By Jo Palmer
“Hi everyone, I’m Jo, I’m Amanda’s Intern. She wanted me to take your I-94’s if you have them today. Did anyone bring them?”
I stood at the front of a Warehouse training class. Eighteen men of all origins, ages 19 through 55 sat in the poorly lit classroom at Baltimore City Community College, looking at me. A small, round-faced gentlemen from the back of the room lifted up his waved his hand. I took the paper and made a front and back copy. A smudged black print signified a face over the grid of letters signifying a name. I went back into the class and handed it back to him. “This is Abu,” he said, “I am Rasheed, that is Abu.” He smiled and pointed across the class. I looked at the picture on the page. Who could tell who it was? I handled many similar documents, blurred and splotted pictures that meant entry and security in a new country. They never do justice to the students I work with. One of the first students I met, a skinny man from Myanmar, had smile lines around his eyes that reached towards his hair like a morning stretch. He speaks very little English and has only been here three months, but he sits intently in class, using breaks to look up translations, and taking notes on slow, loud words directed his way. I had the privilege to teach his class about shapes the first week I was here; triangle, square, triangle, circle, until they understood the pattern.
A lot of what I do is chase down missing information in paperwork; copies of I-94s, street addresses, phone numbers… I asked a quiet young man in the warehouse class for his birthdate. He leaned forward and in a voice softened by accent and uncertainty said 1-1-1995. I remembered a conversation that had taken place a few days before. I had been talking to some friendly men from Ethiopia and Sudan when I noticed him sitting by himself shyly watching us. I asked where he was from and he said Nepal. The Ethiopian man exclaimed when he heard this. “Nepal, you have heard of them on the news!” The Nepali man sat forward on his chair, ankles crossed, hunched over the desk. “It has bad government,” he agreed, “but many mountains. Beautiful mountains.” He has been here a month I think. He is with his parents and grandparents here, learning warehouse skills to support them. When an instructor listed examples of natural disasters, I watched his body respond to the word earthquake. “Earthquake” he repeated in the same hunched forward position. It told him it was good he was here with his family and he looked at me as though I had said something strange.
Many of the men show me pictures of themselves in their country. They’re tiny snapshots of peace or joy in a turmoil I never fully see. A very kind, amiable man from Eritrea told my manager and me about his country. “Its very green” he told us. “Politically bad, but rolling green and very cool.” I picked up a book on environmental justice at The Book Thing. By chance I opened to a chapter about repatriation in Eritrea. It explained in textbook prose that Eritrea was made a wasteland by the war for independence with Ethiopia. The farms are destroyed, drought is persistent, the people are at risk of starving. The book talked about sending refugees from the refugee camp in Sudan back to their native Eritrea. I knew their had been an influx of Eritrean refugees in Baltimore and I saw that the war ended in 1991. This Eritrean man told me he had been here for something like two years, certainly not twenty. How did he end up here instead of home? I took reading between the lines to realize he fled his country before the war was ended. He flew to America, probably from Sudan, never seeing the devastation that was his rolling green. He is a smart man, he knows what is happening at home. Yet he tells us that it is a beautiful country, as all of them do. Home is very beautiful, I think they have to remember it that way and never tell the American men and women walking hurriedly through their lives the weight of their journey, only the hope of it.
The Baltimore Resettlement Center is a strange library where all the books open on their own. I read the intro on day one; these people are refugees, they come from unimaginable places. I see marked up, battered covers, pictures of real people with tattered edges. The background information, he was born on 1-1-19xx in a country that was in Africa, Asia, or the middle east. Sometimes it says the number of children, sometimes they’re here, sometimes they’re still back home. If I ask the right questions I catch a glimpse of page 92, a religious belief, page 116 a whisper of homesickness, page 56 a deeper meaning, page 202 an experience, page 29 a word well placed to be a testimony of faith. Like with the Eritrean man I read between the lines, I see there is pain I can’t know or speak the language to hear. I see there is faith I don’t have, faith to define. I know each person is a story to complicated and human to have words for writing. I am left to chase the paperwork, reading what I can from skimpy files, stories in broken English, and expressions when the English runs out.
A man told me there was no point in fasting if you don’t want to pray. He has fasted for over a month now, like many other men and women who are acknowledging Ramadan. He came from Sudan to a class whether the teacher talks fast and swears frequently. He still wants to pray. I can’t ever know what that means to him, but to me it means I live each day with a little more perspective and remember that God calls us to take special care of the widows, the children, and the foreigners. “Be like Children” He told us. The widow knows deeply what it means to be a woman, the foreigner comes with wisdom from a long journey. You don’t fast out of fullness, but a desire to pray. We don’t help them out of pity, but a need to know God.