers and an additional two hours a week listening to, not refugees, but instead volunteers? This will increase retention, reduce the rate of burn out and quitting, allow her access to the information and concerns of the volunteers, thereby allowing her to adjust what she and her program does accordingly, and all in all result in a win-win situation for all concerned.

So let's plug in some more numbers.

We'll stick with estimate that recruiting a volunteer takes an hour.

Let's also assume that if cared for and tended a volunteer will last twice as long, making ten hours of volunteer time instead of five. This estimate, too, is also conservative.

Three volunteers working ten hours each results in thirty hours. We have now made five hours of listening time for refugees turn into thirty hours while allowing the management a new way to keep better tabs on what is going on within this agency.

Remember, resources are limited.

Time is limited. You only have twenty four hours a day.

The time of people with needed skills is an especially valuable resource.

In theory, the management should have management skills that others do not have.

In theory, therefore the manager should use their time wisely.

If the management does not then, THIS is the result.

When I saw this article in The Times Union, I flipped out. In fact, I began doing what may be socially inappropriate behaviors, like, for instance, writing this stuff in my blog.

Furthermore, refugees will on occasion whine in an attempt to manipulate you. (I hope to write more on "games refugees play" in a future post. Let's just say, I've got a lot of refugee friends and the refugees have been through things I do not know if I could survive or not. I respect them. On the other hand, I've found it's best to just let them know I respect them and draw lines as needed. Some refugees know darn well that the more of your time they take up the more likely you are to give them what they want, whether or not they really need it.)

I have on more than occasion told refugees, "Oh yeah, so your life has problems. Well what do you want me to do about it?"

This takes them by surprise, but when they figure out I'm serious, and tell me what they actually want, I then work with them to try and make a plan, tell them to implement the plan and to come back when they either achieve success or the plan fails. After they see this happen they respect it.

And, of course, sometimes when you listen to people with serious problems you find yourself in situations outside your ability to handle.

I have also on two occasions given refugees who wished it the telephone number of the nearby university psychological services center which provides psychotherapy on a sliding fee using interns in the various psychotherapy programs at the university. They function under the supervision of the professors who are experienced psychotherapists, either PhD or CSWs. (And, no, these were not even the most troubled refugees I've met. One had actually read that one way to deal effectively with the sort of losses he had suffered was through psychotherapy and wished to give it a try and see if it worked to help him. Quite an intelligent person. I respect his intelligence greatly.)

In conclusion, if you only have limited time in the day (which we all do) and you are facing a large number of refugees with serious needs (which you probably are) then you had best use efficient time managment, and that means don't waste time listening to refugees whine unless you know that it is the best use of your time.

But back to the article.

However, let's look at these statements further and see what else we can find that's wrong here.

Again, the same quote from the stressed out, incompetent, refugee center manager from the same Times Union story :

"Refugee life is all about waiting," she said. "I spent a lot of time listening to their stories and helping them find their own voices. A lot of them have been victims of torture, but they still have great hope. Their optimism is pretty magical."

I find it terribly ironic that she says that "refugee life is all about waiting." The fact is that the Burmese have held meetings to discuss what exactly can be done to reduce the time spent waiting in her office because they find it unacceptable and a waste of their time, especially since after they wait they often discover that the organization not only scheduled them a meeting, it then made them wait for that meeting beyond the scheduled time and then when the meeting did take place did not have a translator available to allow the meeting to take place in a productive manner. When a translator was then found it was sometimes discovered that the agency was not prepared to help the people and had no idea what the meeting was for anyway when they scheduled it. In some cases, the next step of the agency was to schedule a second meeting to deal with the first problem now that the agency understood what it was.

The Africans, too, have complained.

In fact, I heard one story about a woman who waited for hours to meet with the manager, the same manager who gave this silly quote, then the manager told her she could not meet with the woman, then the woman screamed and complained, so the manager agreed to meet with her, then they discussed the situation and the manager told her that she could not help her, at which point the refugee began screaming at the manager, yes, this same manager, about how much of her time had been wasted through this idiotic vacillation and general incompetence. At that point, the manager began to cry.

