Monday, August 4, 2008

Thought I Knew

I thought I knew a little something about immigrants and refugees. After all, I work in a building in which immigrants, refugees, and asylees seek help in beginning their new lives in the US. And I am the daughter of an immigrant who followed all the rules, waited the lengthy time frame, took an exam I'm not sure I could pass, and was granted US citizenship.

But I just returned from a migration conference. And I heard stories. People who have arrived in the US from every corner of the world told their stories about fear and abuse and suffering in refugee camps. And they told their stories about fear and abuse and suffering once they arrived here.

I thought I knew. I knew nothing.

I thought I knew a little something about poverty. I was raised in an single income household of six. We subsisted on the salary of an alcoholic non-commissioned officer in the US Army. My mother could stretch a dollar, let me tell you. We went without a lot of the time.

But I have been sitting across the table and listening to the stories of clients who work two minimum wage jobs and still don't know how they will pay for their children's dental work. They worry about the children they leave at home alone while they work their night shifts, because child care is too expensive. These are not lazy bums. These are not broken homes. These are not people having tons of children and living on welfare. These are people like you and me who are doing the best they can to keep up with the rising cost of everyday living.

I thought I knew. I knew nothing.

I thought I knew a little something about abuse. Alcoholics don't make the best parents. And sometimes the violence they model gets replayed by others in the household. And... sometimes the victims get into relationships that mirror the abuse they experienced at home. I've had my nose broken twice. I've had a broken arm. I've had two concussions. I've been harmed in lots of other ways, too.

But I have been sitting across my office listening to clients recount the terror they have survived. I have listened to the stories of survivors of partner abuse, child abuse, sexual abuse, homelessness, refugee camps, human trafficking. I'm pretty sure I would have given up a long time ago if I were them.

I thought I knew. I knew nothing.

I thought I knew a little something about despair. I've crawled along the bottom of that abyss, the one in which your existence is of no importance. When you feel as if everything has been taken from you, and you have no say in the matter, it is easy to just give up. To wish for the darkness to swallow you whole and never return you to the light. And when the light makes itself plain before you, it is tempting to pull the covers over your head and resist it.

But I have looked into the vacant eyes of the child who is preparing to return home to the very mother who gave him his first snort of cocaine. I have looked down the barrel of the revolver the staff pulled out of the back pocket of a 12-year-old boy who has been living in the streets. And I have heard their stories of hopelessness.

I thought I knew. I knew nothing.

I thought I knew a little something about love. More precisely, I thought I knew what love isn't. When you grow up believing that you only exist for one purpose, and you learned that lesson from someone who is supposed to love you, and then you get a glimpse of what "normal" families look like, you form some ideas about love.

But I have listened to the rationale of parents who mistreat their children, all the while truly believing that what they are doing to their children is out of love for them. And here's the most incredible part - those children love their parents no matter how badly they are treated. They love them in the hopes that they'll eventually get it right and the pain will end. And everyone will love happily ever after. This is their story, and they believe it.

I thought I knew. I knew nothing.

But I have heard the stories. And I have listened with my heart. And I have read the meanings with my eyes. And I have felt the stirrings in my soul. Now I know a tiny bit more. And I will never be the same again.

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