Saturday, February 16, 2008

From Chad to the Bronx

When I board the 4 train at Union Square I am pushed into the car with the array of afternoon commuters. It’s not until 42nd street that I am able to find a seat, and as the train moves north towards the Bronx there are fewer faces and the buildings are also more spread out. I check my directions and get off at Bedford Park, walk a few blocks past the eyes of policemen and school kids – who are seemingly aware of my presence here. Then I wait for the D train for over 20 minutes, there is only one other woman on the platform and she looks at me and says ‘They always take forever up in here.’ Finally it arrives and I get off at the last stop, 205 st.

Bour had called me this morning to tell me that he might not be at home when I arrived, but that Emilie would be waiting for me. I explained to him that it was ok if he wasn’t around, it was her that I had been trying to see for a few weeks now, since she stopped coming to English classes at the resettlement center. I find their house, and at the door of the basement apartment, I knock on the window as Bour had directed me, and wait. A few moments later Emilie opens the door and greets me in African style greeting, pressing our cheeks together, three times on alternate cheeks. We speak French and I explain to her that she is missed at the center. She invites me into her home, the basement of a brick apartment building. We pass the small, dank kitchen and she shows me through into the salon, where she has been watching an American sitcom series. She leaves the television on and after I am seated she brings water, juice and cookies, making sure that I have all that I need before we start talking. There is a succession of conversation very different from the American way; there would be no serious talk until we had made all the greetings. Then, she would show me the apartment, which, I had already seen, except for their bedroom, with its exposed piping on the ceiling and windows that let the wet in, allowing mold to grow. She explains that the superintendent hasn’t been responding to their requests to fix the problems, and that they can’t really communicate well. Have you been learning English from watching television? I asked Emilie in French. She shrugged and said, un peu and gestured for me to eat another chips a hoy cookie.

Emilie is 47 years old, like many Africans she looks much younger, however in the last six months, since her arrival in America as a political refugee she is looking older and her face is swollen with weight and worry. In the first months of her arrival she was coming to the ‘literacy for life’ program at the International Resettlement Committee where I work as a teacher assistant, helping the clients to feel comfortable with English. It had been a few months since Emilie had stopped coming, her husband, Bour, explained that she was suffering from posttraumatic stress and the Doctor had told her to stay at home for three months. Three months at home, I pondered the idea of complete social isolation for a woman that is inherently social and asked, ‘Is she depressed?’ to which he replied, ‘Of course she is.’ It is extremely common for refugees to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, cultural bereavement and depression during their resettlement period. I couldn’t see how it would be helpful for cultural integration for Emilie to stay at home, alone, without any English – so I had decided that I would travel to the Bronx to listen and try to understand what she needs.

‘You know, I lost my child in an accident not long before we left Chad.’ She looked at me, her eyes filling softly with tears. I told her I had not been aware of this, and didn’t urge her to go into detail –I have been told to be attentive of asking too much about the lives left behind of our clients – it could be more traumatic than I am qualified to support them in. She explained that she was unable to let go of her loss, that it haunted her. She told me how different life had been in Chad, with her son and her comfort of life. Her husband had been a custom’s officer for over thirty years, and had become the highest rank, becoming the overseer of his regions officers. It was his job that had given them a life of comfort and ease in Chad, but also had brought them into the mix of a corrupt power struggle and conflict; finally they had to seek refuge outside of their country. ‘Now look at him,’ she said ‘He has become like a child again.’ Both Emilie and Bour came to America unable to write, Bour is able to write with little difficulty now. Though Emilie asked to start at the very beginning, explaining that she did not know the alphabet in English, and even in French, had never written. So I brought out some worksheets that brought us to the very beginning, and we spent some time sounding out the letters.

When we were discussing when I should return for another lesson, and some lamb stew she handed me a pile of papers from the hospital, with the dates for her next appointments. I leafed through the papers and read one highlighted sentence: patient is trying to get pregnant, premenapausal. I decided to ask her if it was true, to which she responded, ‘ah, you know my secret.’ Her husband is in his late sixties and already had children before he married Emilie. She bore only one son, the one she lost and now she would like to have another child. She knows that it’s getting late in her cycle, that it might not be possible, but she is willing to try anything – even fertilization drugs. ‘Of course, only if God is willing’ she said, holding back tears.

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