Which sounds very sad, but since her incompetence is, in fact, adding to the suffering of already suffering people, I somehow cannot work up much pity for her.

I have heard countless stories of this manager wasting her own time holding meetings that serve no purpose with people who do not need to be met with.

And then she complains that she has no time to meet with the people who do need to be met with in order to know what is going on in her own organization and to improve efficiency.

She does not understand her own role in her own organization.

She does not understand the value of her own time.

She does not understand the skill set she is supposed to bring to her job.

In other words, instead of helping refugees get tables and chairs, instead of helping them find jobs, and instead of helping find people who will listen to refugees, she wastes time "helping them find their own voices." If you talk to refugees they have a lot of needs, but their needs and desires pretty much follow Maslow's hierarchy of needs. First they wish to be safe and secure. They want food, shelter, respect and the jobs that will bring them these things. I have never had a refugee ask me to "help them find their own voice." (And, in fact, I am a published author and occasional media personality. I could do so if they asked me to but instead they are asking me for other, more immediate things.)

Despite the fact that she spends hours of time listening to them, many of the refugees I have talked to often do not like or respect this woman. They do not like her because they are dependent on her for many things and she does not provide them with those things in an efficient manner. This problem is happening in part because she has forgotten her role in her organization and instead of providing for needs to refugees is trying to provide them with emotional support. Before they are able to properly appreciate emotional support, they wish to have tables and chairs, or better yet jobs to buy their own.

Alas! Take a deep breath. Remind yourself they are still better off than in a refugee camp or war zone. And then, then, do the best you can to just fix the situation.

Deep breath! Alas! Relax!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

China Stuff: NY Times --China's son shortage fuels abdutions.

A sad story from the New York Times today. It seems that in China, where boys are preferred over girls and family planning is being rigidly instituted (at least by Chinese standards of rigidness), a new type of human trafficking is taking place due to the shortage of sons. This desire for sons has elsewhere caused a shortage of daughters, which in turn has led to a shortage of wives, which has fueled a second sort of human trafficking in girls and women.

Therefore it's odd to see this additional problem spring up.

As for comments, it sounds like the same old, same old. The Chinese government clearly does not wish to face up to or admit the full extent of the issue.

Peter Huston

New York Times

April 5, 2009
Chinese Hunger for Sons Fuels Boys’ Abductions

SHENZHEN, China — The thieves often strike at dusk, when children are playing outside and their parents are distracted by exhaustion.

Deng Huidong lost her 9-month-old son in the blink of an eye as a man yanked him from the grip of his 7-year-old sister near the doorway of their home. The car did not even stop as a pair of arms reached out the window and grabbed the boy.

Sun Zuo, a gregarious 3 1/2-year-old, was lured off by someone with a slice of mango and a toy car, an abduction that was captured by police surveillance cameras.

Peng Gaofeng was busy with customers when a man snatched his 4-year-old son from the plaza in front of his shop as throngs of factory workers enjoyed a spring evening. “I turned away for a minute, and when I called out for him he was gone,” Mr. Peng said.

These and thousands of other children stolen from the teeming industrial hubs of China’s Pearl River Delta have never been recovered by their parents or by the police. But anecdotal evidence suggests the children do not travel far. Although some are sold to buyers in Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam, most of the boys are purchased domestically by families desperate for a male heir, parents of abducted children and some law enforcement officials who have investigated the matter say.

The demand is especially strong in rural areas of south China, where a tradition of favoring boys over girls and the country’s strict family planning policies have turned the sale of stolen children into a thriving business.

Su Qingcai, a tea farmer from the mountainous coast of Fujian Province, explained why he spent $3,500 last year on a 5-year-old boy. “A girl is just not as good as a son,” said Mr. Su, 38, who has a 14-year-old daughter but whose biological son died at 3 months. “It doesn’t matter how much money you have. If you don’t have a son, you are not as good as other people who have one.”

The centuries-old tradition of cherishing boys — and a custom that dictates that a married woman moves in with her husband’s family — is reinforced by a modern reality: Without a real social safety net in China, many parents fear they will be left to fend for themselves in old age.

