To Start Over My Life: The Refugees

The Colorado Refugee ESL program at Emily Griffith Technical College serves 2,500 students from 72 countries, speaking 94 languages. I learned this at the training for in-home tutoring volunteers.

Fifteen of us fill the class: teachers, retired teachers, students, Peace Corps veterans, a college professor. The lovely woman next to me is a retired lawyer, spent a month in Laos teaching English to Buddhist monks. Many of us have traveled or lived abroad.

“Give me teachers and retired teachers,” Sharon says, “and this program would run smooth as silk forever.” Sharon is the volunteer coordinator, leads our training and has been doing so for years. Our one man observes that he’s glad men have been allowed in the class and we all laugh. In fact, most volunteers are women. Last class had four men and it was shocking. They sat together and bonded.

You’re not a refugee until you’ve left your country, until it’s been documented that you’ve done so for fear of your life, for fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or war. You’re not a refugee until you’ve registered with UNHRC, at one of their woefully under-funded refugee field offices. Then the International Organization of Migration manages your case. Immigration agencies of various countries interview you. If you’re lucky.

This takes years. Meanwhile, your life is on hold. Vetting is already extreme: less than one percent of refugees get re-settled and they have no choice about where. Those making that decision for them consider job and housing markets, and “the friendliness of the receiving community.”

Consequently, the south doesn’t get many refugees. The Atlanta area does, a few others, but nobody goes to Mississippi. Refugees are told they’ve been approved and they’re going to Houston or Detroit. They don’t know either from pita bread. They’re just happy to go somewhere they’ve heard is safe, where their children can go to school.

Getting here is not a free ride. Refugees sign a note to pay back their travel expenses: for a family of five that can be thousands. And most refugees come in families. Less than one per cent of them default on that loan.

In the first ninety days, they go through extensive medical evaluations and treatments. A doctor told Sharon, “they’re coming sicker and sicker.” Because they’re spending longer in refugee camps with little or no care, conditions that could have been easily cured have become serious problems. Refugee resettlement agencies arrange a modest apartment, a case manager and a jobs counselor. For about four months, they get cash assistance of a few hundred dollars a month to pay rent, utilities, food.

Sharon tells us about refugees in Denver: Afghan, Iraqi, Burmese, Cuban, Congolese (DRC), Ethiopian, Sudanese, Eritrean, Ukrainian, Syrian and Somali—since 1991 Somalia’s had no functioning government and the life expectancy there is 40. Those pirates are mostly teenagers.

“Afghan women are rabid for education,” Sharon says. They will ask you to come every day. Practice saying, “Sorry, I can’t.” Set boundaries. Iraqi men line up outside Sharon’s office, trying to get in-home tutors for their wives, and “it can’t be a man.” Congolese are mostly Christian and the women have a high incidence of PTSD. The wars there have killed six million.

Sharon never met a shy Somali. They are strong-willed extroverts and have built a close community here. Many come from the largest, worst refugee camp in the world, in Kenya. An entire generation has been born and raised there, in exile. Many Somali have never set foot in their country of origin. Somali women are bossy and friendly, will hug you as soon as they know you. Syrians are more conservative and often arrive terrified, afraid to leave their houses. Most Syrians who get re-settled here left home four years ago, have been in camps in Jordan or Turkey.

Iraqis are educated, middle class. Saddam Hussein required schooling. The thing about dictatorships, Sharon says, is they often produce a high level of literacy. The Iraqis will tell you about their flat screen TVs and granite countertops, how they were school administrators or engineers and now have to live in this dump and wash dishes. They need to vent. Let them. Remind them that USA means “You Start Again,” that in the USA washing dishes doesn’t mean that’s all you’ll ever do. The teachers have posters with their own career paths as examples: I was a waitress, a sales clerk and now I’m a teacher.

Focus on what will lead to independence, Sharon says. Day 1, teach them to write and recite their addresses. They come from places without addresses, don’t know numbers in English, how to say street names, what order the components go in. They’ll put Colorado first, then the city. Sharon shows us writing students did about why they came. One student wrote: to start over my life.

Normally, this program gets less than ten volunteers per month. This January, 150 applied. Applicants for in-home tutoring are usually on a wait list for months. Now volunteers may wait weeks to be assigned a student.

