Refugees in our backyard

There are a few refugee families in Gloucester who had slipped in under the wire, before Trump started signing people’s lives away. I heard of an Afghan family and made contact. About two weeks ago I attended a fundraiser for this and other families, one from Syria and one from Congo. Only one member of the Afghan family spoke English, M., a young man in his twenties. The rest (two teenage girls, mom and dad) are not able to converse in any meaningful way. They were not at the event. They would have been overwhelmed. Only the son was there, and I could tell even he was rather overwhelmed.

Many people at the event wanted to shake M’s hands as he has been a kind of spokesperson for the new phenomenon of ‘refugee under Trump.’ After the event, as people queued up to say hello to him, he looked bewildered. All these friendly people, many grey-haired, many artists and all liberal and anti-Trump. I approached him and spoke some of my few remaining Dari words to him. He looked up in surprise. We exchanged telephone numbers and I gave him my well-used Dari-English dictionary.

Yesterday Axel and I had lunch with the family. Not just any lunch but an Afghan lunch made for kings and queens. There was mantou, small meat filled ravioli with a yogurt sauce, bolani (flatbread with vegetable stuffing), qabuli pilao, fried chicken. For dessert there was green tea with cardamom and a ginger-nut cake. We had to work hard to keep our hostess from filling up our plates over and over.

I had brought two additional dictionaries, which we used a lot as we tried to have a conversation – me with my rusty Dari and they with their very little English. M. helped out whenever the sentences got too complex.

I learned that they speak Farsi (Persian) rather than Dari, and that this is their first language now, especially for the kids, who spent their formative years in Iran. We learned that they have been ‘sans-papiers’ (without official identity documents) for a good part of their life as a family – lived in Iran, in Nimroz (an Afghan province bordering Iran), Eastern Turkey and finally landed, just in time, in the US.

We also learned that mom used to work in a bank, that dad was good with his hands, a glass cutter, carpenter and car mechanic and that the kids were mostly not in school, except for the older boy. The girls are now enrolled at Gloucester High School, in 9th grade although one is three years older than the other. I cannot imagine them learning anything with so little English. The one girl we met (the other was sick in her bed upstairs) hardly understood us and could not talk back in English.

The apartment is tiny. There is no bedroom for the boy; he sleeps on one of the two couches that are crammed into their tiny living room (one a two seater). A table that barely seated us was crammed into the even tinier kitchen (which appeared otherwise well supplied with donated kitchen gear). There is no air conditioner which will make the apartment unbearable in summer. We think we can solve that problem.

The boy just got his driving license this week which they celebrated in a Chinese restaurant. The father is anxious to get his but his English is too limited. He showed us a Farsi translation of a California and Virginia driver’s education manual but these manuals differ from state to state, so he cannot prepare. And even if he got his license, they don’t have a car. They feel very vulnerable to con men in their search for a second hand car.

The parents go to English classes 5 days a week but had little to show for it. They are still at the bottom of a very steep curve, and despondent. Yet over the years they have adapted, learned the 3 languages they already speak: Dari and Farsi, which are quite similar and Turkish. But English is in an entirely different linguistic class.

All through our conversation after dinner dad was thumbing through his new dictionary and enjoying it in a way I recognized when I was trying to manage Turkish during a long assignment in Turkey years ago. I saw him smile. I hope it helps. Learning a language with a smile is so much easier.

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