International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Sarah Wayne Callies: That day at the pool

Actress and IRC Voice Sarah Wayne Callies is preparing to travel to Thailand later this month to visit camps on the border with Myanmar, also known as Burma, where the International Rescue Committee assists Burmese families who have fled political upheaval at home.  Here she reflects on her experience last summer as a volunteer mentor for a family from one Burmese minority ethnic group; the Karen. The family had recently resettled in Atlanta with the IRC’s help after 18 years in the camps.

ATLANTA, Georgia -- I begin by knowing almost nothing.  I know one family; five souls.  I know what we have taught one another.  They taught me how to write my name in Karen, I taught them how to bake cookies.  There are a host of intangible things we’ve learned from one another, but we have never talked politics, never spoken of their time in the refugee camps – time that, for the parents, lasted nearly two decades.  There are boundaries of language and good manners that keep these questions from coming up.  And there are far more pressing matters: filling out benefits applications, taking practice driver’s tests, deciphering bus schedules.  All of the things that seem simple until you are someplace you don’t speak the language and need them all sorted out immediately.  
So we help them sort these things out, my family.  The IRC put us in touch with them about six months after they came to the U.S. from a refugee camp on the Thailand/Burma border.  I come and read to the kids, cook and bake.  My daughter systematically destroys their apartment with the youngest of their kids.  My husband sits with the parents and explains bills, applications, documentation.  It is nothing.  I mean it.  It’s hanging out on a Saturday with friends.  
To get past the vast differences of language and culture we focus on the things that link us in the moment: the weather, our kids, keeping them occupied, keeping cool in Atlanta’s summer.  And then: swimming.  All of the kids love to swim – let’s go to the pool next week.  Just like that, it’s planned. 
The next Saturday we’re at the pool, our bags overflowing with towels, floaties, goggles, sunscreen, and swim gear.  The kids have on the swimsuits we’ve found for them, and I’m now deep into negotiations with their mom about what she’s going to wear.  
I hand her a swimsuit and she vanishes into a changing room.  She’s in there a good five minutes before she reappears with the suit in hand, her brow furrowed in the international expression for how the hell do you put this thing on?  I hold it up, demonstrate the fit and the clasp, and hand it back.  She frowns and exchanges some quick words with her daughter that I, of course, don’t understand.  Then she heads back into the changing room.  
Another five minutes.  Mom comes out smiling very kindly and shaking her head.  I try to explain again.  She refuses very politely.  I try to ask what’s wrong.  She smiles and hands me the suit.  We stand there smiling at one another, bemused, for a few seconds.  We’re both embarrassed.  I wonder if I’ve offended her; she may well be wondering the same. Neither of us has the right words to ask.  And the gulf between us suddenly seems impossibly big.  
For a moment I am almost ashamed – who the hell am I to think I can make a useful contribution in the life of someone who spent 18 years in a refugee camp?  What did I think I could do for her without knowing her language, or acquainting myself with her culture and customs?  Why am I here today, and aren’t the chances very good that this trip to the pool will end up confirming any suspicions she has that she will never fit in in her new country?  
We’re still staring at each other, and I have no idea what’s going on.  She may think the suit is ugly and not want to wear it (I wouldn’t blame her).  She may have religious objections to the immodesty of the suit (I don’t even know her beliefs).  She may not know how to swim (refugee camps can’t have pools, right?).  She makes it clear she’ll wade into the water in her jeans and blouse.  I am pretty sure the lifeguards will object to this and try to kick her out of the pool.  Her kids won’t swim without her.  I am starting to wonder if the whole escapade was a bad idea when I remember I have a sarong in my bag.  It was a gift from a friend who went to Thailand.  
I pull it out with a half shrug and the raised-eyebrow-cocked-head international expression for will this do?  Mom lights up. Claps. Flies into the dressing room, explodes out the door 10 seconds later with the sarong tied expertly around her waist.  She scoops up her kids and we’re in the pool within a minute.  I eye the lifeguards who exchange a few glances with one another but keep their seats and we all swim and snack and sun until the youngest kids are asleep on their feet.  
It was a great day.  We played our butts off, all of us.  But I still don’t know why Mom didn’t want the suit.  I look forward to seeing her again next summer and I hope that after this trip to Thailand I will have a better sense of who she is, what she ate, where she slept, if there’s a swimming hole nearby — and if everyone is wearing sarongs.  I may be able to bring her some familiar spices to cook with or photos of kids from the camp (she was a midwife there and may have delivered some of them).  I may be able to fill in some of the gaping holes in my knowledge.  
But realistically, I’m only there for a few days.  Although I am reading as much background as I can before the trip, when I leave Thailand there will still be an enormous amount I don’t know.  You can’t absorb a culture in five days and 500 pages.  
What I do know thanks to that day at the pool is that we can reach each other if we try.  It may be uncomfortable, embarrassing, and fraught with gaffes and cultural landmines.  But the day of good fun shared by our families was worth, in my estimation, the challenges in the changing room.  I don’t know if Mom feels the same way.  With luck eventually I’ll be able to ask her. 

Look for a new post from Sarah Wayne Callies next week here

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Hi Sarah, It's absolutely

Hi Sarah, It's absolutely amazing and inspiring to see you reach out to your surroundings in such profound fashion. I am in awe of the way your family puts such great efforts in creating a community. You are wonderful, keep it up. Best of luck with all!

I can so relate to this

I can so relate to this experience. You are making a difference even if you don't think you are just by being a friend. I enjoy volunteering with refugees from Burma and only wish I could also travel as you do to make their cause and resettlement more known.

Sarah, Thank you so much for

Sarah, Thank you so much for spending time and energy to understand and to help refugees. Its warm my heart and bring me comfort/joy to know that there are individuals like yourself, who trying to help out as much as you can. I hope and pray that you will also receive much joy and blessings. :)

I love your post, Sarah. It

I love your post, Sarah. It struck close to my heart, because I also volunteered with Karen refugees from Burma, in Jacksonville Florida. We went swimming, too, at the apartment complex's pool. But I was the one lent the spare tank top and shorts, just as if I was ten again and over at a friend's house.

Sarah, what a beautiful

Sarah, what a beautiful example of one of the singular points of connection that can always be found between cultures and language barriers if an effort is made. So glad you pushed past the very real discomfort (for both of you) to reach it! Glad those lifeguards kept their seat!

Sarah, I love this blog.

Sarah, I love this blog. How wonderful you are involved. i just had lunch today with a friend from long ago who on travels found an unbelievable mid-wife with a birthing center on the outskirts of Manilla delivering over 1500 babies a year in two tiny rooms. Amazing this journey on earth!