We're in the middle of an obviously immigrant section of Baton Rouge. I can tell by the number of pawn shops and laundromats. There's an Asian restaurant with a sign I can't read, and a church with a Spanish sign I can make out. We're on a wild goose chase to find an African grocery store to buy fufu and hair products. Only problem is both African markets are closed up tight! "Must be a holiday over there," says my family. As if on cue, a band that looks like they belong in a Haitian funeral procession marches around what looks like a school across the road.
"See, it's party day in Africa!"
One little African "culture" shop is actually open. My husband is smitten with the v-neck flowered shirts and comes away with a bold printed backpack. We chat with the store owner, who seems much more Louisiana than African, about hair products. She says I should try almond oil for Ava.
We ask her why the other African market is closed. She says the owners like to go back to Africa for a month in the spring. And suddenly she's on the phone. "I'm fixin ta find y'all a place to get y'all some fufu," she says.
We follow the GPS to A-Z International Foods, as she recommends. The sign on the door advertises halal meats and a prayer room if you need to use it. The owner says we can't use the bathroom tho because the water doesn't work.
We find our fufu, a large yam, some guava to make juice, and a case of Malta, even tho it's not the Haitian brand. I pick up some garam masala, cuz I love making chicken curry. Everyone is happy with the haul.
We find our way easily to the USCIS building in New Orleans by now. The address is 1250 Poydras. It's attached to a Hyatt hotel. The sidewalk is crowded with families, lots waiting to get into the Honduran embassy on the first floor.
Those without appointments wait in the hotel Starbucks. The security guards are very strict about this. You may not sit on the couches in their waiting room. You also may not go anywhere near the elevator if they have not verified your USCIS letter.
It's interesting to watch the people in their suitcoats and high heels, going in and out of the meeting rooms. I wonder what their lives are like and contrast them to the people on the sidewalk outside. The immigrant families mostly speak Spanish, and mine is too rusty to talk with them.
The GPS loves routing us thru the back streets of New Orleans. On the way to the zoo, we pass a tent city under an overpass. My husband says, "You know some of these Haitians coming to USA right now will end up don't here. So many don't have a support system like we do. Then after a while they'll get deported and probably go back to Haiti and join a gang."
He's right of course.
The lady in Baton Rouge that's over the Refugee Program in Louisiana always sounds harried when I call." We're just overloaded," she says." We're doing intake interviews for people that arrived in November right now." The telephone number comes up as Catholic Charitees, and I picture a little Hispanic nun. What an overwhelming job she has. And while I wish we could get everyone enrolled in their program, especially for the English classes, I know we're better off than most of the families she sees every day.
The Medicaid representative at the heath unit listens to my rant about how I get letters in the mail almost every day and have spent hours on the phone already, but can't seem to figure out what these people want. And then when the time comes to actually go to a doctor, they're all very particular about what TYPE of medicaid plan you have. It's all so frustrating.
She has her own stories to tell. Like the lady who's been hiding out working for cash for over 8 years now. She had the wrong address on her form and didn't get the magic USCIS letter telling her when to go to New Orleans for her interview. She can't get her address changed, doesn't really know English or understand the American system, and so she's stuck.
I never knew until a few months ago what a magic thing that 9 digit social security number is. It's hard to get, and you really cannot do much in USA without it. Everyone is always asking for it, doctors, bank tellers, and the DMV. My medicaid friend says some people come in with 2 or 3. They tell her each on is for a different purpose, like taxes, or insurance, etc. And while at first she was quick to judge, she now sees that most of them are just trying to survive.
One morning in the coffee shop, while I'm trying to work on a website, a man the age of my dad asks if he can sit by me. Something tells me I need to be patient enough to listen to him.
An hour later I know much of his life's story. He saw a newspaper ad that was a dating service hooking American Christian men up with Filipino women.
His ex-wife was 17 when they met. Her older sister who he had been writing had just got married to someone else. "She was so cute sitting there on the bamboo couch, and I couldn't stand to think of going back to USA all alone and I had spent so much money on the trip," he said.
They got married a year later and he spent years of time and a maxxed out credit card getting her to USA. He really thought they could make it work.
They've been divorced for several years now, and he seems genuinely depressed and puzzled about how it all unfolded. "I guess I've learned that you can't force someone to love you," he told me.
I just wonder what all his ex-wife went through and how trapped and helpless she must have felt.
I'm trying to entertain a teething baby for a whole morning in Lake Charles while my sister in law does a house job in Longville.
I find a Mexican market and go on a hunt for Caribbean produce. There's manioc and malanga both in the little stuffy shop. The owner doesn't speak English, and so a gal about my age asks him some questions for me.
I wonder what it's like to own a business in a foreign country and not be able to speak to your customers. Or maybe I was the only white girl he saw during the month of May.
And I felt a sort of kinship with the interpreter girl. Maybe she knows what it's like to help family members communicate with the outside world, and that's why she was willing to do it for a stranger.
"Privilege isn’t the presence of perks and benefits. It’s the absence of obstacles and barriers. That’s a lot harder to notice. If you have a hard time recognizing your privileges, focus on what you don’t have to go through. Let that fuel your empathy and action." Marie Beecham
"If you're not using your privilege to lift another up, you're doing something wrong."
P.S. Ava loves fufu. And they all say she's a Jeremie baby cuz she loves the fish sauce her auntie makes with all the boiled root vegatables. Even tho most of her yam and malanga hit the floor. I left the almond oil at the African store, so her hair is still unruly. I kinda like her wild style to be honest.