THE REFUGEE

I

The plane landed in Washington National Airport in a night when it had the first snow storm to start the winter. While the plane taxied to its assigned gate, he looked through the window and saw snow flying beautifully. Even though he had just had a tiredly long flight, the beauty of the US Capital in the snow brought him back the strength. He realized that the sky in a snow storm seemed lower with the white cloud and the city was sure brighter with lights reflected by the white (snow and cloud). And, he wished that his life would soon be such bright and beautiful.

The baggage claim area was crowded and noisy with people walking back and forth. However, he stood alone in a corner like a person in a different world. Actually, he did not have anything to claim beside a big yellow envelope which he always held in hands. Still, he had to follow other passengers here because he did not know what to do. He really did not want to get himself lost which might upset his sponsor.

His sponsor's name was strange (to him) with an American surname, Tu Kennedy. Although he had been a little surprise back in the refugee camp when he first learned about the name, he wasn't happier to have a fellow Viet as his sponsor. However, those around him in the camp had exchanged conversations about his luck. To them, his sponsor could at least speak Vietnamese and should understand a newcomer better. As a result, he should not have any difficulty on seeking help for his needs and his life in the new country would have been easier. He had not given any thought about that, but he now agreed with them at the first moment coming to America. And, the thought made him happy and brought his self-confidence back.

A voice suddenly raised loud when he was deep in the thought. He looked around and found that 25 other refugees were staring at an american man who was about 25 years old. Still, none had moved or said anything. The man, who seemed to be getting used to that situation, repeated what he had just said with a smile on his face. "ICM refugees stand here", the man said slower in the second time. He and others then walked over and stood close to the man, who waited patiently for everyone to settle down and explained why none of their sponsors had come. First, the man introduced himself as an ICM volunteer and said that the sudden storm had had traffic jams all over the city. That caused him to come late and so did their sponsors. The volunteer spoke in a clear voice and kept pointing the finger to the snow outside to make them understand. "Your sponsors will be here soon", the volunteer finally assured them.

He and other refugees came from a warm country where snow never exists; therefore, they were still happy to see the snow regardless of the bad side. He, however, was deeply touched by the enthusiasm of the volunteer who had tried so hard to get to the airport and calmed them. He would like to say thanks but his close-mouthed disposition prevented him from going forward. At last, he just mumbled the word "thank you" so low that even those (refugees) stood next to him could not hear it.

"You're a leader of our group", the woman, who sat next to him on the plane with her 2 small children, suddenly spoke to him in a low whisper. He turned and looked at her. "I also lived in Zone One and knew you when we're still back in the camp", continued the woman. She was afraid she could not communicate with her american sponsor and begged him to stay at the airport if his showed up first. Although the woman didn't get the word out clearly, he could tell it through her face. And, he nodded his head in agreement.

Sponsors came at different times. They were all americans and after a little chat with the volunteer, they departed with their refugees. The woman and her 2 children had gone, too. There were only 8 refugees (him included) left with the volunteer and the airport got less and less crowded. And, while the volunteer talked on the phone, the refugees sat here and there waiting for their sponsor. At 8PM, the volunteer finally hung up the phone and asked them to sit on a row of chairs. "Your sponsor will come in 20 minutes", said the volunteer, who asked if they were tired and hungry. The volunteer also spoke about a lot of things; the weather in Washington DC, the new life in the US.... Though he did not understand them all, he knew the most important thing. He and the other 7 had the same sponsor, Tu Kennedy.

Their sponsor finally came and they were all surprised because he was young (about 25 years old) and in an expensive suit (of clothes). Anyway, they were really happy to see him. The volunteer shook hands with each and everyone of them refugees like he did to others earlier and wished them luck before they headed out to the parking lot with their sponsor. And, the snow fell harder on their way home.

II

After 2 hours in the storm, the sponsor finally got them to an apartment building and each was asked to get a blanket from the back of the van before they all got off. The sponsor also carried a big bag and led them to an apartment on the second floor. And, when they were all inside, each was given 20 dollars with very few instruction and the sponsor headed back out with a return promise in tomorrow sometime. They all understood at the time that there was a big snow storm and the sponsor rushed home with his family.

The unfurniture 2-bedroom apartment had a big living room, a kitchen and a bathroom. Although the apartment did not have anything beside the big bag and 8 blankets (which were just brought in), they were still satisfied with what they had then. Life of a refugee had taught them not to ask for more than what they really need to live for another day. Anyway, the bag had some food, sodas, plastic folks, paper cups & plates, toothpaste and brushes. And, they together brought food and sodas out to celebrate the first night in America after a short discussion.

In celebration, they did not forget to praise their sponsor and his new van. They also exchanged wishes and found out about one another. And through the party, they all knew that he was the oldest with 22 years and 6 months (old). Si was 22, Lai and Phu were 21, Hung and Cuong were 20, Xem was 19 and Tam was 18 years old.

