Thursday, May 20, 2010

Understanding refugees: Four principles

In the last year, I entered and completed a program to earn a master's degree in "TESOL" or "Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages." (what's sometimes known as "ESL") As part of this, some of the TESOL grad students were asked to volunteer to assist with a program that trained undergraduate students at the university to help refugees with their English. I agreed to do this.

During their training, I was given ten minutes to introduce myself and explain something useful about refugees. Ten minutes to explain the lives of refugees? For better or worse, that's the sort of challenge that I enjoy.

Here's what I did.

First, I went to the board and wrote the word "refugees," then I began to talk. "What are refugees like?" I said. "Refugees are people. They are good people and bad people. Some are short. Some are tall. Some are smart, some are not. If you spend time with them some will make you laugh and giggle for hours, others will just drain the life out of you as they are so depressing. But there are some things about them that are very different. What are some things that make their lives different from ours?"

And then I wrote these four words on the board.



"Loss of Control"


I then described each one.

"Trauma. Refugees have a lot of trauma in their lives. They deal with it in different ways." Then I mentioned an Iraqi woman I'd met one day who had been in tears because a friend of mine had come to help me with English class wearing a camouflage jacket. The poor woman had thought he must have been a soldier and wanted to know if he'd killed many Iraqi people. What makes this almost amusing is that the man in question (the Reverend Tim) is actually one of the biggest peace activist, war-protesters I know, having been singled out personally for abuse by a local talk show host for his activities, but the jacket was enough to bring back traumatic memories and cause tears in this poor woman. By contrast what can be equally unnerving is when your speaking to a refugee and they just sort of casually mention traumatic events in passing as if they were the most ordinary things. This is often the case with young Karen who grew up in a warzone, a warzone that has been active off and on since 1949. One was once mentioning to me about how as a teenager he'd leave the refugee camp in Thailand each summer and go home to see his parents in Burma and when he got home he and his dad would cut down trees and run a small lumber yard together. (We were trying to make him a resume.) It sounded idyllic and like no image of refugee life I'd ever heard. I asked him about how exactly was it that refugees could leave the camp and travel home. "Oh we'd have to sneak through the woods and stay off the roads," he said. "If the Thai soldiers saw us crossing the border they'd think we were guerrillas and shoot us." Which sounds pretty unnerving to most of us but it was the most ordinary thing in the world to him. And the mundaneness with which he told the story was more unnerving than the story itself. This was his life. This was normal to him.

"Poverty" was the next word that I mentioned. I described a little bit about just how overwhelming the poverty level was that some refugees lived or had lived under was. How excited they sometimes became over the chance to own objects that had been cast away by Americans and donated to the refugee center. Even silly things like old tennis rackets and coffee makers will excite a newly arrived refugee. (There was one day when I worked at the refugee center I just started giving away coffee makers as we had built up a stockpile of donated coffee makers as they had been coming in from time to time and never going out. This is the way the refugee center was run. Unfortunately, I found that after giving away about 8 coffee makers to whoever happened to be around and wished one, I received countless requests later for coffee makers when people saw me.)

But then I dug a little deeper. I mentioned that refugees are often quite excited by the chance to drive and even own a car after they come here. I mentioned that a couple weeks before I'd stopped at a traffic accident in Schenectady County to assist someone who was hurt and that a car had been wrecked and an elderly woman taken to the hospital. Afterwards, I overheard a bystander say that it wasn't important that a car was wrecked. What was important were the people. Cars could be replaced, he'd said. People couldn't. As I heard him speak, the thought went through my mind that that sort of thinking was absolutely foreign to a lot of people in the world today, particularly in Asia or the third world. (Of course, I said nothing to the man as it was just not the time, place or context for such a discussion.) So, I told these students, I had begun to wonder about the relative cash value for human beings as compared to cars in different places in the world.

I asked them if they were aware that human trafficking and people being sold into sexual slavery still existed in many countries. They said they were. (Actually it still goes on in this country, but that's another issue and I didn't get into it.) Therefore, I said, as I'd prepared my talk I'd begun to wonder if a Burmese refugee woman who was sold into sexual slavery to a brothel in Thailand sold for more or less than a car did. I fully admitted it was a very sick question, but pointed out that it did fit the topic under discussion. Having researched the question (I believe the source I used was A Modern Form of Slavery -Trafficking of Burmese Women and Girls into Brothels in Thailand, a Human Rights Watch report from 1993, a bit dated but good enough for this sort of project) I discovered that when women and girls were sold into sexual slavery in Thailand they generally sold for about one tenth or less of the cost of a car. Then I asked them to just think a little bit about what it would be like to know that there were people out there who wished to take you and put you through one of the worst hells imaginable and wanted to do so for no reason except money and that to them the actual cash value on your life and your well being was less than that of a car.

"Loss of control" was my next topic. I spoke of how when I taught English at the refugee center, one day I asked the students why they had come to Albany instead of elsewhere. The universal answer was "Because that's what the papers said." A surprsing amount of the decisions in the lives of most refugees have been determined by forces outside their control. Most refugees have had astonishingly little control over their own destiny.

"Instability" --Refugees, especially newly arrived, non-English speaking refugees, live very unstable lives. They often do not understand bus schedules and their jobs come and go. When they move, and they move frequently during the first year, they often leave furniture behind. Their schedules are often determined by forces and agencies outside their control, demanding appointments at times that they did not choose, sometimes for reasons they just do not understand. And to make it worse, many come from cultures that do not emphasize time management and the refugee camp experience is one where the question is more of "what does one do with one's time?" than "how does one use one's time efficiently?" If you deal with refugees, particularly newly arrived, non-English speaking refugees, do not expect them to be prompt at meeting appointments. Be aware that sometimes they will not show up as promised for reasons that came out of nowhere. If you choose to involve yourself with such people, no matter how wonderful your intentions or plans, this is part of the game and you should expect this. Screaming about how "Dealing with these people is like herding cats," might be satisfying at times, but it's not gonna make a bit of difference. It's just the way their lives are.

Understanding these four principles,
Lack of Control


  1. Hey Peter,

    It's the mandarin-speaking Staples employee you met last week- just wanted to let you know I found your blog, and it was cool meeting you.

    This post was really enlightening - being involved with refugees must be quite a whirlwind! (and it was nice to find out what the 'TESOL' on your business card stood for!)