Obviously, I’m not the only one to respond to the election with this kind of resolve. Sharon says our refugees are scared, stressed. They’ve been through so much, hoped so long—the average wait time to be resettled is ten years. And now, in a country they thought was safe, they feel threatened. The flood of volunteers reassures them that there are Americans who welcome and want to help them. Being asked why we’ve volunteered, most of us say, “the election.”

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Post-March Meditation

One of many Women’s March signs in several languages

The last time I marched the streets of downtown Denver was in the 1970s, for 16th of September demonstrations. Corky Gonzalez and the Crusade for Justice organized the first one in 1969, called it “Chicano Liberation Day.” One year I walked behind a flatbed truck of musicians playing “De Colores” over and over. I was learning Spanish and by the end of the march had learned that song. One year I was near the brown berets. They carried a street-wide banner in Spanish that said “It’s better to die on your feet than to go on living on your knees.”

Those were heady years of turmoil and change. There was violence. Radicals run out of patience, like the old cartoon of two vultures, one saying to the other: “Patience hell—I’m gonna kill something.” That’s what the extremes do in times like those, times like these: they kill something. When Obama was elected extremes on the right started the atrocious birther movement. They killed the hope that racism was behind us. On the left now, that angry, impatient tendency is rising. Patience. Hold on.

At the January 21st Women’s March on Denver, a band played this song:

I know the one thing we did right

Was the day we started to fight

Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.

One sign said “SO BAD even introverts are here.” That’s me. Being in the midst of a mass is normally my idea of hell. After standing among those thousands in Civic Center for over an hour, waiting to march, the chill of muddy snow seeping through the soles of my shoes, my fingers aching through my gloves, I had a strong headache coming on. Jammed together, we crept forward one small step at a time. People as far as I could see, blurring borders between park, one street and the next. As we moved, a woman ahead of us warned, “Curb.” Oh, my God, we’re on the street. It was as if we were blind. Yet, for the first time since the 70s, I felt compelled to attend, had no choice.

A chant: Love, not hate, makes America great.

In the fast walking of getting there, I was joyful—eight or ten of us at Coffee at the Point, thirty or forty pink pussy-hatted people at the light rail stop, standing room only on the train, the 16th Street Mall trickling with groups coursing in the same direction, bristling with placards, pouring toward Civic Center, creeks becoming streams becoming rivers at floodtide.

A sign: Build Bridges, Not Walls

“This is historic,” I said to Judy when we reached the teeming edge of the park. “We are participating in an historic event.” Estimates indicate this may have been the largest mass protest ever, world-wide. It was certainly the largest in Denver.

A responsorial chant: What do we want? Equal pay. When do we want it? Yesterday.

After nearly two hours, we had shuffled a block, reached a place on 15th street where we actually could walk, the marching band beside us. Enlivened again, we joined many others in dancing. Let me move and I’m fine.

Women’s March, Denver: Lorax and Dylan Thomas quotes, Standing Rock support

A chant: Tell me what democracy looks like. This is what democracy looks like.

To freely march the streets flaunting signs that say “Keep your tiny hands off my human rights” and “There is no Planet B.” To see the ascendancy of hate, racism, lies, violations of civil rights, threats to environmental protections, all we hold dear—and to be able to protest. Coming by the millions to this march. Basking in the company of like minds. Showing the world we are appalled by the direction our country is taking.

A march changes nothing, however numerous its participants. A march is like a campaign rally, fires up the base. But from enough marches, enough calls to congress people, voting, volunteering and putting your money where your mouth is, yes, change eventually comes. In the early 1970s, you could walk through City and County offices and seldom see a Latino face. Now there are many, and we’ve had Hispanic administrators, politicians, even a mayor, improvements to rights and opportunities for people of color. The Chicano movement spurred a renaissance of poetry and art, a renewed celebration of culture. We are all enriched now because those things happened then.

But here we are again. Hard-fought for gains under the gun.

Sign: I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit.

But we do. We will. Because this is what democracy looks like.

Posted in Memoir, Politics | 13 Comments

Depression Mud

First Snow, from front yard

I’m busy. I love being busy all the time so I can bitch about how too busy I am and don’t have time to put my feet up ever.

