Saturday, April 19, 2008

Learning Change

Every Tuesday and Thursday Nadoum Bour comes to an English language class on the 11th floor of the Chanin building on 42nd and Lexington. He says ‘bonjour’ as he walks past the office, and into the classroom for the adult literacy class. The caseworkers and teachers, all women in their twenties respond to his greeting with English enthusiasm and enunciation, ‘Good Morning.’ Bour has been in the United States for eight months. He speaks French, a bit of Arabic and a few varieties of Chadian dialect. He does not speak very much English and has difficulty writing; arthritis makes his handwriting shaky and barely legible. But Bour is determined; he attends the literacy classes, always sitting next to the other elder man in the class, Fieke, from Kosovo, who is also a refugee.

Bour is 6’3,” with a strong build and weathered, soft facial features. At 67, he moves slowly because of chronic back pain. And perhaps because he is from Chad, where the land and culture do not demand the same haste as here in New York. He has endured back pain for many years, since his days on horse and camel back, and driving land rovers over harsh terrain as a government official in the Saharan regions of Chad. Chad is a land-locked country in central Africa; officially the Republic of Chad in 1960 since its Independence from sixty years of French colonial power. Since 1965 the country has endured civil war between the North and South, countless coup d’etats. More recently, the Darfur crisis in neighboring Sudan has spilled over the border, creating further unrest.

Chad covers an area of 485,752 square miles, made up mostly of uninhabitable desert, semi desert, or savannah. The south is the only subtropical zone, and the majority of Chad’s approximately 7 million people live in the more fertile southwest, with a population density of only 77.7 per square mile. Bour had lived for many years with his two wives and family in N’djamena. Bour now lives with one of his wives in Bronx in the most populous city in the United States, with an estimated population of 8.2 million people within an area of 322 square miles – a population density of 26, 403 people per square mile.

Bour has not revisited Chad since he was forced to leave in 1994. Bour had only just been appointed as the Chief Officer of the Douane, customs and taxes, when rebels threatened his life, seized his position, and removed him. The Rebels wanted his desk and title because they wanted control of the country’s imports and exports. Bour had been one of the only Chadian officers working alongside the French during their colonial rule, putting him in a higher economic and social echelon. After Independence, and witnessing over 20 years of change and political turmoil, suddenly the rebels directed their attention towards him and his family. Bour left his first wife to maintain their kinship and property in Chad, while he and Emilie fled the rebels – commencing what would become a fourteen-year exile odyssey.

Chad is considered one of the world’s most corrupt countries. It has battled growing oil wealth, complex ethnic ties that transcend borders, the difficulty of removing Presidents who increase their term while in office, and then take military action when their secured power is challenged. Despite an ever-increasing insurgency Chadian President Idriss Deby has secured his Presidency since 1991.

Bour and Emilie sought refuge in Côte d’Ivoire with one of Bour’s sons, Pepe. They knew someone who worked for BAD, Banque pour Afrique Development (The African Development Bank) which normally deals with micro finance and training. Yet somehow managed to get Bour and Emilie into safety. According to the couple, they faced a great deal of discrimination from the Ivorian people. Emilie described their attitude as overly nationalist.
‘No one would ever say, ‘This is my country in New York City’ Emile said, putting her hand over her heart in exaggerated patriotism. In the fourteen years that they resided in Abidjan neither of them were able to find substantial work; Emilie, who is 20 years younger than Bour, was able to sell fresh juices and textiles earning enough to make money for food.

Neither Emilie, Bour nor his son Pepe were able to return to Chad. Their dire living situation in Ivory Coast compelled them to make desperate contact with the one person they knew in the States. Since the outbreak of ethnic conflict in the mid nineties, many Chadian have fled their country, seeking refuge in France, Canada and the U.S. Bour’s niece had from Chad, to Paris, and finally to New York in her youth and was able to help them by contacting the International Rescue Committee. The IRC helps refugees fleeing war or persecution by providing immediate aid, including food and shelter and education. Last August, after 14 years outside of their country, unable to return for fear of persecution, unable to contact their extensive kin, they were resettled in New York City.

“They told us that it would be the most expensive city in America...but they also said it would be the easiest for transport. We wanted to be here because of our niece, she is the only person that we know.” said Emilie. “It’s good. But my English! Ah, I don’t know English.”

Emilie no longer attends the literacy classes at the IRC. She suffers from hypertension, depression and anxiety, and the hour journey from their home in the Bronx to midtown increases her stress. Emilie only bore one son, who was killed a few years ago in Chad in a motorcycle accident. He was only 19 and had just past his baccalaureate – which was his reason for staying in Chad. Since his death Emilie has not been able to find a quiet mind. She is trying to conceive a child; it is the one thing that she feels like she can create in this new life. She says that the Doctors she has seen are harsh with their words, telling her that ‘In America women her age don’t conceive children.’ They tell her that her body is old. She makes a tsssk noise, putting her tongue between her teeth and says that God is the one she will listen to, not to the inconsiderate proclamations of Doctors.

Like her husband, Emilie is a tall woman, with high cheekbones, almond shaped eyes and a robust figure. She spends most of the day in their basement apartment in the Bronx. She buys vegetables and foufou flour in bulk, and cooks traditional West African stews for Bour and his son, Pepe. Their one-bedroom apartment was found for them by the IRC. It has a small living area in which they built a wall to create another room for Pepe. The exposed piping on the low ceiling echoes and clinks with use, but the heat escapes out of the thin paned windows. Emilie explains that the window allows mildew in, and that the superintendent always says he will come, but never does. Sometimes she yells as him, but he doesn’t understand French, and she can’t understand much of his English.

The apartment is cold, and there isn’t enough money to buy more blankets or space heaters. The couple has been financially independent from the IRC for over two months. The resettlement aid covers the first six months, after which the refugees are left to be self-sufficient. They receive food stamps, and Pepe works nine-hour shifts at a factory operating the machine that covers flat screen TV’s in plastic casing before they are inserted into neat boxes. Bour, in his age and health is unable to work and Emilie doesn’t have sufficient English or confidence to find a job yet.

Emilie is unable to read, like 87% of Chadian women, according to the United Nations Statistics Division. She is learning the English alphabet from the beginning, which is trying when you are in your late forties. In Chad Emilie only went to school for three years. She can’t remember why she had an aversion to school, but she didn’t want to continue, and so she stopped going at 8 years old, and became a full time pair of hands in her home. As the oldest child of six children (two others died) she helped to raise the younger ones, and maintained the homestead with her mother.
‘That is why I am such a good femme de ménage (housewife)’ Emilie says with a wink.

Emilie looks at Bour lovingly as he is trying to fill out a document and his handwriting is slow and shaky, “He used to write so well,’ she said, ‘you wouldn’t know that he used to drive around Chad in an issued Land Rover as the boss of the Douane...he has reverted back to being like a child.”
Not only in the regression of his handwriting but also economically; Bour has gone from being a powerful and wealthy man in his country, to an American life of food stamps and a slim retirement pension because of his age and health.

Emilie, too, faces certain, initiatory aspects of their resettlement, learning the alphabet and other, cultural norms for the first time. She now works on her English from home with a volunteer, struggling over each letter’s pronunciation. Between letters and friendly bantering in French, the television murmurs and flashes in the background with images of America, and such icons as Oprah.
“I like Oprah,’ Emilie says, clasping her hands together and placing them on her lap, decorated in weathered, fading colors of traditional African fabric.
“She is bigger,’ she says, motioning her long fingers like the exaggerated contours of a woman, “something you can hold onto.”

Like Oprah’s fluxing body weight, Emilie’s figure has changed greatly since her arrival last August. After spending the winter in their basement apartment, cooking and cleaning. Her eyes are tired with worry, her face and body swollen with the weight of unhappiness. Last summer and fall she would go to the ESOL (English as a second or other language) with Bour, dressed regally in her African garb. They walk in to class together and greet the other adult students, from Burma, Thailand, and China. She would join one of the other French-speaking ladies, her amies from Togo or Burundi. As fall turned to winter Emilie watched as her fellow classmates stopped coming to class because they were finding work. When the weather turned cold Emilie stopped going to ESOL at all.
The winter months passed with only Bour attending the classes, explaining in French that his wife is suffering from hypertension and depression.

The story of Emile and Bour’s persecution is kept quiet beneath their tired eyes. They only talk about certain aspects of the life that they left behind and are easily brought to discomfort when talking about the past. Although many refugees suffer from post -traumatic stress, in the United States there are few organizations that integrate mental health assessment and therapy into the resettlement process. Emilie and Bour’s story has been documented by a caseworker and then filed away, in an envelope marked as confidential.

The State Department is responsible for overseas processing of refugees. Generally, it arranges for an ‘overseas processing entity’ (OPE) to conduct interviews and to prepare cases for submission. Once the refugees are admitted into the country, they are allocated to a resettlement organization like IRC to handle their case and provide support for the first months. The organization is required to offer cultural orientation. When CO was first developed in the 1980s refugees were given a six-month period of language and cultural orientation training, now they receive a very brief, intensive cultural orientation, ranging in length from 1 to 5 days.

To become culturally oriented Emilie and Bour have relied mostly on family, their niece and occasional visiting family who have settled in Canada. Emilie, unable to read the subway maps and signs is afraid to travel around the city alone. With Bour frequently at his physical therapy, Emilie spends most of her time at home. The apartment always smells of cooking; lamb stew, or baked fish to accompany traditionally cooked rice or grain. Emilie, a natural host, finds delight in times when a visitor will stay for a meal, so that she may feel as though she is bringing sustenance to others in a way that is familiar and natural to her.

Both Bour and Emilie, without work, find a great deal of time to reflect on their life together, and a past that seems so distant. Recently Bour has been taking time to engage in the writing of his life story. He writes his story by hand, in French, to be translated by his brother (who is not of blood, but called a brother nonetheless) who also lives in the city. Three of Bour’s children have settled in French speaking Montreal. His other children and first wife still continue the family name in Chad. Bour was born unto a prestigious village leader who had nine wives; with Bour’s mother alone his father had eight children, and in all he had 37 children. Bour only took two wives, maintaining the tradition; he had six children with his first wife, and only one with Emilie – their son who was killed. Emilie has not seen any of her family since leaving Chad. She speaks to her mother on the phone from time to time; Her mother is 62. She was only 15 when she had Emilie, her firstborn. Emilie would like to find a job in New York so that she can send more money to her mother and family – She dreams of bringing her younger brother here, so that he could work too. She will probably never see her mother again, because as she said, ‘You cannot go back to a country from which you have already been saved. It would be dangerous, and we cannot sabotage our life here.’

Emilie is a devout Christian. When she married Bour she converted from her Protestant upbringing to Catholicism. She prays each day, the family prays together before meals, and sometimes she fasts – to consecrate needs for the family, for health or for the child that she yearns for. With Bour gone so often at the hospital, and little family near by, Emilie has a great deal of time to consider their life – and very little outlet for processing her thoughts. Some nights she doesn’t sleep at all, others, she sleeps for too long. She wants to become integrated, to find a job, to learn English. Yet, life presents continuous set backs and trials. Next week Emilie will undergo a minor surgery to remove uterine fibroids. Fibroids are the most common non-cancerous tumor of the reproductive tract. Merck’s online medical library states that ‘They occur in one fourth of white women and one half of black women.’ Emilie confirmed that they are extremely common among women in Chad, for reasons unknown. The operation affirms that her body can no longer reproduce.

On a recent spring day Emilie had a picnic in Central Park. The park was alive with people running, professionals walking, lovers loving, children playing. Sitting on a grassy knoll, Emilie was dressed in a traditional, tailored skirt and shirt in bright fabrics of red and green. She looked out at the baseball field and fondly remembered the Mets game that she and Bour went to on an IRC outing, when they first arrived. She noticed all the different kinds of people, making comments about their style, admiring the vibrancy of a few Indian women in their saris. Se watches a long line of NYPD vehicles pass, surveying the park from the tarmac road. Emilie is smiling, saying that the sun and heat reminds her of Africa.
‘I love New York.’ Emilie says with conviction, ‘It’s wonderful because no one is going to take it away from you. Rebels aren’t going to come and steal away your life or livelihood. You can live however you want.’