The extent of the problem is a matter of dispute. The Chinese government insists there are fewer than 2,500 cases of human trafficking each year, a figure that includes both women and children. But advocates for abducted children say there may be hundreds of thousands.

Sun Haiyang, whose son disappeared in 2007, has collected a list of 2,000 children in and around Shenzhen who have disappeared in the past two years. He said none of the children in his database had been recovered. “It’s like fishing a needle out of the sea,” he said.

Mr. Peng, who started an ad hoc group for parents of stolen children, said some of the girls were sold to orphanages. They are the lucky ones who often end up in the United States or Europe after adoptive parents pay fees to orphanages that average $5,000.

The unlucky ones, especially older children, who are not in demand by families, can end up as prostitutes or indentured laborers. Some of the children begging or hawking flowers in major Chinese cities are in the employ of criminal gangs that abducted them. “I don’t even want to talk about what happens to these children,” Mr. Peng said, choking up.

Police Indifference

Here in Shenzhen and the constellation of manufacturing towns packed with migrant workers, desperate families say they get almost no help from the local police. In case after case, they said, the police insisted on waiting 24 hours before taking action, and then claimed that too much time had passed to mount an effective investigation.

Several parents, through their own guile and persistence, have tracked down surveillance video images that clearly show the kidnappings in progress. Yet even that can fail to move the police, they say. “They told me a face isn’t enough, that they need a name,” said Cai Xinqian, who obtained tape from a store camera that showed a woman leading his 4-year-old away. “If I had a name, I could find him myself.”

Chen Fengyi, whose 5-year-old son was snatched from outside her apartment building in Huizhou, said she called the police the moment she realized he was missing. “They told me they would come right over,” she said. “I went outside to wait for them and they never came.”

When she is not scouring the streets at night for her son, Ms. Chen and her husband go to the local police station and fall to their knees. “We cry and beg them to help,” she said, “and every time they say, ‘Why are you so hung up on this one thing?’ ”

Many parents take matters into their own hands. They post fliers in places where children are often sold and travel the country to stand in front of kindergartens as they let out. A few who run shops have turned their storefronts into missing person displays. “We spend our life savings, we borrow money, we will do anything to find our children,” said Mr. Peng, who owns a long-distance phone call business in Gongming, not far from Shenzhen. “There is a hole in our hearts that will never heal.”

The reluctance of the police to investigate such cases has a variety of explanations. Kidnappers often single out the children of migrant workers because they are transients who may fear the local police and whose grievances are not treated as high priorities.

Moreover, the police in China’s authoritarian bureaucracy are rarely rewarded for responding to crimes affecting people who do not have much political clout. Mr. Peng said the police preferred not to even open a missing person’s inquiry because unsolved cases made them appear inefficient, reducing their annual bonuses.

There are exceptions. In a number of high-profile cases, the police have cracked down on trafficking rings and publicized the results. But such help remains rare, parents say.

Turning to Beijing

Mr. Peng says that boys’ abductions are a growing problem that only the central government can address. He and others have been agitating for the establishment of a DNA database for children and stronger antitrafficking laws that would penalize people who buy stolen children. “If the government can launch satellites and catch spies, they can figure out how to find stolen children,” said Mr. Peng, who helps run a Web site called Baby Come Home.

Chen Shiqu, the director of the Office of Combating Human Trafficking, a two-year-old government agency based in Beijing, said the problem of stolen children was exaggerated. He said that, contrary to parent advocates and some news reports, the number of cases was on the decline, although he was unable to provide figures to back up that assertion. “Just say they are dropping by 10 percent a year,” he said. He added that if parents were unsatisfied with the police response, they should call 110, China’s equivalent of 911.

Yang Jianchang, a legislator in Shenzhen, said he had been trying to get the central government’s attention, with little success. Two years ago, he said, a group of local businessmen tried to start a foundation to track missing children. But the government, which requires that the establishment of private organizations be approved, has yet to grant them permission.

Last June, after he sent a report on the issue to the central government and got no response, Mr. Yang started sending the Ministry of Civil Affairs a copy every month or so. “I just don’t understand why no one is paying attention to this problem,” he said. “We need someone in the central government who will fight for the rights of the people, someone who has a conscience.”

