Guest Post: Long Lines and Warm Cereal

This post is a reflection by Amanda, a World Relief Seattle summer resettlement intern, about a relatively typical day in the life of an intern.

June 24, Tuesday. First day going to the Social Security Administration (SSA) and Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). The staff at WR tell me to bring snacks, since it’s an all-day affair, and to get there as early as possible. I’m picking up a Somali woman and her two kids, one of whom supposedly speaks English and can help me fill out paperwork.

I get to the apartment around 8a.m. and knock on the door. No one opens, but I can hear noises inside. I knock again and wait. Still no one, but this time I hear people yelling and I know they’re in there. After a few minutes, I raise my hand to knock again and the door opens as a girl frantically waves me in, saying I’m there “in a good time.” I smile and say, ok, thanks, thinking she means they’re ready, only to see the mother run out the back door as the girl pulls me into the bathroom, where the bathtub is almost overflowing and the torrent of water from the faucet has splashed all over the floor into the bedroom. Ah. Yes, well, this is interesting. The girl, maybe 15, tells me it’s broken and they can’t turn it off. It’s one of those three-knob deals, two on the side for hot and cold, and one in the middle to shift it to shower mode. I try the cold side–it’s off–then the hot. I turn it a few times and the water stops. The girl looks at me with surprise and relief. She says it’s the first time they have tried to use it, and they kept trying the handles and couldn’t make it stop. They have been here 5 days, and I wonder if they have washed at all…maybe just with a pitcher or washcloth? Maybe not.

The mother rushes in with a Hispanic groundskeeper, who asks me in broken English what the problem is, and I reply in Spanish that the tub is not broken, it’s ok. I will teach them how to use it. He looks suspicious, but nods and leaves. I explain to the girl, who translates for her mother and brother, how to use the shower, and then make them try it so I know they understand. To get to the bathroom, one must walk through the bedroom. All of their possessions are in that room, in small piles on the floor. I go sit on the couch to wait until they are ready to go. Ten minutes go by, and another mechanic stops by to “fix” the problem, which I explain again. In maybe another ten minutes they are ready to go. When I am at someone’s house, I make every attempt to avoid looking at my phone. Checking the time won’t make them ready faster, and it can seem rude. We finally leave, and I’m hoping the line at SSA won’t be incredibly long.

It is. The waiting room is filled, and the line to check in goes down the hallway, blocks an emergency exit, and winds back toward the elevator. The kids look at me with eyebrows raised. I suppose someone told them in America things are orderly and quick. Eventually we reach the front, and the man asks if we have an appointment. I say no, and he asks which organization I’m with. I tell him, and he marks us as having a scheduled appointment. Before I can correct him, he moves onto the next person. There are no seats left in the waiting room, so we stand awkwardly near a wall and wait for our number. We only have to wait about 20 minutes before getting called back, and when the SSA lady finds out we don’t actually have an appointment, she gets annoyed and threatens to send us back in line. I explain I told him we didn’t have one, and she sighs, then takes the paperwork to process. I thank her profusely and sweet talk her into a good mood.

Next is DSHS, where we spend the rest of the day, until about 3pm. The daughter and I talk a lot. The family spent the last 8 years in Egypt, so she speaks Somali, Arabic, and English. I ask where her dad is, and she says the last time they saw him was in Somalia. She doesn’t seem to want to expand on that, so I ask what she wants to be when she grows up. She gets excited and says she’s wanted to be a doctor since she was four years old, a pediatrician. I ask where she wants to work, and she says she wants to go back to Somalia, says there are a lot of sick people there. Her brother, two seats over, has his head in his arms, resting on his knees, sleeping. He wants to be an engineer, the sister explains, and he will help build the hospital she will run. Is it hard, she asks, to be a doctor? You have to study a lot, I say. It takes a long time and a lot of hard work, but I know you can do it. You will be a good doctor and will help a lot of people. I think about her desire to be with her people, to give back to her community. Many Americans assume immigrants move here to make more money, to get rich and exploit the welfare system. I wish they could talk to this girl, meet her family. I wish they had the same aspirations of making their world better and doing something great with their lives. Maybe Americans who assume immigrants are greedy and self-serving are simply placing their own faults and attitudes on others.

I take them home and they invite me in, like all refugees do, hospitable with whatever they have to give. I sit on the couch and the daughter brings me tea while the mother makes me something in the kitchen. She brings it out, a bowl of warm cereal. Looks like frosted flakes, with extra sugar. I’m actually really hungry at this point, not having eaten lunch. The girl and her mother eat traditional Somali bread, which looks like a thin pancake, smeared with honey. I would much rather have that, but the girl explains that the mother gave me the last of the cereal, a prized American commodity that I would like much more than their ethnic food. I tell her next time, I will eat what they eat, that I would love trying their home-cooked food. Today I eat the soggy dregs of corn flakes with warm milk and (literally) pray it’s warm because it was microwaved, not because it’s been on the counter since they bought it. I make sure to look pleased so they know the meal is sufficient, and we sit and chat, with long pauses when we run out of things to say. It is common in non-American cultures to sit without filling the air with continuous noise. It is ok to simply be together. Eventually, I explain I must get back to work, and the mother offers me a water bottle to take. I have my own, but thank her in Somali (one of the few words I know in the language) for her kindness and head back to the office.

If you are or know anyone who is a recent or soon-to-be graduate  looking for some hands-on experience with refugee resettlement, check out worldreliefseattle.org/internships.

Also, if you enjoyed this anecdote, check out Amanda’s blog for some more reflections on her internship and on refugees in the Seattle area globalthinkdoer.blogspot.com.

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