Fabric and Grace

Fabric and graceIn the bleak, dull grey of winter, refugees from Somalia, Ghana, and Chad stand out like blazing rays of sunshine; sunshine made of fabric and grace.Wearing my customary black pants and sweater, the assumed business wear of the Career Woman in Boston, I feel drab in comparison. The only color is in my cheeks – red from the cold. I look around and wish I had worn my scarf, purchased for a bargain from a vendor in the Khan el Khalili bazaar in Cairo, boasting colors of brilliant fuchsia, orange, purple, and red beautifully blended into a woven pattern.

The fabric and grace of these refugee patients strikes me. The cloth is light cotton, useless against the chill of the season, but so beautiful. So unexpected. So rich and full of stories.

It’s draped artistically but practically over body and shoulders, a piece of their identity that they struggle to keep despite the winter cold. Heavy coats, purchased from women’s clothing aisles at the Salvation Army and Goodwill stores in the city, hang on chair backs as they sit in the waiting room of this busy community health center.

The United Nations can boast nothing over this waiting room. At any point there are over 70 languages being spoken from over 60 countries.

Each face tells a story, each body represents a journey, each soul a trauma, all wrapped up in fabric and grace.

I want to stop and ask them questions, find out their stories, write their stories and make sure all see them. But I have to go, have to leave all this color and go to a black and white meeting void of fabric or grace. So I smile, say hello, soak in the smiles I’m given in return — more sunshine.

I shake my head in amazement at the resilience of the human spirit, Grace indeed.

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Changing our Immigrant Lexicon

“We have to watch who we hire” said the woman. “We can’t have a bunch of illegals hired or else we’ll be liable”

And I saw red. The color I have seen every time I hear someone use the term “illegals” for the past decade.

“By becoming judge, jury and executioner, you dehumanize the individual and generate animosity toward them.” Charles Garcia

It doesn’t take a reader much time in Communicating Across Boundaries to recognize that I work and identify with many immigrants. I live in an immigrant neighborhood, I have conversations daily with immigrants, and I am most at home when in a group of immigrants. I look similar to those of the majority population but my worldview has a different shape to it – I am an invisible immigrant.

And with this comes a desire for fairness and a strong sense of advocacy for immigrant communities.

I am convinced that fairness and advocacy includes examining our lexicon when it comes to immigrants and immigration. We all know the power of words; they shape us daily. And we have used the word “illegals” referring to people long enough. They are not illegals. They are undocumented people; people without the proper papers and documents required by a government. They may have committed illegal acts but a person cannot be illegal.

The word illegal alien holds even more offense. While I understand the word ‘alien’ to have been in wide use since Biblical times, in combining the two words we paint a picture of an unlawful creature from Mars.

I am not arguing the importance and merits of a solid immigration policy; what I am arguing is the terms and words that go into that policy. Because words make all the difference in our attitudes and decisions to treat people as human beings or as “other”.

In an excellent piece posted on CNN Opinion Charles Garcia goes as far as to call the words “illegal alien” or “illegal immigrant” racial slurs.

“When you label someone an “illegal alien” or “illegal immigrant” or just plain “illegal,” you are effectively saying the individual, as opposed to the actions the person has taken, is unlawful. The terms imply the very existence of an unauthorized migrant in America is criminal.” (Why ‘Illegal Immigrant’ is a Slur, CNN Opinion, July 6)

His points are well made. Significant he says is that the Supreme Court, in handing down their decision on immigration, did not use this biased language except in quoting other sources.

Dehumanizing those men, women and children who are in this country without proper documentation does nothing to help promote good policy and everything to create an angry “us” vs. “them” dialogue.

It’s time to change the lexicon and take out words that make creating fair policy even harder. So next time someone uses the word ‘illegals’ I challenge you to say to them “You mean people without proper documentation of their right to be here?”

And through changing our lexicon, may we be changed and pray for wisdom and humanity to be at the heart of the discussion.


