Her face seemed tired yet open as she greeted me in the doorway of her apartment. A toddler peeked around her skirt at me with wide, bright eyes. In that first exchange, I learned that her name is Masoka and her son is named Daudi. Masoka’s face will forever be for me the face of the refugee. Until that morning, I had never known a refugee longer than a couple days.
I and another ESL volunteer had knocked on her family’s door, having seen their apartment number on our list of refugee residents of the apartment complex where we would be holding English classes starting the following week. That morning, we were going door-to-door to meet the refugees and give them flyers with the details. It didn’t take long with Masoka to realize that for the very reasons that she could benefit from an ESL class, she and I could not have any kind of conversation. We had no language in common. We resorted to hand gestures and even then, we quickly hit a wall. At that point, Masoka’s tired, confused face broke into laughter and she grabbed my hand to shake it. I laughed with her and wondered if in her world, even the presence of a smiling face at her door could be significant.
Where are the people who will show up with a smiling face?
Masoka and her family are Congolese refugees who had arrived in the US seven months prior to our first encounter. That meant that when I met them, they no longer had a case worker assigned to them, having surpassed the initial time period when refugees have anyone assigned to them. They had originally been resettled in the north of Dallas where they had gotten connected with a Swahili-speaking church. More recently, due to their large family (six biological children and a niece that live with them) they were relocated to this apartment complex in south Dallas. Masoka was pregnant. This background information on her and her family came in bits and pieces over the months that followed our first encounter.
I met others that first day, a family from Eritrea and another from Syria. What they all had in common was extremely minimal English. Other than their country of origin, it was near impossible to learn much of their stories. Bits and pieces were shared in the little English they knew, amidst strings of languages I don’t understand and much gesturing and frustration, as they tried to communicate with me and as I tried to guess at what they were saying. Bombings and death of family members that they had witnessed in their home country – these things were pantomimed. And I was left trying to respond and express my sorrow for them in inadequate ways. As the English classes began the following week, the individuals that we had met became part of mixed classes – students from Congo, Eritrea, Syria, speaking at least four different languages. As we began to help them learn English, their individual stories receded into the background and remained largely a mystery.
Masoka and her husband and toddler came to ESL class. I was so happy when I first saw them there. For all I knew, my attempts to communicate with her and invite her to class had failed that morning I met her at her door.
It is humbling and frustrating to not be able to communicate with people like Masoka. Other than that presence of a smiling face, I have felt pretty useless to her in the face of all that she has experienced and that she and her family deal with now as they learn to live in the US. When I first met her, I had little concept of what they were dealing with. Then one day after class, I noticed her trying to say something to the apartment manager at the leasing office, next door to where we held classes. Masoka of course didn’t have the English words to communicate, and the manager had no idea what she was trying to say. After watching them struggle for a while, I jumped in and tried to help, to no avail. We got the sense there was a problem, but we could not figure out what it was. Finally, I offered to go back with her to her apartment so she could show me what the problem was. Once back at her apartment, she showed me that there was a problem with the key and lock. It was a simple matter to fix and was mostly due to the fact she wasn’t used to that kind of door.
As I thought about it later, I realized that beyond a smiling face, it is time that they need. It takes much more time and patience to communicate when you don’t have a language in common. When there’s a problem, it involves going with them and their showing you if they don’t know the English words to simply tell you. When it’s not something concrete that they are trying to tell you, it involves sitting with them and listening, patiently gathering the bits of information that you can, sometimes waiting until there are family members around with a bit more English.
Where are the people who have time?
Then one day, Masoka didn’t come to class. Her husband told us a few days later that their baby had been born, a girl named Neema (Swahili for “grace,” as I’d later learn). The other volunteers and I shared in their joy, visiting them and bringing them gifts and supplies donated by our respective churches. Masoka and her family were so appreciative.
As I visited them, I began to sense that baby supplies were a drop in the bucket of what they were facing now with a newborn in a strange country. Masoka had walked with a limp before the birth, and she was expressing pain in her legs. She had difficulty coming down the stairs. Her husband was expressing concern for her. She was also motioning that she was having issues nursing. Was she able to get to a doctor? What hospital would see her? Would she and her husband know when to take their baby for regular check-ups? How would they pay for formula? How would the baby get registered and added to the family’s benefits plan? I was clueless as to how these things work in my own country. The family had long ago surpassed the time period when they have a case worker who checks on them in such matters. Masoka was obviously an experienced mother. I knew it was their family’s strength and resilience that had gotten them this far. On one hand, they didn’t need me, and it was just as well because I felt so useless. On the other hand, during my visits with them I was trying to show them friendship and care. I began to feel a responsibility to them, as a friend, to do whatever it was that I could, even if it was just sitting with them.
Where are the people who will go sit with those who need a friend?
Over the course of the weeks following Neema’s birth, her parents and I discovered (often together) how to navigate some of those things they were facing. I connected them to Swahili-speakers, to a woman who knows about lactation, to the state hotline to call to add a family member to a benefits plan. And the days I couldn’t do anything for them, I’d simply sit and pray with them. It has been a humbling and eye-opening experience.