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Stewing in Emotion

It’s 4 o’clock and Oprah, dressed in spring hues, cheeks brushed pink comes on the T.V. Emilie is watching, with her long fingers placed together in prayer position, on her lap, decorated in weathered, fading colors of traditional African fabric.
‘I like her a lot.’ She says to me in French. ‘She is bigger, she has something you can hold onto.’
It’s similar to the comment she made earlier, when I had told her I was finished with my cleanse. She had tried to pinch a handful of flesh at my ribcage, and found little satisfaction in my thin build. She motioned how easy it would be to throw me around, making me laugh uneasily. Emilie lifted the lid of her giant pot and showed me the steaming; glistening with fat, lamb stew. She poured rice into another oversized pot, and topped it with oil from a mammoth container. ‘You are staying for dinner.’ She half asked and half lifted one eyebrow, indicating that she wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Part of me wished that I didn’t know African cultural norms, and that I could respond in American manner, ‘No, I’m busy...I have plans’ etc. but I couldn’t, so I put my hand on her shoulder and said ‘Oui, Mama. Bien Sûr.’

It was Friday and I was exhausted, and she obviously hasn’t been practicing her English – as we moved through the same letters of the same little book, with the same pictures – getting the same, confused and tired responses from Emilie.
‘Did you talk to the agency about finding me a job?’ she said. I told her I did, and that they gave me the same response as always...There would be no job until she could speak enough English to have a meeting with the employment office. I didn’t say it with such a harsh tongue as the person who had said it to me, but Emilie could feel the definiteness of the response.

‘Who said that? I will go there and ask Amanda, she will help me.’ I told her she could try, but that it would be very hard to work without the knowledge of reading and writing.
‘I want to take care of someone’s children. Or even in a kitchen, making food’ I tried to respond positively, but recognize how many people there are in this city, seeking work at the bottom wrung. I tried to get us through the alphabet, but she wasn’t taking initiative – she wanted me to sound the letter, for her to mimic. Which I did, but I started thinking, how much is she becoming dependent on me? Emilie is tired after 15 years of displacement and resettlement, struggle and strife, hunger and discrimination, departure and distance from kin. She wants me to turn the pages, to sound out the letters, to help her move out of her past, she want us to eat together, to drink wine...she wants to laugh.

‘That’s enough’ I say, as she puts another giant spoonful of rice and stew on the mound on my plate. I haven’t had meat or cooked food since before my cleanse, and although I am a bit fearful of my stomach’s reaction – I dig in. I have no choice, we have prayed to God, blessed the food in Jesus’ name and now Emilie is looking at me, moving her fork to mouth in quick movements and telling me to ‘mange,’ which is the French command to eat. She disappears to the kitchen and returns with two glasses and fills them with wine. A few hours later I am still there, we haven’t done anymore with our English lesson – and we are drunk. I have tried to leave after each glass of wine, and each time, she had used the French equivalent for just one for the road.

When Bour got home from visiting a family member, and a long day of physical therapy at the hospital he was pleased to find me there. Pepe, their son had also returned home from his 10-hour workday at the factory and had bought another bottle of wine for us from the corner shop, and a few Guinness for him. Pepe turned on a music video of West African worship/dance music – where they are dressed in traditional garments and the singer is backed up by a group of women who shake their hips in the appropriate dance. Bour tries to show me all the bills from his hospital visits, held together in a blue envelope of mysterious English, and demanding balances. I shake my head at him, and tell him his wife has gotten me drunk – and that I can’t work anymore tonight. He laughs and pours himself a glass of wine, and fills mine, saying one for the road. I have never been sicker, the lamb and drink were overkill to my pristine system – and my head was spinning; how do I help them without hurting anyone?