Garbage Day

In the city of Cambridge garbage day is on Friday. On this day large plastic containers line the streets; the plain grey one and the blue one – distinguished by its familiar triangle and bold white letters that say Recycling“. Sidewalks crowded with these bins, make a normally “walkable” town uncomfortable and difficult.

Depending on the time of year the items thrown into the garbage, destined to fill landfills forever, can make your eyes pop.

A gentleman who is a refugee, recently resettled to the United States, commented to me that he was amazed at garbage day.“Garbage day” he said “is the hardest day for me” He went on to speak of plastic containers and couches, bookshelves and desks all on the street to be picked up by enormous trucks that would crush them into small pieces and then pack those pieces into other refuse previously picked up – the real garbage.

The man was from Somalia. Since the early nineties Somalia has seen an increase in poverty, a decrease in availability of health care resources, conflict within and chaos in the government – in short, overall instability. And it doesn’t seem to be getting better or easier. The shock of going from poverty to plenty hits him the hardest on garbage day.

He’s right – it’s a huge shock to look at what we throw out. I know people who have furnished their entire house through “shopping” on garbage day. We have several pieces of furniture that are from someone’s garbage, retooled to look beautiful in our living and other rooms.

We’re told that one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure, but it seems that there is a glaring lack of understanding of what is and what isn’t garbage. Chairs, tables, couches – garbage or just discards? Are they instantly recyclable, needing only a fresh coat of paint or stain, a lace cloth and flowers, or a couch cover? In other words – is it really garbage? Or can we rethink this garbage thing? Rethink it in terms of those with plenty being aware of those without plenty.

International students are always in need of furniture and other items. Often here for only a short time, they live simply and sparsely. Refugees and new immigrants often have the need for furniture, dishes, and containers – things that people may have grown tired of and so discarded on garbage day unaware of the need around the corner. Our neighbors may be in need of something that we are throwing out and if we knew them we could meet the need.

The words of this refugee from Somalia  have stayed with me. I am looking at my “garbage” with a more critical eye, ultimately wanting garbage day to be about real garbage. And along with that being more aware of the needs of people around me so that my discards can potentially become their treasure.

Blogger’s Note: Last week after writing my guest post at Tamara Out Loud, I received a comment from a reader in South Africa. She found my blog during the 4am feeding of her baby. As I read it I was amazed at the grace of connection. It turned out we knew each other – both having worked at the state, her in the refugee health program, and me in women’s health. I didn’t know that we shared the same faith – turns out we do and I can’t stop thinking about this.  I followed her over to her blog and am amazed and challenged by what I see on a commitment to simple living. I bring this up during this post because Jo blogs at The Concrete Gardener and she began her blog  for these reasons:

  • Enjoy what we have.
  • Not take more than we need.
  • Use what we have really well.

I urge you to take a look at her blog and get a glimpse of her commitment to the three things listed above.

Adjusting to a New World Through Stories of the Old

Last year I got involved with a project to raise awareness of breast cancer in the Asian American community in the greater Boston area. It was a project that taught me many lessons, one of them being how much I have to learn about communicating across cultural boundaries. I am not the queen that I once thought I was! One of the arms of the project was designed to have breast cancer survivors from the Asian community share their stories – their stories of diagnosis, treatment, and ultimately survival. It was a powerful and compelling piece. Through bearing witness and sharing their stories, these women not only helped others, but healed themselves.

This same approach can be a powerful tool to cross-cultural adjustment – something I have worked through, talked about, lectured on and cried about. Cross-cultural adaptation and adjustment are critical to transitioning between worlds.

I am more and more certain that part of adjusting to a new country, a new world, is being able to tell stories of the old world.  I believe that the more we are able to share our stories, the quicker we come to see our new surroundings as places that we can make work. Just as the women who are living as breast cancer survivors become empowered through their stories, I passionately believe the same can happen with immigrants, refugees and third culture kids.

