Refugees. Street kids. I have something to learn from both of them.
I was struck today in Adult Learning at SFBC, when Mona Han answered a question about psycho-somatic symptoms during her talk about refugees in. Someone who works with refugees locally asked a question about severe physical pain, malaise, and other symptoms felt by the people she worked with. Mona Han didn’t miss a beat – she knew exactly what the question was about.
Refugees go through a three-month honeymoon period after being settled in the area, she explained. For a few weeks they are happy and thankful to have a roof over their heads, to not feel imminent threats of violence, to be safe. But as time goes by, that honeymoon period fades. They begin to realize that they are living in a culture that they do not understand, and that does not understand them. They get important-looking letters in the mail that they are unable to read. Their kids – able to learn English much quicker than their parents – move to a position of power as interpreters. They find themselves settled in an area where rent is cheaper, but social acceptance of non-Caucasians may not be the norm. Is it any wonder that depression sets in, that pain seems overwhelming, that life seems impossible?
For some reason, Mona’s answer reminded me of the kids I used to see who slept on the sidewalk by the downtown Seattle Nordstrom store. Apparently Nordstrom sidewalks were considered a safe place, a desirable location for kids to spend the night outside. And I remembered the United Way presentation I heard while working at Nordstrom about those kids, how for them living on the sidewalk outside an upscale department store was safer than being at home. On the sidewalk, they weren’t physically, mentally, or sexually abused the way they were at home. On the sidewalk, no one kicked them off the block for being gay. They found more security sleeping on concrete in front of a store window than they did in their own bedrooms.
I learned in time that I don’t understand what it means to be a street kid. Yes, I ran away from home once – for about 4 hours. And when I was escorted back by law enforcement I wasn’t whipped or banished or punished. My parents and I just mumbled apologies to each other and continued on with our lives. I wasn’t chased out of the house. Despite the fact that I felt alone and not understood, I still felt safe in my own bedroom.
And these days I am learning that I don’t understand what it means to be a refugee. Few of us in the United States do. We don’t know what it means to flee our homes, our cities, our countries with nothing but hope for a better life someplace else. We aren’t the “lucky” ones who get to move to a culture that is totally foreign to us, to live amid people that we can’t talk to, to be caught up in the whirlwind of modern life in a land that is not our own.
And that brings me back to me. To us. To the U.S.A. How do we treat those street kids, the ones who inconveniently block the sidewalk because they are afraid of their own parents? How do we treat families who literally are running for their lives? Do we see them? Do we talk to them? Do we seek to understand them, to show them the love and acceptance that they have risked everything for? Or do we ignore them, wish they would just go away, even fear them? All because we don’t understand them. All because we’ve walked easier paths in life than they’ve had to deal with.
How would we behave differently, feel differently, if we were the refugees, the street kids, the ones literally running for our lives and the lives of our families? Can we not see that there but for the grace of God go we?