Friday, August 14, 2009

Refugees: What exactly is it that you do anyway to help refugees?

Sooner or later, someone is going to read this and say, "Now what exactly is it that this guy does to help refugees anyway?"

This is a valid question so I'll answer it with the project I completed this afternoon.

The story begins about two months ago. I was driving around Albany and spotted two Burmese refugees who used to be my English students sitting at the bus stop. I was in no hurry and had not seen them for a while so I stopped and said "hello." They were glad to see me, just as I was glad to see them so we chatted a bit. They had just come from the refugee center English class but had discovered that it had been canceled after they had arrived. So I gave them a ride to where they were going and we all played catch up. (Should anyone wonder, this conversation was in simple English, simple English being grammatically correct English with the vocabulary, idioms, cultural references and phrasal verbs being carefully chosen. It is distinctly different from broken English or pidgin English, which are said to be inappropriate to speak to foreign people save in the utmost emergency. Although I do not really speak Burmese, one reason these folks like me is because I can occasionally spit out mispronounced phrases in the language and, not only that, but I do so with an accent and frequent mistakes that allows them the chance to cheerfully correct my mistakes and manglings.)

Anyway, turns out one of these people had an important place they wished to go and a transportation problem that made it difficult to get there.

It sounded correctable to me so I said nothing and filed the problem away and later looked into it a little bit.

I figured the worst thing to do was to offer assistance with this problem then screw up and not be able to actually do anything.

So I quietly did some google searches, made some calls, sent away for some information, consulted with some people familiar with this problem, including some bona fide experts as well as a friend who has a disability and cannot drive but still manages to get anywhere he wants to go and has cheerfully done so for almost 20 years with only minor incidents and mishaps. For my purposes, this was an expert.

(Of these minor public transportation related adventures of his, the most exciting, perhaps, was the time he jogged into a bus stop sign at full speed one afternoon and almost knocked himself out, but instead found himself lying on the ground stunned. Fortunately, perhaps, two seeming-to-be-but-perhaps-not-quite good Samaritans picked him up, dazed and banged up, and brought him back to their apartment and promised to nurse him back to good health and then send him on his way. Alas, however, it turned out they were devious sodomites and instead, as he lay on their couch trying to regain his wits, they popped some Gay porn into their VCR. When the images appeared on their living room television screen, he responded. "Hey guys!" he screamed, "This isn't what I'm into!" and with that he then jumped up off their couch and ran out their door and jogged back to the bus stop, this time managing to avoid hitting the bus stop sign pole as he did and soon making his way back onto the bus and eventually making his way home, unscathed and safe from the salacious fondlings of the twin devious sodomites who had attempted to besmirch his virtue in his hour of desperation and need. For clarification, this gentleman-expert is not a refugee. He's lived his whole life in the USA, but, interestingly, his great-uncle on his mother's side was, in fact, a refugee from Palestine, an area he's studied extensively. Note: I actually have a lot of Gay friends, but they are not devious sodomites. They are good hearted and benevolent sodomites.)

So, after several weeks of work I was now fully prepared to address this refugee's transportation problem. I had a plan, I had a back-up plan if that failed, I had a long range plan to prevent future outbreaks of the problem ever again, and I had exciting and truly neat information that was peripheral to these plans but should make the person happy. I also had a few phone numbers to call if these plans got stuck at any point. I paper clipped the pieces all together in appropriate ways and placed it in a big orange folder pocket that I had bought at Walmart for 59 cents.

In the meantime, I saw the refugees with the problem again, when I bumped into them at a Burmese event in Rensselaer as I was dropping off one of my driving students after a driving lesson. I discussed the transportation problem with a relative of the person and decided that there was indeed a problem there and it was fixable.

So, prepared and ready, I called up the refugee and asked if I could visit. They eagerly agreed. So my friend and I came together and hung out with a few members of the family.

They had a nice apartment in a run down neighborhood. It was nice and clean. This family had been here for over a year, so they had several appliances and such, including a nice looking computer. On the computer they were watching a Burmese film using skype.

When the time seemed right, we addressed the problem, only to find out that it had already been addressed by true professionals from somewhere in Albany (not the refugee center) and was on its way to being fixed already. Good news for them but a little embarrassing for me and my friend.

So we hung out for a couple hours and gave them the peripheral information that I'd uncovered, which I think they enjoyed and found interesting, and taught them such important things as the fact that there was an Alive at Five music series each Thursday in Albany during the summer with free concerts and that the Albany Institute of History and Art not only existed but that it had a pair of Egyptian mummies on exhibit included a mummified cat. These people are, after all, new in this country so it's important that someone give them such vital information. There are, after all, dozens of Burmese refugees who do not realize that they are living within just a few miles or less of a genuine millenia-old, mummified Egyptian cat. And they don't even know the channels to go through to find out this information!

(We opted not to tell them the story of the time my friend ran into the stop sign and was shown Gay porn because, well, because it's just plain a stupid story and it would be dumb to tell it. I do have some class, after all. Not much, but a little.)

In return for this vital information they gave us slices of fresh fruit and iced tea which was very nice.

Then we decided to go our separate ways but before we left, they sprung something on us. "Hey, while you're here, what is this thing anyway?" and handed us a slip of paper. Turned out it was a three month old prescription for medication. Since they hadn't understood what it was, they'd never bothered to do anything with it, but had just placed it in a drawer suspecting it might be important someday. I got on their computer, discovered the medication could be quite important indeed, and then told them that it was a prescription, using my Burmese dictionary to explain the point.

We told them that they should discuss the situation with the doctor very soon and in the future take all prescriptions to the pharmacy. If the pharmacy refused to fill the prescription, then they should ask the pharmacy why and take the matter seriously.

We made sure they understood these procedures, gave clarifying examples and then as they thanked us said good bye and went on our way.

This is a typical thing that happens when one tries to help refugees. You show up for one problem, discover things are not as you thought they were, have some pleasant times hanging out, everything looks cool and then you stumble across something else that just seems completely to come out of nowhere and has some potentially catastrophic problems somewhere down the line.

So that's the result of my latest project to help refugees. Not glamorous perhaps, but that's the sort of thing I try to do when I can.

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