Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Chapter 42 James, Who Speaks Many Languages

This country of mine is fortunate, as am I to live in it. I say this for the obvious reason, which is freedom, but really, it’s an old freedom. It was bought long ago with a price that I’m able to recite, but with a sown sacrifice that I’m not sure I’m worthy to reap. I don’t respect it enough. My ancestors gave something of themselves – maybe even their lives – for an idea, and I enjoy it with my soft hands and nonchalance.

For me, freedom just is. I wake up free, I breathe free and I live free, just like I always have.

When it’s the expected moment, sure, I pledge to our flag and sing our national anthem. On the Fourth of July, I light fireworks and celebrate our independence. On Memorial Day and Veterans Day, I strive to honor the men and women who sacrificed their lives long ago for our freedom, as well as those who have done so in recent decades for freedom in other countries.

But really, if I’m being honest, I just pay it lip service.

Freedom has always been here, in between America’s shores, for centuries now. Those of an older, fading generation have a better appreciation of what it might have felt like to lose that. They can recall the air raids and the uncertain fear of a creeping global power and ideology; one that could have invaded and brought destruction and imprisonment. For them, freedom was redeemed with lost sons and revered with a patriotic fervor which hit very close to home. But, unfortunately, those people are aging and dying – and with them, real memories. Memories now captured in textbooks and in documentaries on cable.

And so, to spend some time with a friend like James, freedom finds new life. It is fresh, reborn even. It has a voice. It breathes. It is all at once relevant and touchable.

James is a Burmese refugee (legally recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, or UNHCR), who now lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In his apartment hangs a small American flag; it means something to him, I suspect, for he recalls little of a life of true freedom. In fact, he’s a living breathing acronym to freedom, for he’s lived most of his life in one refugee camp and then another. He’s borne witness to attacks on villages and the stripping of dignity at the hands of brutal, ruthless men; the senseless extinguishing of once vibrant, free lives.

Men, women and children.

Horrifically, for James and his country, a power and ideology did in fact invade. A military junta from within Burma’s own borders brought destruction and imprisonment, and James remembers it and speaks of it with stunning detail and emotion. He fills his childhood recollection with such images, right where I would find memories of a birthday party or a summer vacation, or some other significant, much happier event.

James was six when his village was attacked. It was a Sunday night when the enemy struck, after James and his community had enjoyed a full day of celebration and feasting. It was perhaps the last celebration he would enjoy in freedom for twenty years. James is understandably emotional as he speaks of it, but I sense he’s not afraid anymore. Quite possibly, having lived through what he has, what’s left to fear?

From that moment on, his family lost more and more of their earthly possessions, but they never lost each other. In fact, during one sweeping raid by the enemy, while in a makeshift camp (not formerly recognized as a UNHCR refugee camp), James and his entire family of eight, including his mother and father were made to lie flat on the ground as their hut burned next to them. The soldier, carrying an AK47, told them repeatedly not to move. And so they didn’t. Others who ran or tried to hide were struck down by bullets, but James and his family were spared.

The soldier slipped away, perhaps unknowingly an answer to the prayers of those lying prostrate on the ground. What was once their home and belongings was now just a pile of ash.

Ultimately, James and his family made it to an “official” refugee camp, where they found safety. Life was better on many fronts, as the camp was protected in a mountainous region within Thailand’s border. There were schools and churches. Supplies were abundant due to the generosity of others. James learned to speak five languages fluently just by being in the midst of so many cultures, perhaps a silver lining to a very dark cloud.

This may all sound like great news, but a fence still kept others from coming in, and them from going out. He was ostracized and treated differently by those living in freedom on the other side of the fence. He recalls knowing that he had no future.

And before he knew it, James was 26.

Fast forward to life in America, and James is the pillar of his family. In fact, it was James who navigated the application process for refugee status; James, who led his family here two years ago through check points and borders and customs and the whole ordeal of international travel. James, who speaks many languages.

Fort Wayne is now home to the largest population of Burmese outside of Thailand, which neighbors Burma (and contains its numerous refugee camps). So, not content to be merely a pillar for his own family, James has provided aid and comfort to many others who are here – to those who have arrived legally in America with similar nightmares to share. He is an interpreter, a friend, a liaison to a strange new world.

There is much to debate about refugees in our midst. What about competition for our jobs? What about the strain on our schools and our healthcare systems which are already overburdened? What about those strange cultural differences? What about this and what about that?

This is understandable. But what about James and his family? What really is ours in the first place? Are any of us truly worthy to reap someone else’s sacrifice from years gone by, while at the same time ignore that there are others in the world still, to this day, entangled in the chains of captivity? Our freedom has always been here, but for most of us, someone else paid the price for it. Maybe none of us can ever respect that enough, unless we give something of ourselves for others to enjoy it as well.

As I sit with James in his apartment, he’s finishing up a job application online. He’s been trying for a while to find work. I ask, after all that he’s been through by the tender age of 28, if he’s frustrated in his job search.

He smiles and says, “at least here, I have a future.”

1 comment:

Erin Wilson said...

I really appreciate you sharing this part of your life and world...