Slumlords and Wonder Women

 This blog post was originally published on June 20, 2013 on a now defunct blog site devoted to refugee issues. I’m going to be sharing some earlier posts to give an idea of the daily battles refugees have endured long before they became the subject of an intense political debate. 

***

{BE WARNED: SOME OF THESE PICTURES ARE PRETTY GROSS.}

I was in my car with my girls when I got the phone call. Our friend H, my first Burmese refugee friend, was fuming. Her brother-in-law and sister-in-law had finally agreed to leave Thailand and join their brothers’ families in the States. When they arrived in the country, the refugee resettlement agency paid an apartment complex a deposit. “24 hours to clean the apartment,” the manager said.

Six days later, they were still staying in H’s home.

Nine people, four adults, five children, sharing the space that is full with H’s small family alone. The in-laws’ new household items were stacked against the wall in the living room, waiting space. A boy’s bike, some pots and pans, bags full of clothes, a lamp. The brother-in-law was sick. The sister-in-law was catnapping on the suitcases.

Jetlagged, exhausted, bewildered, overwhelmed, they wished they had just stayed in the refugee camp.

The apartment that was supposed to be theirs not only had not been cleaned, it was disgusting. I asked her to tell me what it looked like and H just said, “Could you come?”

I asked her to give me 30 minutes.

***

The first thing I did when I got home from work after giving my girls some lunch was to put on a pencil skirt, high heels, a conservative top. I pulled my hair in a bun, grabbed my camera and a notebook.

When we got back in the car, my daughter asked me, “Why did you change clothes?”

I tried to think about how to frame my answer: “Sometimes when I look a little bit different, I can have better conversations with the apartment manager. She’s not being very nice. She’s kind of being a bully to our friends.”

My daughter is all over bullies. They’ve talked about strategies at school. I saw her eyebrows in the rear view mirror: “I’m going to tell her, ‘You cannot be mean to my friends!'”

“That’s good. We have to speak kindly but firmly to people who we think are not being nice to other people sometimes.”

My other daughter piped up. “Yeah, I’m just going to kick her in the knees.”

Also an appropriate response, but I still tried to talk her into slightly more positive choices.

Later, my oldest circled back to my clothes: “So you changed clothes because you’re going to help people? Does that make you kind of like Wonder Woman?”

It was a great line. I liked the fact that my daughter thought I might be like Wonder Woman just because I changed clothes. It made me feel a bit better about taking my young daughters with me to go chat with a slumlord manager.

***

When we got there, the girls played outside while I went with H to the apartment they had supposedly been “cleaning” for six days. Every time they called or went by the apartment, the manager said they were just two hours away. “Come back at ten! Come back at twelve! It will be two!”

The smell hit me first, the hot rotten smell of overflowing garbage in the summer. I clicked indignantly through with my high heels, snapping pictures.

There were roaches and small bugs crawling all over the walls.

There was something rotting in the sink with bugs coming out of it.

photo3

The trash was overflowing in the kitchen.

photo2

The living room and back porch were full of trash.photo4

The walls were marked with food and crayons and other disgusting things.

photo

(Out of kindness, I have spared you my pictures of the bathroom.)

***

Amazingly, while I was there, the manager suddenly showed up, all business, on the phone with the cleaning lady, “Where are you? What? Hurry! We have clients waiting!”

After my repeated assertions that my friends would be taking their deposit and moving elsewhere shortly, she finally told me there was another apartment waiting almost ready for them.

H had asked several times for another apartment; it took a dressed-up white lady to get that information.

My own complicity in this makes me irate–this is not my first battle with this manager and only at my dressed-up, pissed-off, indignant best do I ever get results and that’s only because of my skin color and education level. This is systemic injustice at its very worst–it’s common knowledge among our friends that she treats Burmese people worse than anyone else. I hate it.

***

We went next to the “new” apartment. Everything looked good but the mildew-covered bathroom. The sink and bathtub and toilet were being replaced, she told us. It would take two hours.

“Two hours?” I was incredulous.

She consulted in Spanish with the handyman who was painting (Sr. E, a man with a fine handlebar mustache). Sr. E said it would be two days. She looked at me confidently and said, “He just said two hours.”

She doesn’t know I speak Spanish, but any idiot in Texas knows the difference between dos dias and dos horas.

H and I went back to talk with her in-laws. I told them I thought they should pull out, but the brother and sister-in-law want to be nearby. It’s worth it to them to be in the same building and same schools as their cousins; I can’t say I blame them. Accompanied by my girls, I went back into battle again.

I smiled my way through a conversation in Spanish with Sr. E (I lived in South America for a few years–I can handle talking about the basics of bathroom renovations). When I told him what the manager had said about “two hours,” he just laughed.

“She lies,” he said. “Everyone knows that.”

No kidding.

Together with Sr. E and my children, their flip-flops slapping the sidewalk while my heels clicked along, I went downstairs to confront the manager, in Spanish so Sr. E could understand.

I might have told her that I would no longer accept the level of injustice against my refugee friends (amigos refugiados and injusticia came up several times). I might have threatened legal action. I might have appealed to her own position as an immigrant and asked her for compassion.

(I might have gone a little over the top–I was kind of wound up.)

***

Yesterday afternoon, my friend Caren called (we had it worked out–she got to be bad cop, I got to be kind-but-firm cop). She said to the manager, “This is the nice phone call. Tomorrow will be the not-nice phone. They will be moved in to a clean apartment within the next two hours or we’re calling our lawyer.”

Last night the family moved into the apartment. The stove still didn’t work and the electricity wasn’t on. I was up there every few hours “speaking firmly” with the manager. It was a hard-scrabble battle that should never have happened, but it worked. Sort of.

***

When I talked to H’s sister-in-law while H translated that first afternoon, I told her how sorry I was that people in my country were treating them so unkindly and how I hoped she understood that some of us were so glad they had come and that there were several refugees that were our good friends.

While we talked, my kids fit right into the little gaggle of girls coloring and giggling on the floor–these are some of their oldest and favorite friends.

Caren and I cannot stand that people treat them differently than they treat us or our blonde children. And judging from the many, many conversations we’ve had the last few days (“Why do grown-ups make bad choices, Mommy? Why won’t they let our friends have the apartment?”), our kids aren’t going to stand for this either.

But all we did was come in and yell a bit: the hero in this story is the tenacious Burmese woman who fights tirelessly every day for her children, her in-laws, her husband, herself, who works and learns and prays and smiles and fights. (And calls her friends when she needs a little extra support yelling–we make a good team.)

My friend H is pure grit. Wonder Woman, indeed.

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