When we moved to the United States after three years in Pakistan and seven years in Egypt, we came with a lot of stories. We had birthed and raised five kids on three continents. We had swum in the Red Sea and picnicked by the Pyramids; we had traveled to Istanbul, and lunched in the Plaka in Greece; we had cocktails with ambassadors and shared bread with refugees. All of those stories were consolidated into our 26 suitcases as we moved to a house with the quintessentially American address: 2 Main Street.

But behind the Victorian house on Main Street was a family whose stories didn’t go away, they were still there, but the listeners were few. It felt too much to ask of a provincial place where most had known each other for generations. We were the outsiders.

Into that world came friends who intuitively understood our need and listened to our stories. They ate curry with us and challenged my view that no one raised in the west could make a good curry by showing up with one of the best Thai curries I have yet to eat; they loved us and brought us gently into their world. And as we were brought into their world, we began relaxing and realizing that we were accepted with all our stories and all our idiosyncratic quirks picked up from years of living in different cultural contexts.

Cultural brokers they were. They bridged the gaps of understanding and made us welcome. I began to learn that you don’t have to experience everything to be able to empathize and listen. And as I grew in comfort I no longer had to announce to the world before they had asked “I’m not from here you know!”

The more I hear from immigrants, refugees and third culture kids, the more convinced I become that communicating their stories is a critical piece of learning to live effectively in their passport countries. They have a lifetime of experiences that, when boxed up for fear of misunderstanding, will result in depression and deep pain.  For a third culture kid to tell a group of friends that they came down with chicken pox on the plane from Greece to Turkey is not boasting – it’s life. (True.Story)

So what about your world? What role has the telling of stories played? Where have you served as a cultural broker and been willing to both listen and re-tell the stories of those who live between worlds? Or where have you had a cultural broker – someone who entered into your world, allowed you to tell your stories, and helped you move a fraction closer to being able to live in a world that felt foreign?

Would love to hear what role both stories and cultural brokers played so please share in the comment section!

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Immigrants and the Meaning of Resilience – Reblog of “Meet Margot”

The resilience it takes for an immigrant to start a new life on arrival to the United States, or any country, is something I often think about. We got a bit of a taste of this when moving from Cairo to the United States. Starting with no furniture, 26 suitcases and a cat, we began a new life. We had no jobs, no friends, no community.

But we knew English and we knew at least a bit about what it takes to get around in this country. When immigrants arrive they not only leave behind family and homes, but also professions. The doctor comes to the United States and can no longer practice, taking instead a job as a nursing assistant. The lawyer comes and finds themselves searching for a job in human services. The teacher, unlicensed here, finds themselves taking on the job of baby sitting, or house cleaning, or driving, or working in a factory. Their’s is no expectation of dream jobs.

That is why I love this story called “Meet Margot” at the blog Los Afro-Latinos. It  reminded me once again of the resiliency immigrants show as they forge a new life in a new country. Originally a nurse from the Dominican Republic, Margot has a successful business running a restaurant serving delicious food from where else but the Dominican Republic! Read on….

Finding authentic, delectable Dominican food is as simple as taking the 1 train. Sure, everyone boasts they’re the best. But only Margot Restaurant has been hailed time and time again — in magazines and on Yelp comment boards — as the best Dominican food in the greater New York area.

Margot Restaurant was featured……READ MORE HERE!

Accent Angst

“Is she dumb, or does she just sound that way because she’s from Alabama?” This question came from someone we interact with at a business level about someone we know on a personal level. Thankfully my husband was wise enough to not tell me about the interaction – if he had, I would possibly have ended up in police custody. The friend she was talking about is a lovely woman with a Master’s Degree who is unfortunate enough to have a southern accent while living in the Northeast.

What is it about accents? They raise fury and assumptions in people. Just recently I spoke to a woman on the phone about breast cancer. She was irate that “someone with an accent had the audacity to ask ME if I was an American citizen, obviously she isn’t one, otherwise she wouldn’t have an accent”. Wow. While I understand that people, particularly those whose relatives came on the Mayflower, don’t like to be asked about their citizenship, it’s a standard question in my line of work, and if there is one thing we should understand about a nation of immigrants, it’s not about the accent. I can take you to the North End of Boston tomorrow and introduce you to 50 Italian grandmothers who have lived here for years but speak English like they just stepped off the plane from Sicily.

