I threw a football at a refugee and demanded to know where she lived.
Her voice wavered, and her answer was hard to hear. So I leaned over and cupped my hand to my ear, waving the hand in a circle first, like Hulk Hogan trying to rile a crowd. Apartment 1212, I finally made out.
I made the class repeat after me: "I live in apartment 1-2-1-2."
On a July night in an apartment complex in southwest Houston, the makeshift classroom was full of Burmese. It was the first of a new adult class organized by a man named Scott Poteet. I was there to help with a lesson on numbers, and mainly to introduce myself as someone who wanted to pry into their new lives. (For this week's feature story.)
Poteet teaches the evening English classes on his own time to complement the ones he runs for a local refugee-resettlement agency. The Burmese have an especially hard time with the language. This was part of my story, and also my problem.
A few days earlier I had packed refugees into my truck and followed Poteet to a warehouse, where the refugees spent the afternoon learning to stack boxes. I helped out, in an effort to win their trust. Maybe I did, but it was hard to tell, because they couldn't manage more than a few words of English. Which left me with agency staffers to speak with and not much else.
In the classroom, I tried to tease some conversation from the refugees with a simple game I had used during a brief stint as an ESL teacher in Bangkok -- throwing things at people to try and break the ice. And so with the football I was feeling them out.
I motioned for the woman to pass the ball to another refugee, who ducked. The ball bounced off the table and rolled along the floor.
A week or so later at the same complex, which has more than 100 families of Burmese refugees and counting, I was watching people volley a small wicker-like ball over a net with their feet. The complex has become something like a little Burma, and on street corners and patches of grass around the country this game is what you see.
One of the chinlone players turned and smiled at me with what looked like blood-stained teeth. I remembered the first couple hours of a trip to Burma in late 2006, when walking around the streets of Rangoon I became alarmed at an apparent plague in which people were spitting mouthfuls of blood all over the street. The blood was in fact Betel nut, the Burmese version of dip.
Also similar to my Burmese trip was the fact that I had little idea what was going on around me, and could manage real conversation with no one. I can recall the unfortunate sensation of having crowds of people point and laugh at me after I had ventured deep into a Rangoon street market, to purchase a chinlone ball, and ended up stumbling and gagging around piles of gutted fish.
I'd left the chinlone court and was making my way through a painstaking interview with a one-armed man -- whose non-existent hand I would later mistakenly try to shake -- when a passerby caught his family's attention. They called him inside, telling me that he spoke excellent English, which I took to mean the most basic of conversational skill.
The small man entered in a t-shirt and dress -- or longyi, a piece of cloth that Burmese men wear tied around the waist -- and sat beside me on the couch.
"Hello," I said loudly and with perfect enunciation. "What is your name?"
"Chung Len," I thought I must have heard.
I asked him again.
Did he just say John Glenn?
"Yes," he said. "John Glenn."
"Ohhh," I said, still in my idiot voice. "You have a very famous name. And also, I think, a British accent."
"Yes," John Glenn said, with a polite nod of his head. "That is because the British colonized us."
Why hadn't anyone told me about this guy?
As it turned out, Glenn had spent his short time in Houston pissing the agencies off. Named indeed for the astronaut, he had been a student activist in Rangoon and spent two years in its notorious Insein prison. After he arrived here in January, he turned his passions from Burma's military dictatorship to the resettlement agencies, barraging them with constant phone calls and emails and even going over their heads to their parent organizations in Washington, DC.
He started a grassroots advocacy group for local refugees. He even kept a diary documenting what he sees as the agencies' neglect. In one passage, he compares himself to a tiger at a zoo:
"He is sleeping at the corner even the place is noisy. When the staffs bring meat for them, then they move, eat and sleep again. Beside that, there's nothing to do."
Glenn's own analysis of the situation could tend toward the dramatic (the neglect he cites might fairly be attributed to very limited resources over at the agencies). But he ended up being a huge help with trying to figure out what refugees here are going through, patiently wading through hours of confused interviews.
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Some refugees were missing food stamps and Medicaid. Some couldn't find jobs. Others had never learned how to visit the doctor or ride the bus. Most had little clue exactly what was going on in their new lives.
"I should be getting a job as an interrogator," Glenn said in a huff after one particularly exhausting exchange.
On a couple of nights, Glenn rounded up people who wanted to share their stories with the newspaper, and they sat cross-legged on the floor of his apartment. There was the usual talk of joblessness, isolation and bureaucratic confusion. A slight man in camouflage pants leaned into the circle to interrupt.
His agency had sent him to a job in Louisiana, Glenn translated. But he ended up far away and in Alabama. Then he was threatened when he tried to leave. The man wanted to know if this was normal here.