Saturday, July 18, 2009

Refugees, Furniture and Toys. Part Three.

Some time ago, I began writing a series of posts about what to do with toys that are offered to a refugee center. Well, this is installment three and it's about time to finish because there was a time this afternoon as I was driving my car that I realized I had forgotten what it was I wanted to say. Fortunately, I not only remembered what it was, but I also decided it was quite good and well worth sharing. Of course, should you choose to continue reading, you will just have to decide the value of the post for yourself.

It's never a bad thing to have a few good toys or stuffed animals, sitting around in the back room or wherever it is that you store your material goods. It's nice and it feels good for all concerned to take a good clean Teddy Bear and put it with all the furniture and kitchen goods and food that you set up when preparing for newly arrived refugees to arrive. So that's what you do with them.

But it doesn't really take very many toys to do this. And they need to be carefully chosen.

Now here's not what to do with them. (And I learned this, naturally, by doing it.)

Okay, picture this scenario. You've got some guy, let's say a refugee from Africa, sitting in the waiting room of the refugee center. You know him from one place or another and you know he's not a bad guy. He's looking despondent as he waits. So what do you naturally do, well you happen to know he has an eight year old son, so you offer him some of those toys that have been cluttering up your back room.

Ehhhhhhh . . . not always the best thing to do. Of course, it sounds good on the surface but let's look at bit deeper.

Let's look at it from this guy's point of view.

We'll personify the guy, and try to step in his shoes, starting with a name. How about Isaac Mbongo? I choose this because it's not a real name, as far as I know, but it sounds African to me and it's not inherently offensive. Five years ago, you were a pharmacist with a little shop somewhere in central Africa. And then one of those ridiculous African wars broke out and the next thing you know your town was over-run by a bunch of fifteen year olds holding machine guns that looked too big for their bodies. And they were scared and because they were scared they were mean. And they liked to rape, kill, shoot dogs and cows just for fun and light buildings on fire. And you lost a few members of your family, including a son who was forced to join their army and you think you'll probably never see him again and, worse, tha boy, your son, is probably going to wind up just as bad as the other guys assuming of course, he doesn't get shot and killed himself.

The little pharmacy shop and the quiet domestic life you prided yourself on are gone, gone forever, snuffed out like the lives of your lost loved ones. You take the surviving members of your family, make it to a refugee camp and after several years of eating badly, even by African standards, you are offered the chance to come to the United States and start a new life. That was four months ago. You've discovered the people in African who told you about life in the United States, exaggerated about how good things would be, probably to fill a quota. (This is a common claim among refugees, I cannot comment on its veracity.) You've found no job and your English is broken and no one cares that you speak four African languages plus fluent French. Your chances of getting a pharmacy job are about zero as you lack the licenses to hold the position you held in Africa in the United States. You even lost your high school diploma, not to mention the college degree and might have to start your education all over again with something called a G.E.D. And to make it worse the GED is offered only in English or sometimes, even worse, Spanish.

Your temporary benefits are running out. Your food stamps could be gone soon. You can't pay the rent, even though your apartment is in a neighborhood where you're scared to go at night. And your neighbors might look like you, but you know they're not like you. They play their music too loud after hours and smoke marijuana on their front steps where your children can see them doing it but there's nothing you can do to stop it. At least not safely.

You're desperate for a job, any job, even sweeping floors but they won't even hire you for that at the last seven places you applied and the bus schedules are not even in a language you know which makes job hunting extra frustrating. Your wife is getting increasingly tense and she seems to be losing respect for you because you can't feed your family. And, perhaps worse, you're starting to agree with her as you, too, start to lose and more and more respect for yourself.

You are completely, totally, absolutely dependent on the good will and competency of a lunkhead caseworker, who has a reputation for not caring about anything, and his boss, a 27 year old photographer who can't keep her appointments straight. And there's no way you can even afford to tell them what you think about them.

And suddenly, guess who shows up, that furniture guy and he says, "Here, I can see you are feeling bad. Have a Teddy Bear!"

Now won't that just make everything, right? Hell no.

These people have real problems.

Be careful about adding insult to injury by offering toys at the wrong time. \

(Actually the story is loosely, very loosely based on a true incident, but the guy just took me aside and said, "Peter, give me something I can really use. I don't need toys." Which was indeed the case.)

So, be careful about the toys. They do serve a need and are nice to have at the right time and place, and you will probably receive offers of a bunch of them, but they need to be accepted, stored and distributed carefully. Like I said, your job is to ensure that the basic needs of the refugees are met. These generally follow Maslow's hierarchy of needs. So make sure their material needs are met. Don't waste your time helping them "find their voice" or handing out too many Teddy Bears.

No comments:

Post a Comment