For the parents of missing children, the heartbreak and the frustration have turned into anger. Last September, about 40 families traveled to the capital to call attention to the plight of abducted children. They staged a brief protest at the headquarters of the national television broadcaster, but within minutes, dozens of police officers arrived to haul them away.

“They dragged us by our hair and said, ‘How dare you question the government,’ ” said Peng Dongying, who lost her 4-year-old son. “I hate myself for my child’s disappearance, but I hate society more for not caring. All of us have this pain in common, and we will do anything to get back our children.”

Buyers’ Remorse

In Anxi, a verdant county in Fujian where some of Shenzhen’s stolen boys are thought to have been sold, people focus more on the pain of the families without sons.

Zhen Zibao, a shopkeeper in the Kuidou, said that buying a son was widely accepted and that stolen children could be found in most towns and villages. She and other residents noted that when a daughter married and moved to her husband’s home, it often left her parents without a caretaker in old age. Then there is the dowry, a financial burden that falls to the family of a bride.

“If you have only girls, you don’t feel right inside,” said Ms. Zhen, who has one child, an 11-year-old son. “You feel your status is lower than everyone else.”

Although many Chinese still cherish male heirs, the Communist Party has largely succeeded in easing age-old attitudes about gender. In major cities, where one-child families have become the norm, many parents say they are happy to have a daughter and no son.

Still, in many rural areas, including Anxi County, a resident whose first child is a daughter is allowed to have a second. Having a third child, however, can mean steep fines as high as $5,800 and other penalties that include the loss of a breadwinner’s job.

A boy, by contrast, can often be bought for half that amount, and authorities may turn a blind eye if the child does not need to be registered as a new birth in the locale.

In some cases, local officials may even encourage people desperate for a son to buy one. After their 3-month-old son died, Zhou Xiuqin said, the village family planning official went to her home and tried to comfort her and her husband, who was compelled to have a vasectomy after the birth of the boy, their second child. “He said, ‘Don’t cry, stop crying, you can always buy another one,’ ” Ms. Zhou recalled.

Ms. Zhou and her husband, Mr. Su, the tea farmer, were still in mourning in October 2007 when they spotted a child at a Buddhist temple in their village, Dailai, a picturesque hamlet of 800 people nestled in the fold of steep mountains. “The boy was eating candy like he was hungry,” Mr. Su recalled. “Everything he was wearing was too small for him.”

A man with the boy claimed to be his father. He said that he was from a nearby town and had three sons, but that he needed money to take his ill wife to the hospital. “I asked how much,” said Mr. Su, an earnest man who works long hours in a clothing factory when he is not tending his tea plants.

After some quick bargaining, the price was dropped to $3,500 from $4,100, and a few hours later, after borrowing money from friends and family members, they took the boy home. They named him Jiabao, which means “guarantor of the family.”

Their love for their new son was boundless. They bought him new clothing and had their daughter drop out of middle school to take care of him. They did not think much of the fact that Jiabao did not understand the dialect spoken in that part of Fujian and seemed indifferent to the local cuisine. Mr. Su insisted that he never imagined that the boy had been stolen.

Last August, Mr. Su learned the truth after the police in Sichuan Province arrested the man who had sold them the child. The man, part of a ring of seven people who had abducted 11 children, had sold four of them to families in their township. The man, according to the police, has since been given a 12-year sentence.

By the time the couple got home from work the day they got the news, their son and the three other stolen children in their village had already been taken away by the police. The couple was inconsolable. “We were lied to, we were swindled,” Mr. Su said as his wife’s eyes welled up.

There was, however, a small consolation. A sympathetic policeman in Sichuan, the province where the boy was stolen, helped put them in touch with his birth parents. The two couples have since been in frequent contact; Mr. Su said the real parents held no grudge, acknowledging that the family had cared for their son well.

The father was so grateful, he told Mr. Su he would be on the lookout for local families who had two sons but were too poor to care for them. “He said that way I don’t need to deal with child traffickers anymore,” Mr. Su said.

