Real Refugees of America: When Helping Hurt Sita

When Helping Hurt Sita

You’re listening to Stories by Vanessa Jencks in the Real Refugees of America Series. Visit my blog for more information about global life and languages. If you like this series, you might also be interested in my video series, My Life in China, where I interview expats about their experiences, culture and worldviews. Keep in mind that all names have been changed to protect the privacy of the refugees and others involved.

When Helping Hurt Sita

By far, Nepali-Bhutanese refugees out-populated other people groups at the Palms. They earned this infamously difficult mouthful of a name because of their story of homelessness.

Apparently, about a hundred years ago, Nepali people near the border moved to Bhutan. I don’t know whether because of political unrest or better economics. About thirty years ago, Bhutan’s government was having it’s own troubles, so it looked around the corners of it’s closet to dust out and pitch out any unwanted articles and belongings. In its search over its country, the government decided these ethnically Nepali people were expendable. “Out! We tell you! You have no home here! You’re not actually Bhutanese.”

Well, these genealogically Nepali but born-again Bhutanese packed up and squatted again in the jungles of their great-grandparents. Then Nepal’s government said, “Now hold on a minute! You are not Nepali. You cannot own land here. Don’t you see this law? You must be born in Nepal to own land. You have no homeland here!” And so, these Nepali-Bhutanese have been confused about their identities ever since, without a homeland, mixed up in a bunch of political jargon, and tossed around as a responsibility of one country or that country’s.

Finally, they found a land full of a bunch of culture mixers like themselves, the United States. Regardless, we refer to them as Nepali since their long name was really only needed around “pure” Nepali people.

The older generations were easy to distinguish. The women all had impossibly long black hair, braided or kept dangling behind their shoulders. All of their skin tones more closely matched the nudes and tans of America’s hosiery than the skin tones of Caucasians. Their clothing was always colorful with swirling, twirling, flashing, and sequined designs. I can’t remember a woman with adult children who didn’t have some amount of pudginess, almost as though looking like layers of wheat dough stuck around the waistline was a sign of a status to achieve. I suspected pride in pudginess because they continued to reveal their midriffs in traditional saris despite knowing this was unusual and uncommon in our city.

All of the older women always wore jewelry. Most wore bead necklaces, many wore bangling bracelets. Some tipped their brushes in tica to wear on their foreheads every day. From underneath their sari skirts, sandaled, dirty feet flashed, alternating their appearances. I say dirty not because these women were dirty, just that the Palms neighborhood was unbelievably filthy. I now wonder why I also succumbed to the habit of sandals without thinking of hygiene.

Bobby volunteered as an English teacher in Nepal in the summer of 2007 before we met that August. He could say a few phrases and had quite a love for the people of the Khumbu region of Nepal, so he naturally desired to love on the refugees with the same language and a similar culture. Before we considered taking our job with SMIC Private School in China, we thought of the possibility of going to Nepal. Working among the Nepali in Fort Worth was a great perk of the city.

In my work with the Nepali, one of the experiences which makes me cringe is my attempt to teach English to an older woman named Sita. Sita came from a very wealthy and well to do Nepali family in the higher caste of society. The cleanliness and order of her home clearly displayed the propriety and education her family afforded. She decorated her home in a dainty way with matching lace curtains, sofa covers, tablecloths and coffee table cloths. Her carpet was cleaner than mine, and her dining room and kitchen were as spotless as they could be while living in the Palms’ apartment.

Sita dressed in traditional saris, but she covered her pudginess much more than others. Her hair was salt and pepper gray in sections, and she was incredibly short compared even to the small structured Nepali. If I remember correctly, she was 4 feet tall; not even her head reached my shoulders. Honestly, she reminded me of Yoda with her short stature, large and perceptive eyes, strong cheeks and slightly pointed ears always visible due to her hair being braided. She was not ugly, but she looked and acted like the humble understanding of the causes of her hard life were threaded in every sash dressing her.

Her husband and her son both worked good jobs at the same hotel in Fort Worth; their superior English resulted in jobs better than most refugees can obtain. That is, except for Sita. They had prepared for a global life by learning English while in Nepal or Bhutan, but Sita hadn’t considered English important in the expanse of her envisioned future life. In the jungle of Nepal, or her old home in Bhutan, what was the point of learning English?

When I met her, she was ready and determined. How else can I explain her perseverance to learn from me despite my poorly constructed lesson plans? Silly, me. I started teaching her English by reading children’s books. I would come with my six-month-old daughter to her also sweltering apartment. I was on a schedule, or my little girl had me on a schedule, I’m not sure which. She would distract us both as I tried to teach Sita words and meanings from the book that really did not matter. My efforts frustrated me more than they frustrated Sita, because I wasn’t seeing the results I thought I should see. I knew nothing about language acquisition then.

For this reason, I highly encourage volunteers to work with organizations like World Relief, Catholic Charities, Literacy ConneXus and other refugee and teaching English programs. Without a frame of reference about the struggles of refugees or the true process of language acquisition, volunteers could essentially waste their time and frustrate refugees even more than they already are. In the worst case scenarios, helping can actually hurt. For example, a refugee who needs to go to work might think after one car ride that a volunteer should be taking the refugee every day to work. Instead, the volunteer should have taught that refugee how to ride the bus.

Thank you for listening to this story from the Real Refugees of America series. You can find more information about myself and my other projects on

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Original photo thanks to Kevin Beaty.

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