During Spring Break, March 14-25, five service groups from Whitman set out to several regions of the country, to serve designated communities on regional issues. The trips ventured to Seattle, Portland, Issaquah, Wash., New Orleans and Maryville, Tenn. Below, Spencer May ’13 shares his experience as a participant in the Seattle trip, during which a group of 10 worked with various non-profits addressing the issues of refugee resettlement and immigration.


On a Seattle ferry, from left to right, Spencer May ’12, Nandini Rathi ’14, Colleen Bell ’14, Lauren Elgee ’14, Daniel Khamanga ’14, Andrew Patel ’14, Ali Murray ’14, Colleen McKinney and Dandi Huang ’13.

“I dropped an egg, is that a big problem or a small problem?”

“Small problem.”

“That’s right!”

Our second day at World Relief, a refugee resettlement agency in Kent, Wash., was spent tutoring international refugees in several different ESL classes. On this particular occasion, we helped refugees from Bhutan, Burma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cuba, Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Iraq and Iran with a worksheet that explored the difference between big and small problems. For this ESL class, I was paired with a Bhutanese woman, I will call her Tama, who had been in the U.S. with her children for four months.

“Next question,” I prompted.

“You chil … sitk?”

“Your-child-gets-sick.”

“Sick?”

Tama’s experience spending 12 years in a Nepali refugee camp happens to be the rule rather than the exception. As told to us by a frizzy-haired World Relief worker, “nobody wants refugees.” No country wants to adopt and support even a portion of the 14 million refugees registered with the United Nations, and even many more are uncounted. That we were even tutoring international refugees was a rare privilege, given that only 0.16 percent of those 14 million refugees are resettled to the U.S. every year. While we tutored, we held in quiet awe of these refugees who had done so much to be in that small minority.

“Hm-mm, sick,” I said as I put my hand to my head and coughed, suddenly realizing my acting deficiencies.

“Oh,” her eyes widen, “big problem.”

Is a sick child a small or big problem? Does Tama know where to find a doctor? Can she pay for one? Does she know where the nearest hospital is or how to call an ambulance should her infant turn blue? Did any of her children receive neglectful medical care at a refugee camp hospital when they contracted dysentery?

Some Whitties in our group were privileged enough to hear about families, life stories and persecution. Other Whitties, like myself, worked with more reserved refugees or refugees whose English skills were still developing or simply helped with worksheets, animal names and differentiating between big and small problems, all the while wondering if the history of these refugees coincided with what we had experienced in our World Relief volunteer orientation.

Back to the worksheet, Tama struggles to read the next question. “I … loss … my …?” There is a space for Tama to write her own word.

“Yes, lost,” I say. She raises one eyebrow in a confused stare, expectant for clarification.

I recall our first day with World Relief in Seattle. After learning disturbing statistics and the UN definition of refugees as those fleeing persecution, we entered a small microcosm of the refugee experience. We had attempted to enter the refugee experience before our trip while still on campus, displacing ourselves from our dorms for two days with a backpack full of things, but this was very different. Wearing turbans, colored skirts, bright shirts and afghan burkas, we were sent to a mock American government agent, doctor and food provider, playing the part of refugees in a refugee camp. After trying to gain entrance to the United States, choosing 10 antibiotic pills over two weeks of food rations, and bribing for raw lentils with earrings, we came to understand more the bureaucratic frustrations and the malnourishment, dehydration and disease prevalent in many refugee camps.

Focused on Tama and her worksheet, I was not thinking of these things while explaining the meaning of the word “lost.”

“Lost,” I say as I take my Nalgene bottle and put it beneath my chair. “Where did it go? I lost my water bottle!” I pretend I am searching frantically for my Nalgene, she smiles.

“Small problem,” says Tama and she starts to write “small problem” in the space meant for her own word.

“Hold on, that space is for your own word. I lost my water bottle, what is something that you have lost?”

Ouch, the insensitivity.

What did Tama lose? She had lost her country, home, extended family and friends to persecution and by violence. She lost access to her traditional occupation, food and religious practice. Tama, thrust into an entirely new country, language, culture and society, is demeaned to childishness as she learns English numbers, the names of animals, how to read a bus schedule chart and how to use the public library.

What has Tama lost? She may have lost nearly everything that made up her self.

Tama does not understand the implications of my words, she is pleased to receive a 10 out of 10, and eagerly tells us of her scheduled house-cleaning job interview.

An Eritrean nearby motions excitedly as he speaks about Microsoft Office and soccer.

Two elderly Burmese ignore the 10 minute break and insist for help in spelling the names of animals and weather patterns in English.

An Uzbek man diagrams the different gases that comprise the atmosphere with their appropriate percent composition and asks for their chemical names.

The Iraqi’s I guide during a visit to the library grin to see books in Arabic, pepper me with questions about U.S. history and ask me where to find books and films for their children.

How can Tama, Natsu, Fromalo, Abbud, Radi, Nigora and Mij, having lost much, still be incessantly cheery and diligent? How was it that nearly every refugee we interacted with, even after suffering persecution and demanding hardship, exhibited optimism and hope for their future?

I cannot answer in certainty. My challenges at Whitman come nowhere near to the volume of cultural, lingual and societal knowledge that these refugees must learn. Why then were these refugees in such high and hopeful spirits? Does their hope come from a religious faith? Or is it a result of the nature of people who have persisted, subsisted and survived trial upon trial, here now in a safer place and working towards integration and a piece of that American Dream? I believe it is both, and more.

About the author: Spencer May is a second-year biology major from Napa, Calif. His favorite activities at Whitman include playing in the string quartet, social dance club, science research and the water polo club.