Tuesday, July 20, 2010


To be clear from the start: I never intended to use this blog space once I returned to the states. It seemed like a great idea while living overseas- a way to share thoughts and life when other forms of communication were either too expensive or too slow. Writing updates in the states felt redundant when there are phones, text messages, e-mails, and facebook. But I've realized that during my two years of writing in this space, I began to use it to draw connections between what I was thinking and what was going on in life. This doesn't always come naturally to me and it helps me to see my thoughts become words. And so here I am again.

These past few weeks have been a bit overwhelming- thus the need to air out some thoughts. Last week one of my supervisors was senselessly beaten by a gang of punks kids in broad daylight, on a busy street, in a nice part of town, outside of a Whole Foods store. Though he is recovering well, it was scary at first- they fractured his skull, cracked his check-bone, and they were concerned about internal bleeding. Then yesterday, my peace corps group found out that one of our friends who was diagnosed with leukemia last month has taken an extreme turn for the worse. It has been hard to get the phone calls from friends who are so upset, to feel so helpless. It seems that these unexpected tragedies serve to remind us of our frail nature and give us no choice but to rest in God's grace, though sometimes you just want wallow in the 'why?'

Life now finds me in DC, which is bittersweet in so many ways. I have envisioned myself living here, in a row house with great windows, since high school. Life in DC is full- never a shortage of things to be done nor of people who are doing things. I work at a refugee resettlement agency that assists people who are just arriving in America to adjust and start new lives. Both the people I work with and the clients we serve are inspiring. A mixture of nationalities and thus a mixture of perspectives on life. Many have overcome great hardships and arrive here only to discover a new set of challenges. Somehow they continue to persevere with optimism and I am constantly amazed at their strength.

Though I try not to be biased, clearly my favorite clients are the Ethiopians. I'll just admit it. Yet, though I love working with them, sometimes it is difficult for me to hear their stories. One woman endured years of persecution, imprisonment, and torture because she was an active member of the wrong political party. Her sister was also active in this group and in 2007 was imprisoned and killed at a military base 20 kilometers from the town I was living in at the time. To discover that these things were going on while I was there, so close to where I was... nauseating. And then to realize that I can offer this woman no respite now that she is in my country. Does she realize yet the difficulties she will face trying to find adequate, affordable health-care? Will I be the one to tell that at her age and with her limited English she doesn't have a shot at finding a job that meets her expectations?

Additional frustration comes when seeing how other people interact with our clients. Part of my responsibilities include going with clients on errands when they need help- to the bank, social security office, border patrol, social services, and the like. Though I realize people in these offices are over-worked, I don't know that their behavior can be excused. They are rude, short, and refuse to look at people in the eye. Maybe they know that if they take time to look, they will see the burdens that these people carry with them. Maybe that is to much for them to handle on top of the mountains of work they already have. I don't know. But it is no excuse.

Take, for instance, my recent trip to the Social Services office. The client I was with had a stroke when he was at a refugee camp in Kenya and as a result he walks and speaks a bit slower than he used too. On this day, he and his sisters were supposed to meet me at the SSA office but for some reason the sisters sent him out on his own. He arrived 45 minutes late, having gotten on the wrong bus and was clearly distraught. He is a proud Ethiopian man who rarely allows his weaknesses to overwhelm him, but on this day it was too much for him. He burst into tears as soon as he saw me, frustrated with himself, his sisters, and the bus driver who wouldn't help him find his way back. At 9:45 am, it was the start of a very long day. The clerks gave him a hard time for being late, they wouldn't listen to his questions, nor would they leave time for me to translate. One clerk, herself an Ethiopian, refused to talk to him in Amharic and instead made me translate, though I asked her numerous times to talk directly to her client. And though I couldn't get her to talk the client in Amharic, at the end of the conversation she spoke to me in Amharic in order to compliment me on my Amharic. I wondered: what would happen if I just allowed my frustration the scream that it so desired? If the whole experience was incredibly dehumanizing for me, I can't even imagine how my client felt. And I wonder how often he feels that way on any given day. The life of a refugee seems so lonely.

Though there are a lot of disheartening moments, there are numerous instances when you're just so encouraged by your fellow US citizens. Once, outside of a CVS, two police officers started talking with the Burmese clients I was with. These clients speak very little English, but I figured it would be good practice for them and the cops seemed patient enough. By the time I had purchased what we needed and come back outside, the cops had figured out what where the kids were from, that they were refugees, and what neighborhood they lived in. The cops gave the kids their cards, promised to keep an eye on their neighborhood, and told them to call if they ever had trouble. I may have been over-enthusiastic in my appreciation... But to find cops who see the individuals! Who stop and talk! In DC! Who would have thought it possible?

Though this internship has stretched me (on somedays, to borrow a high school expression, I think the rubber band has popped), I don't think I have ever learned so much in such a short period of time. Some of it seems so cliche, but time management, organization, data collection, how to communicate effectively. These seem like good skills to acquire and I am slowly becoming more comfortable in my role. I feel that I am getting better at answering questions, though sometimes when I replay in my head the information that I have given a client I hope that I didn't just make everything up. I am thankful to be here now, though I will also be thankful when school starts. This 9-5 schedule is a terrible idea.