Sunday, April 5, 2009

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.

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