Random stupidity and strange thoughts on Jiverly Voong

Am I the only one out there who wondered what the heck kind of name is "Jiverly Voong?"

Although it sounds vaguely Asian, it sounded like nothing Asian I could put my finger on. I mean it sounded positively Barsoomian, the reference being to Edgar Rice Burrough's classic fantastic adventure series set on Mars. The natives refer to their home as Barsoom, the animals are dangerous and multi-legged and the people have funny names. Our hero, John Carter, for instance, rescues the princess Dejah Thoris from the evil genius Ras Thavas with the aid of his fifteen foot tall, four armed green warrior companion named Tars Tarkas. (It's a delightfully clunky early science fiction series that still has many fans today.)

Turns out that Jiverly Ving was one of a few names used by an overseas Chinese immigrant, probably former refugee, from Vietnam.

I've been to Vietnam, including Can Tho and Hue, where there are still many Chinese temples, although the Communists did their best to drive the overseas Chinese from their homes, and taxing them huge "exit fees" as they fled the country.

This stupid man should not have shot people with poor English because his co-workers taunted him, allegedly over his poor English. It makes no sense.

I did call up the woman who used to run the English teaching program at the center, a program I participated in by the way prior to working at the center, and thanked her for "hundreds of lives saved." She laughed, although she said the news was terrible, which, of course, it is.

Will we find him a violent video game enthusiast/addict who enjoyed simulated shooting of other people on his TV? Probably. I've read

Colonel Dave Grossman's books, "On Killing" and "On Combat," and appreciated them greatly. They both speak of a link between this sort of pointless, irrational behabior and violent video game use.

Refugee Stuff --Binghamton shootings

I got an interesting call on my cell phone Friday. A friend of mine called me at work.

"Where are you?" he said.

"I'm at work?" I said. "Why are you calling me here?"

I don't like friends calling me at work, but he sounded really upset and concerned.

"It was just on the news that an upstate New York man shot up the local immigration center in Binghamton."

This was disturbing. I, generally speaking, like the refugees I know. As for the refugee I said I wished I could drop kick, well, he is often frustrating but I do consider him a friend of mine. (As stated many of my friends are, indeed, eccentric and this includes not just the telephone caller but also young tattooed refugees who are only learning to use the day planner I gave them. At least he remembered to keep the time free, even if he did confuse the place. He is making progress on learning how to function in this country.)

[Later note on this statement written 7-15-09. When you think about it, isn't it absolutely mind-boggling that we live in a world where one can pick up a 20 year old kid from Southeast Asia, drop him in the middle of Albany, unemployed and speaking broken English with no family ties, little understanding of American culture and minimal supervision, and then consider it a good deed and an improvement in world affairs and do so with some accuracy? There's a couple who helped me on the furniture van who I make a point of calling at least once a week, sometimes more, to see how they're doing. As for the story on why I was frustrated with this guy, see the piece on "Karen adjustment problems" in July.]

He gathered what he could in the next fifteen minutes and dialed me back. Seems someone named Jiverly Voong, age 42 had entered the local immigration center in Binghamton and, by my friend's report, killed 13 people, wounded 40 and others were cowering hiding under desks and using whatever makeshift cover they could find before the shooter had turned the gun on himself. (Turns out my friend had the numbers off, actually statistics were 13 dead, 4 wounded and numerous others scared, seeking cover and psychologically traumatized, but without understanding that I was functioning under misinformation my next actions will seem exceedingly odd.)

[Late note from 7-15-09. In hindsight my actions were odd, very odd, but if something like this happens, a person should react in some way. But we had a good trip so it's okay.]

I am, as I mentioned, an EMT with years of ambulance experience, more years of large event security experience and public information experience obtained working for FEMA during a natural disaster. I also speak three languages and understand refugees, immigrants and Asian culture better than average. If there were this many wounded and traumatized non-English speaking people in a city three hours away, then it would be, to use a term that I used the other day on this blog, "a cluster f*ck."

I got out of work at five and my plan was to get together with a young refugee who had helped me often with the furniture program. I hadn't seen him for a while and we had a vague plan to get food, probably at the Chinese buffet. Instead I told him what happened and asked him if he'd like to drive down there and see if we could help in some way.

