The Plight of Refugees

I saw my Burmese refugee family yesterday for the first time in about a month. One week Po’s son David was sick, another week I was swamped and had to postpone, and then for the past week and a half, my texts went unanswered. It isn’t like Po not to answer texts, so I thought I would swing by just to check that everything was okay. You never know when something could happen, and Mai doesn’t know enough English to know who to contact or how.

Po’s cell phone is a single point of failure, so I imagined that if it got smashed or dropped then that would explain the loss of contact. I was pretty close, but Po had a different, temporary phone, and he said something about needing to pay for the other one. I didn’t catch whether that was from lack of funds, but it could easily have been from contract terms as well.

I wasn’t planning to teach as I knew I would be dropping in on them unannounced, but I turned up because I wanted to check that everything was alright. Knowing that everything was okay was a good thing, but since I was there Po had some questions about the mail he had received, which was pure English legalese. He had applied for a green card but he did not know if any of his mail was related to that. There were four envelopes from Medicaid, one for each person in the household, which said that a particular “primary care medical provider” would be automatically assigned to them if they did not choose a different provider, and the other four envelopes simply stated that their applications for resident status that had been received.

I found a new strategy to help them out: I would type a summary of what I believed the letters meant into my phone on Google Translate and would then show Po the resulting Burmese. It appears to have worked fairly well, but he was still worried he needed to take action, when surprisingly he didn’t. I did a couple small translations to try to clarify that.

Those Medicaid letters. Do those bureaucrats really expect refugees from the far corners of the world to understand what in the world they mean? Oh, sure, the back of the envelope was stamped with Arabic, Spanish, and two other “common” foreign languages, but is there not one America in the whole city who could provide a translation to Burmese? Not one? There is no freaking way you can send these people legal terminology and expect them to understand it.

And I get it. Budgets. I guess you can’t translate everything into every language. But it still makes me angry. I can’t imagine being thrown into a completely different world and then being absolutely drowned in legal paperwork. State societies are notorious for this and they rely on it to function.

I was able to get Po a copy of the first 19 questions of the citizenship test in Burmese, and he was pretty excited about that. I started studying Burmese last year but realized my motivation for it was far too low, so I passed it up. What I do know is the Devanagari script and, like, five words of Nepali, so you can imagine I feel a bit torn right now. My desire to go to Nepal is far greater than it is to see Burma, and you have to pay attention to what motivates you or learning a language will become unbearable. Still. I’m curious how often people take advantage of refugees who do not understand the language. Hey, half the time I don’t read full contracts.

Oh, and Burmese people have difficulty saying “Thanksgiving” =). It happens to us all, you should hear me try to roll an “r”. It took me awhile to understand that Po was saying his work does not give Thanksgiving off, so they are celebrating on the Sunday after. It’s good to see they are getting the cultural experience.

On an unrelated topic, Mai was the one to first greet me at the door, but shortly after I turned up, she disappeared into the back room, which has never happened before. The last time I was there, Po told me that they had another child on the way, and I know some cultures believe that women should remain in isolation when they are pregnant, but Po’s primary desire for English lessons is to help Mai learn. There could have been any number of reasons for this, but my inner Anthropologist is interested. And you can’t just lump people as “Burmese”, this family comes from Kachin State, which has its own customs. This family is also Christian, and that may change how they live out those costumes, too.

Anyway, Po and Mai are of course not their real names, I simply stole these from George Orwell’s “Burmese Days”. I’m thinking of ways to help, it may even be worth teaching them some common legal terms, or at least enough to help them with Medicaid and the green cards.