Monday, May 13, 2013

The Women Next Door

As a stay-at-home mama, I know how lonely it can be to go without adult conversation for 8+ hours a day. And as a former expatriate, I know how isolating it can be to live in a foreign country where you don’t understand the customs, can’t speak the language, and have minimal self-sufficiency/independence. All that to say, I can’t really imagine the isolation and loneliness of being a stay-at-home mama living in a foreign country.

When I moved to our little West Texas town, population just over 100,000, I mourned the loss of diversity and different cultures. I’m not exaggerating when I say “mourned.” I cried about it. I think God laughed at my blindness. Before long, I started seeing lots of Asian people working in the local grocery store. Then I met Kelli, a woman at church, who told me there were Burmese refugees living in Midland. I asked more and more questions, and before long found myself, my husband, and my little blonde-haired daughter with Kelli attending a Chin National Day cultural event with hundreds of Burmese people, all members of the Chin ethnic group and all displaced by war, violence, and a hostile military regime in their home country. It was like going back to Asia.

Burmese snacks.

I was shocked. I couldn’t figure out where they all had been. Our town isn’t big. Like I said, I’d seen a handful of Burmese men stocking shelves at the grocery store, but I had no idea so many women and children lived in our community. I never saw them, and as I started talking with some of my local friends in the following weeks, we agreed that no one else ever saw them either. Kelli helped me arrange to meet a few of the ladies the following week, and we sat down to chat about what life is like here in the USA for the women. I mentioned the fact that I never noticed Burmese women and children in the community, and one of the women knowingly nodded.

“It’s hard,” she said. “The men work all the time. The women stay home with their babies, cooking and cleaning and sleeping. They don’t feel good, so they call their husbands, but their husbands are busy. So they just take medicine and go to sleep.” As she tried to communicate her heart in broken English, suddenly I realized she wasn’t telling me the women had the flu. What she was really describing was depression.

It’s a perfect storm, really. Midland has an incredibly strong economy, so the Chin flock here because they hear there are jobs when they can’t be found in other parts of the country. They come because their Chin friends tell them to come, but none of the support services our nation offers to refugees are available here. Until this year, there wasn’t a refugee resettlement agency with a physical presence here in Midland, and even now it is temporary. So they are not regularly receiving the ESL services, medical checkups, counseling, and community-introduction classes that they would normally receive in other parts of the country as newly-arrived refugees. But they are finding jobs, so they continue to come. And while the men are busy working, many of the women remain isolated in their homes, unable to do much of anything except sit with their traumatic memories.

We can do better than this.

After learning about the work of groups like Hill Country Hill Tribers and the Community Cloth, I realized I could take my Scarlet Threads experience and start something similar here in our community. I met Mellie, another stay-at-home mama with a heart for the Burmese and lots of crafty ideas, and we began brainstorming projects. We met with a whole host of Burmese women, and with the help of Dawt, a local Burmese pastor’s wife, we finally narrowed it down to a handful of women that we could really build relationships with. (We didn’t think we could meaningfully engage with 15 women! So we started with 4.)

Dawt, with her sleeping baby strapped on, and her aunt. 

We are working with the women to utilize the skills they already have to produce boutique-quality handmade goods for infants and toddlers. We’re calling it the Chin Collection. Mellie designs the products; I’m working on business development and marketing; and the ladies are hard at work creating the first collection using techniques like sewing, hand appliquéing, embroidery, and crocheting.

But this isn’t really just about providing them with supplemental income and marketable skills. This is about building relationships. It’s about friendship. We are able to sit and have tea. We’re able to take our kids over and let them play with other kids who don’t look or sound like them. We’re able to learn about their lives and to share some of ours; to practice English and help them feel like they're a part of our local community. Hopefully we can help lighten their load a little bit. Sometimes the stories we hear cause our hearts to break… like the woman who shared that her son “disappeared” in Burma over 6 years ago and asked us to pray for him. She said she isn’t sure if he is dead or alive, and that while either would be OK, she just wants to know.

It’s sobering to think that each of these people -- the people we see sweeping the floors at Wal-Mart or making the Sushi at the grocery store or dishing up our food at the take-out place... the people who we hardly give a second glance -- comes to our community with such a traumatic past. Missing family members, under-the-cover-of-darkness escapes from their home, years in refugee camps, torn-apart families and unspeakable tragedies. This is what has brought them here. And now we have an opportunity to respond… to reach out and make their transition here a little easier than it was before. We have so much to learn from them… bravery, courage, hope, and faith… far more than we could ever offer to them.

*****

Visit this link to view and purchase Chin Collection products! For more information or to be kept up-to-date on our progress as we move towards launching this collection, please e-mail chincollection@scarletthreads.org.

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