If I could bear to read them (remind me to burn those things) in 30 years of journals I’d find biweekly accounts of how overwhelmed I was and exhaustive recitations of all I had to do: wash the kitchen floor, get groceries, answer twenty parent emails, go to the gym, make dinner, swear off sweets, lose five pounds, plan my classes, grade 150 essays, be up at 5, at school by 6:15 to run off the day’s handouts. I was also supposed to work on the great American poem and if I didn’t—often the case—my life was pointless.

In retirement I have adeptly managed to stay busy. Taught part-time, became a literary translator, started this blog featuring two 800-word posts a month, managed remodels of my study and kitchen. I quit teaching a class last year to take a job developing a university literary translation curriculum. That was fine: four months of too busy to complain about, after which I’d teach the class in January and be too busy again.

Meanwhile, the election happened. Winter arrived. The January class was cancelled. For over a month now, I have not been busy. As it turns out, time to put my feet up does not make me happy.

I know I’m depressed when I spend half my afternoon playing solitaire. I know I’m depressed when my post-election adrenalin rush dissipates, and the idea of more phone calls to politicians makes me want to weep. My Facebook feed is peppered with horrible cabinet nominations, threats to the Affordable Care Act, the environment, civil rights and….a Matsushima Bay tsunami washes over me.

After the election, I donated to the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, others. Now I receive daily emails from all of them and their cousins reporting that the world is definitely ending and they need more funds now. One sent me a photo of the Grand Canyon studded with oil wells. My depression curls up, decides to stay a while. Another round of solitaire. Or are there any new cat videos?

Maybe I should stand down and let the power-crazed Repubs dismantle half the government, all our social programs, ban people of other religions, build a stupid wall, turn our air and water dirty as China’s. Eventually, those actions will come back to haunt them. Eventually people will realize they have no better jobs, no health care, no new immigrants to do the work Americans refuse to do. They’ll wake up and say, oh shit, what have we done? I can play solitaire and watch it unravel.

Then I remember The Lorax:

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

This month’s ACLU magazine has a photo of Trump on the cover and says, “See You In Court.” That’s the spirit. So this week I made myself call congressional offices to say they should leave the ACA alone until they develop a replacement. (They’re not listening, but what else is new.) I called my Republican senator and told him not to confirm Jeff Sessions for Attorney General or to hold hearings on nominees not yet vetted. I signed petitions and sent emails.

And hey, enough of us were doing that kind of thing to get a response. Republicans were feeling the pressure and delayed some confirmation hearings to allow candidates to be vetted. A presidential transitions expert said the Trump transition is further behind schedule than any other in recent decades. Billionaires have complicated financials and are slow to provide information. I also heard some Republicans are starting to feel uneasy about repealing the ACA without a plan to replace it. Huh. Go figure.

O.K. then. I may have to wade through depression mud to get there, but I’ll keep doing those phone calls.

I started looking for volunteer opportunities in areas under threat. Maybe environmental protection or teaching English to refugees. My neighbor volunteers at a local clinic, says Denver currently has many Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees. This will be a small gesture, the action one person can take. That’s fine, because I believe in Margaret Mead’s famous statement:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

I’m joining the Women’s March (men welcome) here in Denver on January 21. At last report, over 16,000 had signed up. We’ll march “to support social justice, human rights and equality, and to demonstrate that we will be vigilant in protecting these rights moving forward.” It’ll cheer me up. Civic Center at 9 a.m. See you there?

Posted in Humor, Politics | 5 Comments

On My Reading, 2016

                                                                        Literature is news that stays news.

Ezra Pound

A view of Hadrian’s Wall

Like José Donoso, I’ve learned much about life by reading novels. I read nonfiction and poetry too, but my mainstay is fiction. In stories, I get lost to find myself in another’s words, deal with others’ dilemmas, and glimpse the long arc of history.

My self-imposed 800-word, four-minute-reading-time rule for this blog permits covering a thin slice of all I read in 2016. (For those interested, a list follows.) Some delightful finds, like the selected stories of Lucia Berlin or the selected poems of Joseph Hutchison, have had their mention excised. An 800-word piece involves more line editing than writing.

