Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Interlude 2: Over-boiling The Melting Pot

I'm not sure if many of you are aware of this, but I volunteer to help an Iraqi refugee family acclimate to life inside the United States. The family is large: the family consists of a father, a mother, and several children. They arrived in February of 2009. Upon arrival, the father spoke little English, the mother none at all, and the two older children could say simple words like "yes," "no," and "hello."

Why'd they come? The father is an engineer, and he helped the United States armed forces throughout their liberation of Iraq. He was such an asset to their plans that they awarded him a medal and granted him legal status in the United States. Moving to the United States would also lessen the chance of he and his family being murdered, as they now were targets.

Since their arrival the family has done what they can to get on the fast track for citizenship. Our group got them a place to live, modestly furnished their apartment, helped them get their government heath care, get them their food subsidies, get them their required health inspections and vaccinations, get their children into school, get the mother English lessons, get them a bank account, and transport them around the city for errands and shopping.

The father has been studying the rules of the road and the time had come for him to get his driver's license. He already knew how to drive; he drove in his home country. However, he had to go through our process which involved getting a driver's permit and taking the written and road tests.

I have spent many, many hours with this family. Our family has had them over for lunch. We've taken them to the park for fun. We've been treated to the finest home-cooked Iraqi dishes at their apartment. During my many hours helping them outside the home in the real world I've seen many rolled eyes, shaking heads, stares, and clutched purses. You know, I expected that.

For example, when he starts talking on the phone, in Arabic, to his family, in the milk section of Kroger, people scatter. It would be almost humorous if it wasn't completely sad. You'd think they thought a bomb was about to go off or something. Useful, maybe, in an elevator or a line to see a movie, but sad nonetheless.

I sat in a chair along the wall while the Iraqi father spoke to people at the counters of the DMV in town. He was bounced from clerk to clerk, either because they were having problems with his documents (which is highly unlikely, as all his documents are in order) or they couldn't understand him. Granted he has an accent, but honestly his accent is more understandable than most east-Tennessean accents. He has a problem with acronyms and obscure words. That's about it. He continued to be tossed around like a hot potato. No one else was being tossed around, I noticed. They went to one counter, got what they needed, and took their tests. I think he was tossed around because of his accent paired with no one really knowing what to do. Supervisors, or at least people I assume were supervisors, were called several times.

He finally ended up at one counter with a gentleman who, after the father spoke (in understandable English, to me), sighed, glared at the Iraqi gentleman, and said "Sir, if you can't speak English I can't help you."

By this point I was near fuming. Whatever business he needed at that counter was finally completed, and he moved to yet another counter. At this counter the woman began to ask him, and I heard it clearly, "Do you want the split test or do you want a permit test? For the split test you have to pay and you walk away with nothing."

You'll walk away with nothing.

He told her to explain, that he didn't understand, and she gave her explanation: a verbatim repeat of her previous statement.

Again he asked for an explanation, and again she gave her customary explanation, although this time she said it louder. I used to always think those jokes about saying things loudly would help someone who didn't speak the language to understand were sort of humorous, but now that I've seen it used in a serious context, i see it for what it truly is.

Finally he looked up to me and waved me over. He told the woman that I would help him. By this time, I must admit, I was quite angry.

She looked at me and asked something along the lines of "Are you going to translate for him? Do you speak his language?"

To which I replied, "Yes, I speak English." She gave me a puzzled look - I feared that we would see sparks fly from her ears and watch her head explode.

She explained to me what she was asking, and I, using English, explained to him what she was asking. The problem was not that he couldn't understand her words, it was because he couldn't understand what she was saying. And who wouldn't? You'll walk away with nothing. And to be honest, I don't know who else would. I surely didn't. I just don't understand why she didn't even give one ounce of effort toward explaining the choices to him as she did to me. Well, no, that's not right. I do understand.

We all know why. It reminds me of my previous post where I discussed a story similar to this. People just assume. And you know what the old adage says about making assumptions.

This man sacrificed everything. His family was in danger. They had to leave everything behind: their life, their livelihood, the belongings they'd worked a lifetime to achieve. Their kids left their toys, their clothing, their friends. They left their memories (what good ones they had). They left other family members.

I will not deny that soldiers in combat sacrifice. However, I feel that the families left behind make a greater sacrifice. Soldiers who live and return were doing their job. I respect their job, but I don't see it as a sacrifice. That is the job they wanted. I see it no more a sacrifice as police officer taking down a suspect, a fire fighter dousing a fire, or nurse wiping poop off a wall. The soldiers who live and die are said to pay the ultimate price, but I disagree. They sacrifice, yes, but they are dead. They don't have to go on living like their families back in the states. The families that have to find new ways to survive. They are paying the ultimate price.

Why do I say this? Because I'm tired of hearing people say that this Iraqi family didn't sacrifice anything by coming to the United States. They left a war-torn unsafe country for the safety of the US and a better life.

Yes. A better life. They were heros for the United States while in Iraq. While in the United States, most view them as common dogs.

They were hunted at home, and are hated by the civil majority of their new land. A better life...

One step up the ladder, but still in the septic tank.

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