Opening the creaky apartment door, the cell phone was thrown to the floor with my purse and lunch bag. Social work is exhausting especially for us introverted types. The place was stifling hot like a slow-cooking oven. Pulling back the windows to let in the 100 degree air didn’t help either. But the heat is like a “welcome home” hug which is nice since there are no arms to greet me. My stiff muscles relax with the warmth. Too much desk work and stress twists knots in my back and neck. As I make my salad, the floor vibrates like an oven timer.
The number on the screen is unfamiliar to me. So I don’t answer it. No message is left. I go back to my lettuce. A minute later the cellular contraption buzzes again. Same number. Really? By looking at the first three digits I can guess it’s a Cricket phone. And who usually purchases those? My refugee clients. Ignoring it, I come back a second time to try and chew my quickly wilting greens. Three strikes and you’re out! It hums a third time with still no voice message left. I’m fuming now. Who gave out my number to a client? The muscles tighten again.
The next morning at the office I’m slammed with meetings for newly arrived refugees. By day’s end I just want to escape for a quiet walk in the hills. Oh yeah…that number. I type it into the Statewide Refugee Information System (SRIS). Hum…it’s my sweet little Catholic Chin lady from Burma. I begin to connect the dots. She must have gotten it from another gal who is my Burmese language tutor. But she knows not to give out my personal number. What was so important that it couldn’t wait until business hours? A message on my work phone holds the answer. The fireman explains my need to contact my client.
She came into the office with calm composure but once the conference room door closed her tears flowed. Her voice cracked and became a wail. Though her English is good I couldn’t make out some of the words; her grief was too heavy. “I can’t cry in front of my boys.” She is aware of her need to be a strong pillar for her three boys. But with the shame of a husband who abandoned them in Burma, her relatives here in town despising her “situation” in life and now with the addition of this most recent disaster, she feels crushed.
How many times can a person be a refugee? First they flee for their lives from Burma to Malaysia. They are homeless upon arrival. Digging out a rough existence on survival mode is their lot. But they are a few of the lucky ones – per year less than 1% of refugees are resettled to third countries to start a new life. But what do you do if you become homeless less than two months after you arrive? You know very little about how the cultural system operates in your new environment, let alone what to do when trouble hits you.
She swears that no one was in the apartment. The boys were playing outside and she was just coming back from visiting a friend. She knew there was trouble when she looked through the sliding glass door to see the blinds melting. It’s been a hot and dry Idaho summer…but not that hot. Flinging the door aside, black smoke billowed out and flared up to the neighbor’s balcony. Her friend jumped into the gagging stench, grabbed a pot, turned on the tap in the sink and frantically poured water onto the stove fire.
As we walked through the aftermath, the place doesn’t look completely wrecked. But fire restoration deems it unlivable in this condition. Only the kitchen was severely affected with charred cupboards, walls and ceiling. The rest of the unit is tinged smoky gray; the smoke damage reaches into the lungs if you breathe too deep.
Her head is bowed. She keeps her tears inaudible in front of the landlord. We sit in the apartment office as the tubby woman smugly declares that she has made her apartment unit “uninhabitable” and therefore her lease it terminated. Place her in another unit? Oh no. We won’t be able to rent to her again.
Red Cross steps forward to provide “comfort kits”, a pre-loaded credit card to purchase hot food and several days’ worth of hotel vouchers. As the days go by, we assist her to apply to other apartment complexes. They look at her “bad rental history” and refuse to rent to her. Homeless in a country that is not your home. An inter-faith shelter steps forward to pay for an extended hotel stay because their own beds are full of other homeless folks.
We wait. We pray. We pound on church doors via emails and the phone. Not just any churches. Our own churches; churches were we have compassionate contacts. Doesn’t anyone have a place for her and her kids to stay? She has government refugee assistance still; she can pay her rent…if someone would just rent to her.
It’s Ramadan right now for those who follow Islam. They fast from all food, water, cigarettes, etc. during daylight hours and eat like kings during the darkness. The focus is to remember the poor who don’t have enough to eat and to remember to care for them. An Iraqi interpreter teases, “I’m your brother now. During Ramadan I become a Christian”. His lack of focus reveals he is jittery for a smoke break that he can’t have until dusk. One of our Somali interpreters asks me why I’m not fasting for Ramadan.
It’s a rare opportunity to get to bust out a Bible verse during business hours without getting accused of pushing religious views on clients of other beliefs. But she opened the door and I gladly walk through. The words of Isaiah pound in my heart – “Is not this the kind of fasting I [God] have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter…”(Isaiah 58:6-7). She pulls her mouth down, furrows her brows and nods her head up and down in agreement.
Her mind is still on the importance of food while mine is fixated on providing shelter.