Honestly, at first it was awkward. For several weeks, maybe months, it was awkward. They didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Burmese. I brought my daughters along and committed to visiting them once a week for several months. I’m fairly certain I am their only American friend – at least the kind of friend who would visit you in your home. Their neighbors on the ground floor apartment next door are from Eritrea. The other doors open into an Eritrean and then another Burmese family’s home. When I walk past the entrances, each only a few feet apart, different aromas of international cuisine waft along the sidewalk. Any voice I might hear is not speaking English.
I knock on the screen door of their tiny apartment and let myself in. We usually sit on the floor. The donated overstuffed couch that used to sit in the corner has long since disappeared since the bedbug infestation. That’s history. Her husband is always at work when I visit, laboring in the strawberry fields an hour away. Her two-year-old daughter and my girls intermittently play together then fight over a toy, usually the naked barbie. And they look forward to visiting because they always serve plenty of cookies. It takes about 23 seconds to get through the culturally acceptable American greetings she’s learned. “Good morning. How are you?” “Fine, thank you.” “How are your children.” “Fine, thank you.” And it’s done. Anything beyond that may or may not be understood. But, we are both married women and mothers. There’s plenty we can smile and nod about in mutual understanding. Sometimes I prepare a simple English lesson. Sometimes I bring a book and explain the pictures. Once I brought a map of the United States and we studied it in detail for 20 minutes.
Which brings me to this last week. Twice I stopped by, but they weren’t home either time. I took that as a good sign – they are out and about doing things. As I walked away from their door, a neighbor quickly opened her screen door and beckoned me in. “Please, come, come, please.” As we stepped over the threshold she handed me her phone. “No good.” I looked at the small screen. It read ‘no line.’ Thus began a 20-minute adventure of finding the cable box, following wires, talking to the service provider and testing the phone, all while my daughters played around the coffee table and entertained the woman’s husband who had recently joined their family from East Africa. They had been eating a meal when we passed by and offered us some of their fresh homemade bread. They were also sipping small cups of fresh-roasted, strong, black, sweet coffee. I was served a cup, which I gladly accepted. These people, like their neighbors, have seen us walk past their door for months now. They know me. Their other immigrant neighbors offer greetings when they see us and have also asked us into their homes to assist with something technical or something that requires an English speaker. It was not like this in the beginning, months ago. But I keep going, showing up, so they extended trust to the American lady who brings her children to visit the Burmese neighbor.
I volunteered for this program because it was something I could do with my two daughters ages three and one – be friendly, willing and available. And we keep going back not because we are “mentors” in the program, but because these people and their neighbors and their entire refugee community are our friends. Friends we wouldn’t have made on our own but friends who have opened our eyes to the multicultural joys of the San Diego refugee community.
For information on refugee agencies in the San Diego area, check out the San Diego Refugee Forum website. The organization that connected me with my refugee family is the Alliance for African Assistance, a member of the San Diego Refugee Forum. Thousands of families from around the world are welcomed to the United States every year, fleeing persecution and untold horrors. The Refugee Council USA is a coalition of organizations that advocate for refugee protection.
“[The Lord your God] defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners. . .” Deuteronomy 10:18,19a
I wrote about my initial experiences with visiting this family in April. You can read that blog post here.