Accents cause angst. In Arizona accent angst has led to a ‘policing’ of accents in the public school system. While defenders of the activity claim it is critical that teachers know English so they can model this for their students, those who filed the complaint with the Federal Department of Education argue that knowing English well, and speaking accent free are two different issues. Checking the English level of a potential employee for a school system that operates in English is valid and can be justified; judging the accent alone cannot. The argument is that an accent is only one variable of many measures that can assess language skill and fluency.

Let’s look at the accent in Massachusetts, and the inability to pronounce the ‘r’ sound. Here, my last name is not Gardner, it’s Gahdnah. Yet, to my knowledge, no accent police are forcing teachers from the area to change the way they speak. Or how about the mayor of the city of Boston – a born and bred native. His accent, thick with years of living in Massachusetts, makes it difficult to understand what he’s saying, yet no one accuses him of not speaking English well (except maybe our family)

At dinner a couple of nights ago we got into a discussion on this topic. My husband, whose relatives are from the south, was raised with the view that those with Massachusetts accents were educated, elitist snobs and didn’t understand the rest of the country. By contrast, many of my husbands’ colleagues hold fast to the view that if you have a southern accent, you don’t have a brain. You are the idiot that is missing from the Texas town. An acquaintance of Cliff’s, a former chaplain from Harvard University, in talking about accents stated “And what’s up with South Carolina? It’s too small to be a country, but too large to be an insane asylum”. True story.

As humans we have an amazing capacity to find differences and exploit them. When we’re little it may be the color of eyes or their body size. As we get older, the measures change to accents or skin color. We become more sophisticated (or not) at hiding our exploitation, but continue with the childish trait of considering “difference to equal inferior”.

Arizona’s law is under examination. A civil rights lawyer has brought the accent policing policy into the courts and it is being scrutinized as various civil rights abuses are uncovered. But the former Harvard chaplain, right here in Cambridge? He just gets to go on making stupid remarks with no court date in sight.

Making Peace with Changing Communities

What happens when a bitter racist is transformed?

In the movie Gran Torino, Walt Kowalski (played by Clint Eastwood) is a bitter old man living out his years in a neighborhood that has changed from working-class white to Hmong and Chinese.  He does not like it and makes no pretense of civility and no apology for being an open racist. No one is safe from this behavior, particularly the Hmong mother who lives next door and victim to Kowalski’s growling and racial slurs every time they happen to be on the porch at the same time.

In the course of the movie his character changes and he gradually makes peace with the neighborhood, befriending the teenagers who live next door becoming both friend and protector. A scene showing him at a Hmong feast eating food he has never seen before and still makes no pretense of liking is a great picture of the grudging respect he is gaining for these neighbors.

As I have watched areas in Massachusetts change, I have seen a lot of Walt Kowalskis and a lot of ‘Wanda’ Kowalskis who are at odds with neighborhoods they have deep ties to.  They grieve for a neighborhood that was and struggle with the neighborhood that is.  The words ‘us and them’ are present in their speech and often they are fearful.  Some of them move through a slow process of change, for others it’s too difficult.   The movie initially portrays the tension and hatred of a man at odds with his changing neighborhood, moves on to the slow process of change and ultimately brings the audience to an act of deep love and sacrifice as Walt serves as a human shield to protect his neighbors.  He gradually accepts, and dare I say loves the community that surrounds him.

Communities in the United States are, and will continue to change.  A community health center that I work with saw three thousand patients from 40 different countries and 60 different language groups in just a 6-month time period and that is just one of many examples. As the world continues to move closer, and our interactions become more diverse, the transformation process that Walt Kowalski undergoes in the two-hour film is worth watching and, if needed, modeling.