Sometimes we pay a lot of money to fly across the globe and immerse ourselves in the culture of a developing country, and perhaps even invest ourselves in some good cause while visiting. Then, we spend a lot of money – again – to fly back home to our cozy house and romanticize the memories of our incredible experience. Once a week I spend zero dollars and drive only five miles from my home and sometimes feel like I’ve visited the Global South. But, because it’s so close, I don’t feel quite as insulated from the needs. Yet I still go. . . and bring my daughters along.
San Diego recently surpassed Los Angeles as the city in the United States that receives the most refugees on an annual basis. Individuals are sponsored by the Department of State to enter the United States and begin a path to citizenship. I’ve been helping a Burmese family that arrived in San Diego in January from a refugee camp in Thailand. They speak only a few words of English, so I have no idea what kind of hardships and trauma they’ve endured. But they are here, safe, five miles from my home, and eager to learn English and be a friend. We sit on the rug of their tiny, scantily furnished apartment and review English vocabulary and conversation while the toddlers play with the broken, donated toys (dolls without arms and legs, cars with no wheels, etc). The kids don’t care about the condition of the toys and neither do I. My host is always extremely gracious, offering fresh fruit and occasionally hot-out-of the-pan fried chicken à la Burmese. I have sat on many a floor around the world in what most Americans would consider a “poor” neighborhood. In all actuality, this is the global norm and I feel quite comfortable. And I didn’t have to travel the globe to get here.