Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Thursday afternoon, our office closed two hours early due to the oncoming winter storm, and I, along with many others over the next few days, stocked up on grocery essentials on my way home.  I bought milk, bread, fruit, and snacks at the storm’s onset, and my family, again along with many others, trekked out two days later for more essentials, plus chips and beer.  When you’re stuck inside during a storm, snacking becomes a way to pass the time.  For us in the United States, we stock up on snacks during a weather crisis.  We are a lot luckier than most.

Every Tuesday morning, I get to work with a group of elders at a nonprofit that exists to help immigrants and refugees integrate into our state and country.  This group of around 100 elders exercise, drink tea, eat lunch and help out with cleaning up afterwards.  They are a diverse group from countries such as Bhutan, Burma, Vietnam, Ukraine, Russia, Liberia, Ethiopia, Somalia, Congo and Eritrea.  Some are highly educated while some cannot read in their first languages.  Some had high positions in their jobs while others were day laborers.  Some enjoy ballet and museums while others create their own art in knitted scarves, watercolors, folk songs and vegetable gardens.  Some of the Russian ladies chide me when they think my skirt is too short.  The brightest-eyed man from Burma stops everything he’s doing to shake my hand and laugh when he sees me, as if we have a shared joke (we don’t).  A Somali man who’s had four wives and seventeen children scattered about always talks my ear off and offers to bring me coffee every week.  The Ethiopian woman who brings me injera “for babies” (my kids) is often all the way leaned back in her chair guffawing with her friends at the jokes she tells, usually based on her observations of crazy ‘ferenjis’ (Americans).

Upon first inspection, visitors to this group might be surprised to hear details about the difficult places the members of this group have passed through.  They would stand at the side watching the singing, the laughter, the stretching of aged limbs trying out yoga poses and not consider the following:

In Bhurma, the voice of one of the regular Tuesday attendees:
“We had gathered all our food at home but we were unable to eat.  The children were very young. We grabbed some chickens and left in the middle of the night….The kids said they were hungry, but we had nothing to eat.  There were tears rolling down my cheeks, and the kids were crying too.”

From Liberia, a refugee trying to keep his daughter from exploitation:
 "Life is very, very hard for the children. In the morning, before going to school, I used to buy my children at least a cake worth 100 francs for breakfast, or a banana to eat. Here, we are waking up in the morning and I don't know what we're supposed to eat." (Save the Children)

In Somalia, a parent during the holy month of Ramadan:
"How will I fast when I don't have something to break it?" asked Abdulle. "All my family are hungry and I have nothing to feed them. I feel the hunger that forced me from my home has doubled here." (NBC News)

A Russian commentator about the lingering effects of Soviet-style Communism:
“The reaction to this is absolutely Soviet — it is a classic, Soviet-style panic,” Ms. Yasina said. “Remember, it has been only 20 years since the Soviet collapse. I am 46 years old. For 20 years, I have lived under normal conditions. But the rest of the time, I lived under conditions of total shortages. And habits acquired during childhood are stronger than any others. It becomes almost a reflex.” (New York Times)

The voice of a Bhutanese refugee:
“We have to eat little to make it last.  In Bhutan we could eat whenever we liked but in camps we cannot eat like this due to the scarcity of things available to us.” (Photovoice)

The closest I have ever come to facing food scarcity was when I ate simply during my years as a teacher in Slovakia in order to buy plane tickets abroad for travel.  That’s it.  I always had a cushion of savings in an American bank account though, a fact that disqualifies me from any sense of food insecurity. For most of us in the west, this is probably true.  For those that have never traveled to developing nations to witness first-hand the day-to-day struggle its citizens face, the situations outlined above can be hard to grasp.  They experience the inconvenience of having to plow through a freak snow storm to stock up on beer and chips, and that's about it (I  don’t mean to make light of the many Americans who find themselves in the position of benefiting from SNAP; sadly, for many places in the world, there is no social safety net for those who fall on hard times).

Knowing the little I do about the elders I spend my Tuesday mornings with, I hope you understand my reaction to the Meals on Wheels volunteer who was walking through the group handing out leftover apples and oranges.  She locked eyes with me as we passed each other and said, assuming that I, another mainstream white lady, would be a safe ear for her vent, “Ugh, they’re so greedy!”

Well, actually, they’re not. 

Until we have been in the position of not having food to give our children before school, we have no right to judge the behavior of those who have.  Sometimes the elders crowd around handouts.  A certain group will crowd around the serving table the moment the food begins to appear from the kitchen.  One elder takes any leftovers home in empty plastic yogurt containers she brings from home while another takes home all the empty plastic milk cartons which she uses to stockpile cooking oil in her garage.  In our group, we have one hoarder who I have found digging through the garbage bins outside her apartment complex.  These behaviors are odd.  They are hard to understand for most of us.  They are unpalatable and can be seen as even gross.

One thing they are not is greedy.  When you have experienced the indignity of receiving insufficient rations at a refugee camp, it is a normal response to crowd when a hand-out of fresh fruit is being offered.  We cope with whatever life gives us, whether it be refugee camp rations, SNAP benefits, scavenged food during wartime or the blessing of Meals on Wheels People congregate meals.

  I hope that, should I ever face the things these elders have faced, I find myself surrounded by the kindness of those whose heart is to uphold my dignity..

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