Yesterday, I took our Karen refugee mother and her two youngest children to the county health department. Our church is involved in resettling Karen refugees. I had known nothing about the Karen, their long battle for independence in Myanmar, their brutal experiences at the hands of the Burmese, or their lives in Thai refugee camps until my son met this family of six through our youth group. I’m not sure who adopted who, but Adam loved the warm, lively children and when the church asked for volunteers to help refugees transition to life in America, in Athens, we signed up. The mother, whom I will call Rose, is thirty, only five years older than my daughter, Hannah. Over the past several weeks, although her English is rudimentary, she has shared with me stories and photos of her life lived mostly in a Thai camp: she has buried one husband, one infant daughter, and both parents. She has two older boys by her first husband, and two by her second husband. She is very proud of her husband–he speaks English fairly well and went through eleventh grade. She herself has no schooling, but she is quick-witted and exudes such warmth that Adam calls her “A bundle of love.” She loves America, because she has a floor, warmth, safety. In the camps, her children were always dirty because of the dirt floors. They were cold because of the bamboo huts. They were hungry because of lack of food. They had no hope for the future, no possibilities.
So, the health department. I had to take her for her birth control, which meant that I left Adam in the waiting room with the four and two-year old children. Using pantomime and simple English, I had to ask some very personal questions, like “When was the last time you and your husband had sex?” which I demonstrated with my hands coming together. She got it, answering with great dignity, looking straight ahead. She is so gentle and soft-spoken, I just winced at this invasion of her privacy. As we waited in the women’s waiting room, there was some conversation, but much silence. At one point, she turned to me, and said, “Teacher, I no like fat.” She gestured to her belly, her face sorrowful. In the photos she had shared, she had been very thin and youthful. Still pretty, she has put on a lot of weight with all the food and kinds of food available here. I asked her if she exercised, or walked. She shook her head, no, she said “Eat, sleep, children. Sometime walk to Piggly Wiggly with Sunny.” She giggled when she said Piggly Wiggly and I did too. We talked about getting a stroller so she could walk the youngest one. Her comment was a small glimpse into her world, her feelings, something that made her an individual, not merely a “refugee mother.” I hated it for her, this so American struggle with weight, this estrangement from our bodies.
We waited and waited for her to be seen . We both stared at the video monitor, featuring a documentary on the Rockdale County sex scandals. The video showed people in church, at prayer. Rose said, “praying!” in her soft, lilting voice. I nodded, but what the video showed was how a certain kind of fundamentalist Protestant Christianity had failed this Southern community, and maybe contributed to the incredibly depraved sexual behaviour of the county’s teens. It showed how there was an emptiness at the core, a kind of ennui, which pulled the children into extreme sex and drug experimentation. The experts also commented on the parents’ complete disconnect with their children, their disbelief, their denial that such things could happen to their children. The children interviewed talked about long hours alone at home, free to do what they liked. The camera panned on the upper middle class suburb, the large brick McMansions with their huge yards, the SUVs and Hummers parked in the drives, everything pristine, perfect, shiny. But no people. Big bright suburban emptiness.
I thought back to the birthday party/prayer meeting I had attended at one of the Karen homes. The whole community seated on the floor, listening respectfully to the preacher, even the youngest child attentive, well-behaved. Their beautiful singing, the openness and generosity between them. I didn’t understand the words, but I understood that this was something special. Their strong and vital faith has seen them through years of deprivation, but will it survive our materialistic culture? How will their community handle our emphasis on the individual? Already the children are becoming more fluent, not only in English, but in the culture. Adam told me the four-year old is so smart, he even knows the mother of all curse words, which he picked up from the older boys. I think of how Rose is with her kids, naturally authoritative, never raising her voice, gentle but firm. It is enviable, her naturalness. I don’t want that to change for them. How will she find her way in this new world as a mother, as a woman?
Rose is finally seen. We pick up the boys and go into the children’s vaccination room for another long wait. The room is crowded with a Chinese family and several Hispanic families. There is a huge National Geographic map on
the wall, and we show Rose and the children were Burma is. Rose tells how it took four planes to get to Georgia–one to Japan, from there to California, then to Colorado, then to Georgia. “Long way,” she says, smiling wearily at the map. Her youngest has fallen asleep in her arms. The four-year old is speaking and gesturing rapidly in Karen, pointing to places on the map and making up stories. Maybe he is making up the story of their plane ride, or of the adventures he will have in the world as a Power Ranger. I look around the room at the weary parents, at the dark-eyed children shyly smiling, at my tired, bored fair-haired boy. I wonder–what maps, what stories will lead us–all of us– home?