Much of the new work I read was originally written in other languages. Seeing Red, (Spanish), The Vegetarian (Korean) and A Spare Life (Macedonian) are startling and illuminating novels. A Spare Life’s story of twins joined at the temple is dense and hypnotic, the twins’ surgical separation paralleling the bloody fracturing of their country, Yugoslavia. You cannot read a society’s literature and continue to regard its people as alien. Now I need an Iranian novel.

I mostly read in bed, in the last hour before sleep. To ensure a good night’s sleep, they say you should power down all your devices two hours before, and read a physical book. We must specify a book’s physicality these days. Black print on bone-white paper. The turning page. Works for me most of the time.

I tend to alternate books. After the unrelenting intensity of The Vegetarian, I read post-apocalyptic Station Eleven, a fast read in a fascinating world, measured hope at its end. Between two of Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, the stories of two women, their troubled friendship and painful attempts to escape the poverty to which they were born, I read Dunning’s Denver. Italo Calvino said a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say. None of these may become classics, but they’re worthy reads. Dunning’s noir story is set in 1920s Denver, at the height of the Colorado KKK’s power. The color line of those years runs through my neighborhood. Fact: Denver Mayor Ben Stapleton was a Klansman. He also accomplished major civic projects. It seems no cloud lacks a silver lining. We can only hope.

Waiting for the Barbarians, Memoirs of Hadrian, and Ragtime certainly have not finished saying what they have to say and I’d meant to read them for decades. Another joy of retirement: catching up on your reading. Excerpts from these three reflect my current concerns.

Like Coetzee’s South Africa, Waiting for the Barbarians’ fictionalized country builds barriers against the feared people whose land this was, or the unknown hordes looming at the borders. As all such defenses have in the past, these ramparts soon fall into absurdity.

“Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era.”

So the American empire. Or the Russian. Or the empire of coal. Or of oil.

Ragtime is full of historical characters, including the anarchist Emma Goldman, who writes to actress Evelyn Nesbit and gives—way back in 1975—the best answer I’ve seen for why people voted for Trump:

“I am often asked the question How can the masses permit themselves to be exploited by the few. The answer is by being persuaded to identify with them. Carrying his newspaper with your picture the laborer goes home to his wife, an exhausted workhorse with the veins standing out in her legs, and he dreams not of justice but of being rich.”

Memoirs of Hadrian:

“All nations who have perished up to this time have done so for lack of generosity: Sparta would have survived longer had she given her Helots some interest in that survival; there is always a day when Atlas ceases to support the weight of the heavens, and his revolt shakes the earth. I wished to postpone as long as possible…the moment when the barbarians from without and the slaves within will fall upon a world which they have been forced to respect from afar, or to serve from below, but the profits of which are not for them. …even the most wretched…should have an interest in seeing Rome endure.”

Despite the insights attributed to him, the Roman Emperor Hadrian also built a wall, in Britain, started in AD 122. Local tribes overran it in AD 180, and perhaps a hundred years later, its stones were scavenged to build churches and houses. Portions have been preserved, made a World Heritage site. You can stroll along them, no barbarians on either side.



The List, 2016

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed

Voices From Chernobyl, Svetlana Alexievich

The Best American Essays 2015, Ed. Ariel Levy

The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell

Dalva, Jim Harrison

Waiting for the Barbarians, J.M. Coetzee

Making Toast: A Family Story. Roger Rosenblatt

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

Dust Tracks on a Road, Memoir, Zora Neale Hurston

Dibujos a lápiz, Agustín Cadena

Seeing Red, Lina Merune, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

Ragtime, E. L. Doctorow

The World As Is: New & Selected Poems, 1972 – 2015, Joseph Hutchison

Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar, translated from the French by Grace Frick

The Neapolitan Series: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

Denver, John Dunning

The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson

Rilke Shake, Angélica Freitas, translated from the Portuguese by Hilary Kaplan

Our Obsidian Tongues, David Shook

The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories

A Long Day’s Evening, Bilge Karasu, translated by Aron Aji and Fred Stark

The Vegetarian, Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith

Yo, la peor, Mónica Lavín

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories, Lucia Berlin

A Spare Life, Lidija Dimkovska, translated from Macedonian by Christine E. Kramer

The list does not include the books I read in the process of developing a literary translation course in 2016.



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