Living Like Refugees
By Jacqueline Marino
DECEMBER 21, 1998: Theres nowhere for children to play outside the ramshackle building at the dead end of Midtowns refugee ghetto. An advertisement for the District Attorneys office boasts Drug Dealers Evicted Here. But thats little consolation to Zahara Jalloub, who cant read English anyway. She just knows what she hears outside her dilapidated, graffiti-marred building on Jefferson. Police sirens. Gunfire.
Inside she only has to worry about keeping her children warm when the heaters busted, and away from the rats.
There are 12 people, soon to be 13, living in that meager four-room apartment. There is no garbage can. No crib for the 8-month-old baby. No sheets for the mattresses on the floor. Jalloubs children have picked strips of foam off the street and made pillows out of them.
Part of me wishes I didnt know that ten minutes from my house, people have to live like this.
From the hungry, dark-eyed toddler in front of me, I take away a cereal box and brush off a cockroach twice the size of my fingernail. Her mother gives me a look that transcends language.
I know what shes trying to tell me.
Do you see how we live here?
Jalloubs family is Iraqi. They became refugees during the Gulf War, when America attacked their homeland. They lived for seven years in a refugee camp in Syria until Associated Catholic Charities brought them here more than two months ago. Jalloub tells me through an interpreter that Memphis is worse than Syria. At least in the refugee camp they had doctors.
Doctors here wont treat you properly unless you have a special card from the state. Refugees are eligible for TennCare. But its been over two months, and still no card. Doctors here send bills. For 12 people, soon to be 13, they send a lot of bills.
Jalloubs pale-faced daughter is seven months pregnant and sick. Another daughter, who suffers from severe asthma, has already used up all her asthma inhalers and has been told she may not be able to get more. Jalloub herself, the mother of 10 children aged 8 months to 24 years, has been told she needs surgery on her uterus and her back. But no card means no doctor. No operation.
Jalloub grips her abdomen as she lowers herself to the floor where seven of her children sit in front of the interpreter and me. I see another universally recognized expression. Pain. I get up off the secondhand couch, the only piece of furniture in the room besides an old chest of drawers. But she wont take my place, because Im a guest. One of her teenage daughters brings me a glass of warm soda on a serving tray.
Please, she seems to tell me, sit.
No one speaks much English here. But Jalloubs oldest daughter manages to tell me a little about the job shes found. Its temporary work. They pay her in cash. Her father, Ahmed Abbas, doesnt work because he spends all day driving his children to work and school in a borrowed car.
How can I work when my whole day is spent transporting them? he asks. If you know anything about public transportation in Memphis, you know hes got a point.
Figuring out whos to blame for why Jalloubs family does not have enough food, clothing, and furniture isnt as important as improving refugee living conditions in Memphis. This refugee family isnt the only one that cannot afford its rent and utilities this month, nor are they the only family living in a crime-ridden, economically distressed area. Many other refugees face the same barriers to economic well-being and self-sufficiency.
We stand at the door to leave for what seems like hours, the whole family crowded around us. They keep asking the interpreter questions. Can I get them a new apartment? Can I explain their medical bills? Can I bring them the things they need?
I say I will tell people about them. If people see how they are suffering, they just might help.
Jalloub clasps her hands together and nods her veiled head in gratitude. I see something besides the chronic pain in her eyes, one last request.
Tax-deductible donations can be sent to Refugees, care of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 1324 Jefferson Avenue, Memphis, 38104.
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