He asked a couple questions about where we would sleep and if I could promise to have him back on time for work on Monday, and then agreed. (By the way, these are the sorts of things that a refugee center management should think about before committing to any project to help others. Remember, take care of yourself first.)

I called a second refugee and he agreed to come if I helped him with an immediate need of his first. (Again, sensible thinking.)

Between us we had rescue experience in two natural disasters on two continents, two were war survivors and among the three of us we spoke eight languages. (There being an overlap. I, alas, only speak three languages, while these guys spoke four and five, respectively.) Besides we were all in good health and don't shirk from hard labor and if nothing else there would be things that needed to be done. (i.e. removing furniture from the office that was marred by bullet holes.)

Calls to the Binghamton Police headquarters detective who was in charge went unanswered due to the phone being busy the four times I called, but a lower level person thought they had all the translators they needed. We decided there probably would be nothing we could do to help if we went but then again, the alternative was to sit in Albany and do nothing. Therefore, we decided to drive down to Binghamton, offer our services and then cruise down to Scranton to visit a cousin of mine who I felt (correctly) would not mind a sudden oddball intrusion like this in the middle of the night.

If nothing else, the tragedy was an excuse for a spontaneous road trip.

So off we went ultimately arriving in Binghamton around 11:00pm. Since we decided the best thing to do was to not focus on the tragedy, but instead enjoy the driving, and had no plan to turn back anyway until we got there, we did not try to recontact the Binghamton detective's office until around 10:00pm when we stopped for gas. (Although we did have the good sense to contact my cousin to ensure that he was cool with this intrusion. He was, actually, which is good.) The detective informed us that he thought all was under control but gave us some addresses where he thought we could touch base with people and told me that if I wished we could call back at 7:00am in the morning.

The sight of the shooting had about ten TV news trucks and a couple cars and was roped off with police line do not cross tape. A quick discussion with the cops outside said that all was good so we headed down to the Catholic Charities office, which was closed and empty. Then we stopped by the main hospital emergency room department to see what we could do. They thanked us for the offer and took our number.

Then we drove down to Scranton, over an hour to the south, getting lost on the way, ate a few sandwiches and crashed on my cousin's couch.

Next day I actually read a news report and discovered that the number wounded was 4 not forty, which explained why things were under control, and that the need had been for Vietnamese translators. The two guys with me were Burmese but spoke several Burmese languages each, plus Thai where they had spent time in refugee camps. My Vietnamese is about six mangled phrases so we just decided the best thing we could do was enjoy ourselves and stay out of Binghamton.

That day instead we had fun and visited the Scranton coal mine museums, there being one run by the County that includes an underground mine tour and another run by the state that includes extensive information on the regional immigrant coal mining experience of the late nineteenth, early twentieth century.

After that came Chinese food, good bye to my cousin, a stop at a farm where other relatives live and the ride back to Albany. The guys enjoyed the farm as they were from rural Burma and have been living in downtown Albany for a while.

All in all, it was a nice trip even if we didn't actually do anything to help out.


Thursday, April 2, 2009

Refugee Stuff --Running a Furniture Program. --communications and coordination

When writing, it is recommended that one have a theme and use unifying elements to tie various parts of an essay together. Therefore if this series of blog-posts has such unifying elements at the moment the following two seem to dominate:

1) If you do not run your refugee furniture program, and the center itself, in an efficient, intelligent manner then THIS will happen.

2) If you lack a background in management and logistics, you need to develop some awareness of the subject fast or people will suffer and one place, although not necessarily the best, to get such a background is from pre-modern Asian manuals on military strategy.

Which brings us back to the subject of running a refugee center furniture program. If you read the series of posts so far (and, yes, they do go from bottom to top. Such is the nature of blogs) then you will have read discussions of the following, very important, common sense ideas.

First, define your mission. That mission is:

"Find people who have more stuff than they need. Then encourage these people to give the excess stuff to you. Get them to give it away for nothing. Do so in such a manner that they feel so good about it they tell all their friends what a wonderful experience this was and encourage these friends to do the same thing. Then deliver this stuff in usable condition to people who desperately need it."

Second, To achieve goals in an efficient manner, you need to know both what the job is that you wish to do and you also need to know what it is that you have available to do that job.

Today we add a third lesson. And, yes, like the others before it, it is, indeed, common sense. (But, as stated elsewhere, let's face it, if we had common sense, why would we be hanging around this field? I agreed to help a refugee friend today, and, in classic fashion, he showed up to meet me, literally, in the wrong town, on the wrong side of the Hudson, and assumed that since I had a car, I wouldn't mind and, after all, since I was a smart guy, I should be able to find him there even without him knowing the address of where he was. Typical.)

Okay, here it is:

Since you know the job you wish to do, and you know how big the job is, and you now know what the elements are that you have to do this job, the next step is to take these elements and coordinate them so that they can best get the job done in the most efficient manner.

Yup, that's right. "Common sense."

Take all the parts and put them together to get the job done.

These parts consist of many things (furniture, storage, furniture donors, a vehicle, volunteers to do many tasks, keys to open doors and start vehicles, maps, addresses, landlord information, people to offer technical support and advice, etc., etc., etc.) There's nothing wrong with this. The key, however, is to use the right one's at the right time.

And to use the right tool at the right time will require coordination.

Coordination requires communication.

If your communication system sucks the parts of the process cannot and will not work together.

If the parts of the process do not work together then THIS will happen.

You do not want THIS to happen.

This place does not and did not have a good internal or external communication system. Therefore its operations are marked by inefficiency. People who donate furniture or volunteer (or even work) there, often as not find the task extremely frustrating and instead go elsewhere to donate furniture or volunteer.

And therefore, THIS happens --a shortage of furniture donations and a shortage of volunteers.

Remember, if you are going to make things work right then you need to have the parts coordinated.

To coordinate the parts and get them to do the right thing at the right time for maximum efficiency.

To do this requires a good communication system.

I have a very eclectic background which includes ambulance and volunteer fire department experience. One thing I learned working at the ambulance is that if you have a large problem or emergency and have a well coordinated response based on pre-planning and communication, then you have a rescue. If you have a disorganized, ineffective response with people working at cross-purposes then you have instead what is referred to in the ambulance field as "a cluster f*ck." That's right! ""A cluster f*ck" --it's a technical term used by ambulance people to refer to a situation where a bunch of people are running around screaming, yelling and doing stupid things that are completely ineffective or inappropriate to respond to a situation that desperately needs solving.

Avoid causing "a cluster f*ck." Instead ensure that communication and coordination will exist where it is needed. The people you are pledged to help will notice the difference.

Imagine if you will, the Mongol horde of the era of Mongol expansion riding into battle on horse back, waving signal flags and using signal horns and beating big round drums mounted on camel back. These were all communication devices and with them the Mongols destroyed all in their path.

IF Genghis Khan, a man who could not read or write, could use 13th century technology to coordinate the movements of thousands of illiterate horse nomads who lacked even a common language and turned them into a well-fed, well-clothed, highly mobile, well-coordinated masterful combat force, don't you think that you, a computer-savvy, 21st century person with access to cell phones and the internet, should be able to coordinate a small scale refugee furniture donation program?

Of course, you should be able to. Then again THESE PEOPLE couldn't, so you'd best be careful not to answer too quickly or to get too confident. You must spend time thinking about your internal and external communication systems and how to best coordinate them to achieve the results and goals which you have set for yourself.

Think about it please. Don't be like THESE PEOPLE. If you don't think about these things, then the refugees you have offered and agreed to serve will suffer needlessly.

In the meantime, I'll leave you with these lines from Sun Tzu.

All the best and peace.

there are five factors of knowing who will win:

One who knows when he can fight, and when he cannot fight, will be victorious; ?

one who knows how to use both large and small forces will be victorious; ?

one who knows how to unite upper and lower ranks in purpose will be victorious; ?

one who is prepared and waits for the unprepared will be victorious; ?

one whose general is able and is not interfered by the ruler will be victorious.

These five factors are the way to know who will win.

Remember, you can't do any of these things without coordination and you can't coordinate things without communication.