One day, not long after the Christmas party, I followed a nice lady from a local non-profit organization to a slummy apartment complex in the outer east side of Portland. The deeper you went into the complexes, the more it felt like leaving the Western world: here, time stood still. Nobody had cars, nobody had jobs: everyone came with their culture weighing heavy on their backs, and precious little more.
When I had signed up to volunteer with the refugees, I had immediately noticed the harried and dazed looks of the sweet-souled people who worked for this charity organization. They were in over their heads. As it would turn out, the Somali Bantu were some of the hardest refugees to “integrate” into society. This was a slight euphemism for what happens when you try and transplant a people group who have been kicked in the teeth by the world into the a culture that is still besotted with Manifest Destiny. The cards stacked against them were typical of many immigrants: clashing cultures, an unfamiliarity with American concepts such as buying on credit (and paying it back plus crippling interest), not to mention the language barrier, and post-traumatic stress disorder. To top it all off, the Somali Bantu are a genuinely oppressed people group, denied access to education and who knows what else in their native country by the majority ethnic group.
The day my background check cleared the nice volunteer mobilizer lady called and took me to meet the family I had been assigned to. Ostensibly I was going to be their English tutor, and I arrived armed with a few feeble papers. As my car crept slowly into its parking spot, I realized I had never felt more fraudulent. I was a young, covert missionary with a terrible grasp of English grammar. I knew I would be found out within seconds.
The nice lady marched up to a door on the ground level, and introduced me to the several adults scattered around misshapen couches. She tried to explain that I was there to teach English, and made it clear that my number one priority student was the mother of that particular family, Manu. The nice lady had told me that Manu was a lot of fun, always laughing and bumping shoulders, eager to please. Manu dragged a couple of folding chairs into a weak January sun and we sat in a circle in the middle of the parking lot. This would be the first of many times I realized how silence can be comforting in its own way; how I was beginning to shed some of the layers I had built up to deal with the machinations of everyday life. We smiled at each other, and under the eye of the nice lady, we went over an ESL worksheet or two. I signed a contract saying I would hang out with Manu and her family no less than three hours a week for the foreseeable future.
By the third or fourth time I showed up, kicking up a crowd of children in my wake (terrifying me with their fascination with my moving car), I realized Manu had no interest in learning English. She would humor me for a few minutes, and we would laugh and mime and talk about whatever she was cooking and I would try to get straight the names and ages of all the kids everywhere (polygamy makes everything messy, let me tell you now). And then she would amble off to finish cooking, the lesson closed with an inarguable air of finality.
I eventually grew tired of sitting by myself in a metal folding chair, waiting for an eager tutee. There was only so much I could talk about with the other women milling about, and the men were either nonexistent or smoking under the trees, looking at me suspiciously. After the novelty wore off, no one knew what to do with me—an unmarried girl with all her hair cut off.
I didn’t mind. I started to sit down on the floor with the children. We would work on basic English skills and attempt to tackle the homework, an often hopeless mess of trying to explain word problems to children that had never held a pencil in their life. Around us people would be moving in and out of the apartment, speaking in a tone and at volumes that sounded harsh to my ears. The women would roll in like mountains, masses of flesh encased in beautiful, shimmery cloaks. They terrified me with their shouting and complete and utter mastery of the household.
In some ways, I became another piece of the scenery: the blurry white soul with the good intentions. The children, who were so accommodating to any hints of affection, were the easiest. More and more of my time was taken up by them: finding clothes for the winter, getting vaccinations for school, playing a defeatist game of trying to catch up to grade level. For the adults, I became an errand girl: I learned how to get severe with the welfare people, clean up cockroach infestations, explain grocery store etiquette.
Manu eventually grew more and more distant as the months added up, troubles piling up on top of each other. The initial excitement of arriving in America was met by new and unforeseen hardships every day.
I remained devoted to her English education, until it became clear that she had some pretty severe learning disabilities and was unable to retain very much new information. To this day, she still can only say a handful of English words (although she understands a great deal). As I watched the lines set in her face, a permanent sort of disappointment settle in, and I became desperate for her approval. She would call me, saying she wanted to go to the grocery store, and I would rush over. When I arrived, she would load up my little car with bags of soda cans, and then tell me her head hurt too much to go. I did this for years, standing in line with all the homeless men, returning smelling of stale beer while handing over the pitiful amounts of cash.
I never stopped coming. I didn’t care that Manu was using me. I didn’t even care that she didn’t like me all that much, that the whole community seemed to be keeping one eye on me. I couldn’t blame them, especially in the light of their traumatic pasts and current troubles. When they stopped serving me chai when I showed up and instead just waved me in (never turning their gaze from WWE, which was always on), when they stopped pretending to like what I cooked for them and spit out the food, when they ignored me and we all sat there in silence for many minutes on end—I didn’t care. MY spiritual gift was obtuseness: I sat there, serene and placid, unruffled by the small rejections. I was a missionary, gosh darn it. I was in it to win it. And what started out as enthrallment turned into a commitment that led me to become deeply and irrevocably invested in their welfare. Eventually, after several years, they realized they were never going to get rid of me. Manu even makes me chai every once in awhile.
Over this last Christmas break, Manu’s two youngest daughters were over at my apartment nearly every day. They complained bitterly about not being able to play with certain friends of theirs (twin refugee girls from Kenya), saying their mom had forbidden it on account of their friends being Christian.
“But what about me?” I asked, genuinely shocked. “I’m a Christian! How can you hang out with me?”
The girls looked at me, as only middle schoolers can. Sighing, Manoi said: “You? Oh, my mom knows you.”
“Yeah” said her sister. “You’re our friend.” And with that, they went back to checking their Facebook profiles.
Inwardly I rejoiced. I had made it. I wasn’t the volunteer anymore: I was the friend.