Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Across the Cultural Sea

On Sunday we went to Pakistani refugee family for lunch. My husband had got to know them over the summer whilst we were in England and had been helping them out a bit. There's a mother, father, uncle and 4 children. They were fleeing persecution in Pakistan. they are Christians and were being harassed by some Imams after helping organise a conference for a travelling evangelist. They even moved hundreds of miles to the capital, but were pursued and found there, so they fled the country.

I admit they were the lucky ones who were able to leave, but when you see how they live here in Sri Lanka and what they have sacrificed, you would not call them lucky. It's a bit like that idea of getting a criminal to meet his victims, to add the personal touch, to see the face and story behind the crime. When you meet an immigrant family and hear their story, it makes for a wholly different impression than the media or man in the street view. I would have to feel pretty desperate and at the end of my tether, to flee my home country, with 4 children, no possessions, leave a well paid job, decent house, and family, all that is familiar in fact, to start a new life in a strange country, with no guarantees that you will be accepted.

I have been reading George Alagaiah's (BBC correspondent) book "Home from Home" about his experience of being an immigrant from Sri Lanka in the UK, and how he adapted. It also discusses the UK's failed policy of multiculturalism and the realities and positive statistics behind immigration. A great read.

The children cannot speak Singhala so can't go to a government school, the international schools are too expensive, so the kids stay at home all day, with nothing to do. Someone in their church has lent them a small house, but they have to move again this wk/end. The house is next to a scummy patch of water, so lot of mosquitoes, and next to a rubbish tip. The father is a carpenter and has made some rudimentary furniture from cast off bits of wood. They are all very resourceful.

Sri Lanka is a holding bay for asylum seekers and refugees, they won't accept any (they have enough problems of their own) so temporary immigrants have no official status, they can't work. The father and uncle are ashamed that they are reduced to begging. The uncle is a mechanic back in Pakistan where he earned good money. Thank goodness for the church community though. In that too, they are 'lucky'. Whilst having lunch with them, a family from the Punjab, whom they had only met the day before, at a prayer meeting, knocked on the door and gave them several bags of groceries.

They came to our house for lunch a few weeks ago. I was glad we had lugged our trampoline all the way here in a container, the children loved it. They played very nicely with all our children's toys, but I think our son, in particular, was a bit overwhelmed by having his toys and territory so completely taken over. He hid in a tent most of the time, and didn't join in at all.

However this time at their house, we had taken them some toys, and our 7 yr old gradually warmed up and showed them how to play skittles, Jenga and ended up speaking the universal language of sport, cricket in this case, with the 3 boys, whilst our daughter had thawed out and was even allowing the Pakistani daughter to kiss her, which she did frequently, and played with her 2 dolls. She even deigned to have her finger and toe nails painted by the mother.

It was amazing how much English the children had learned even in the 2 wk since we had last seen them. Little sponges. They rattled through the flash cards I had brought like Shakespeare reading a "Janet and John" book.

The food was delicious. Chicken, biryani, rice, a cauli dish, chickpeas, and chapattis and parathas. this was followed by a cardamon scented rice pudding. Comfort food, Pakistani style. They insisted we drink fizzy drinks not the water which they said wdn't be good for us. But they drank straight from the tap. It's true we don't, and wouldn't!

When I saw the kitchen with one ring, no table, and one tap, I made my second resolution of the week and decided not to complain about my kitchen here lacking its western conveniences and ambience. As well a plying us with more and more food, they also insisted that we take a doggy bag of spare food home with us. They explained this is cultural and that you always press your guests to eat more, even putting food on their plate and insisting on taking food home. I realised how insecure I am about my culture, years of multiculturalism and fearing I couldn't 'celebrate' anything of my own culture probably. When they came to us, I cooked Indian food, as I assumed they wdnt want to eat bland western food, and didn't have the courage of my convictions to present it anyway. They had made milder versions for us, but I noticed the uncle surreptitiously wrapped a whole chilli in a paratha and ate mouthfuls of that with his chicken.

No comments: