Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Refugee's Story

I loved the suggestions I got in this post for topics this month. Because I went to the ESL class this morning where I volunteer, I'll respond first to Fiona's request for an update on the man I wrote about here.

He wasn't there today. The last time I saw him, he told me he had been sick, so I'm wondering if he isn't sick again. The language barrier between the two of us is glaring. He "told me" he was sick by my acting out what sick looks like and then his answering 'yes'. I hope that he's in class next week. How strange would it be to invite him for Thanksgiving, I wonder. What would he do at our house, knowing virtually zero English? Would he feel uncomfortable? Should we just play charades? Anyone with advice, I welcome words of wisdom on this one.

I have been slowly but surely every week getting to know these elderly immigrant/refugees from Africa. There is a particular favorite of mine that I discovered a lot about today.

He comes faithfully every week, always dressed in very modern clothes and carrying a Forever 21 plastic bag. If it's chilly out, he wears his fuzzy cap with earflaps. That, combined with the Forever 21 bag, is quite a combination. He has a quick smile, always.

Today, he showed me a typed document that he is taking to a court appointment on Tuesday, an attempt to get his permanent work visa. He is hoping to be granted official 'refugee' status by the U.S. government, so the document explains his life story. This man who is always smiling has suffered more than I most likely ever will. He was born in one country but left due to religious persecution and lived in a neighboring host country for 37 years, where he raised all his seven children. He eventually tried to go back to his country of origin, but again suffered extreme religious persecution and had three of his sons conscripted to that nation's army. He left again to the neighboring country, the same one who hosted him for those 37 years.

In the middle of the night, soldiers from his country of origin knocked on his door, demanding to know where his sons were. He tried to explain that they were already in the army, but the soldiers wouldn't believe him, taking him to jail where he was interrogated and tortured for days.

Due to the torture, he was eventually sent to a hospital where a friend helped him escape. This friend housed him secretly for several years, letting him work at his auto repair shop. He was eventually granted a one-year visa to the U.S. in 2006 where he came to live with one of his daughters. The rest of his children are still in Africa.

He doesn't want to go back home, even though most of his family is there. He simply wants to work as much as he can to help his family. He is an elderly man. Many people in the western world are looking forward to this time of life to finally take it easy, buy an RV and go on cruises. This man simply wants the freedom to work legally so he can send money to his children. The New York Times had an article this week about this very issue, which you can read by clicking here (this man is not Somali, but some of the issues are similar).

In theory, I go to this class to help these people learn English so that they can function independently in American culture. Many people have said this before and in much more eloquent ways, but I am getting so much more from knowing them than they are getting from me. After reading the man's court document a few times to get the facts straight, I handed it back to him, thanked him, then placed the palms of my hands together in a symbol of prayer and lifted my hands and eyes upward. He smiled, nodded, and said 'thank you'. If you are the praying kind, could you do the same? I'll be seeing him again on Tuesday, and I'd be so happy to let him know that he had others saying a prayer for him.


Fiona said...

Thanks so much for this update!
I think inviting him for Thanksgiving would be so special- maybe a little awkward, but there is enough love for Africa in your house that he would know that and be blessed.

And I'm praying for favor for your other Forever 21 friend.

And I think need to find a place like this to volunteer at. Do you know if there are any programs near Salem?

Thanks, Lori.

jill coen said...

Just prayed for him and will continue!

jill :)

Nicholas said...

Praying right now from NH!

btw, still working on my older child post!

coffeemom said...

Will put him in my prayers as well.

Rebecca said...

i do think you should invite him for Thanksgiving. If he accepts, there obviously will be a language barrier - but there could also be a lot of love shown. That's my opinion.

I will be praying for him. And crying. But focusing on praying.