The party ended sometime after midnight and they went to bed into 4 groups. Each had 2 guys with 2 blankets; one was spread like a mat and the other to cover. However, the blanket was too small for two and it was too thin to keep them warm in a cold night (the apartment had no heat). They all finally had to sit together with each covered with a blanket in a corner of the living room away from windows. Si tried to light up 4 gas ovens in the kitchen with his wet match box and did not succeed it until the next to last match. And, they all gathered around the oven and drowsed through the first night in the US.

The storm stopped sometime in the next afternoon and they were out of food. They had been waiting for the sponsor since early that morning but there was no sign of anyone on the street below. They decided to shop around for food. And, he and 2 youngest guys were assigned to stay home in case the sponsor came. The other 5, who had better and warmer clothes, went out to buy food.

Five musketeers came back in 2 hours and the result was very optimistic. They even bought 2 small cooking pots, 2 cases of beer and a carton of cigarettes beside food. And, it was dark again when they finished the very late lunch. There was still no sign of the sponsor and they decided to drink beer while wait.

They suddenly heard music from the apartment below and decided to go down to get warm (4 gas ovens had been turned on since the night before and they were afraid to run out of gas). He was assigned to knock at the door. "What do you guys want", asked the African American behind the door with only a T-shirt on. He tried to explain to the man that their apartment was too cold and they needed somewhere to warm up. The man closed the door without saying a word. While they were disappointed and didn't know what to do next, the man came out with a pair of pliers and a small plastic barrel. And, they were explained how to warm the apartment up (by releasing cold water in water-heat pipes). "Your apartment will be warm in few hours", the man said and left. Although they were not convinced at the time, they still thanked the man very much and they found out through the man that they were no longer in the Capital (of Washington DC), but in the State of Maryland.

In fact, the apartment was warm that night and they turned the oven off after cooking dinner. They all drank beer again and Si suggested that they bought 2 more cases of beer along with some food for another party. Although they all agreed that the sponsor would sure have come tomorrow and they didn't have to save much money, He and the youngest guy, Tam, did not want to spend the rest of money on beer. However, there were six in agreement and willing to go shopping. As a result, the two who disagreed stayed home.

It only took them less than half an hour that time to walk back and forth and they had nothing, but 23 cents which he got from Si after the second shopping. He and Tam refused to celebrate that night and went to bed early. And, it was snowing again before he fell into a sleep.

III

He got up the next morning while party attendants were still sleeping in 2 bedrooms and Tam did the clean up in the kitchen. He took a shower and helped Tam put away beer cans laying here and there in the living room. They both finished at the time the other Six got up and they all sat flat on the floor chatting while they waited for the sponsor to come.

However, the sponsor did not show up that day and they didn't have anything, but 23 cents. They started to get hungry again and everyone had been sitting mute like a statue. None cared to say anything for a while. Finally, he broke the ice
-"I have a friend who may live close here".
-"How do you know that", asked Xem.
-"I looked at the map when we're still back in the refugee camp", he replied.
-"But we're no longer in the Capital, but 2 hours away", said Si.
-"Well, we didn't go fast in snow and may not be that far from the Capital", insisted Lai.
-"Your friend also lives in Maryland", asked Tam.
"No, he's in Virginia but we now have only 23 cents", he said. He wanted to make a phone call but was afraid to lose their last few cents. Si then drew any of his hesitation away. "Well, we can't do anything with 23 cents anyway, can we???"

They again divided into 2 groups with the 2 youngest guys staying home (in case the sponsor came). He and the other 5 headed to an intersection about a quarter of a mile away with a paid phone and he did exactly what he had been taught. Phone used to be a luxury in Vietnam and he had just learned to use it in the camp through books. Anyway, the sign asked for 15 cents but he only had 2 dimes and 3 pennies. He hesitated a little before he deposited 2 dimes and dialed. There was a lady voice on the other end after about 5 rings.

-"May I speak to Thanh", he said.
"Well, he no longer lives here but I can give you his new number",said the lady. She then read him a number and hung up before he could say anything else. It was late that night and the lady might not want to talk much with a stranger. As a result, he only had 3 pennies left and a number which was useless at the time (he did not know how to make a collect call). They all walked back home in disappointment.

IV

It was a better day the next morning and they all got up early because of hunger. However, none moved around much. He suggested that they should throw the trash away to get rid of the smell but he just drew Tam's interest. And, they both used beer cases as (trash) containers and had to walk back and forth 3 times to get rid of all the trash. There were foot steps behind them on the last trip back but neither (of them) cared to take a look. And, a Vietnamese voice was heard.
-"My name is Suong. Are you two among those who came the other night?"
-"Yes yes", Tam said while turning around.
-"Where do you guys live and where are the other Six???"
-"We live in the building at the end of the street and the others are there", Tam replied.

The Three then walked home and were greeted by others at the building door (the Six misrecognized Suong as their sponsor). Suong walked around the apartment and praised them about knowing where to shop, how to turn the heat on ... At last, he asked in a faithful voice
-"Well, how do you guys like the USA so far? Still have any money left?"
-"No, just 3 pennies", Si said.
-"Why? Tu gave you some, didn't he?"
-"Oh, yeah! But we spent them all", Tam replied.
"On what did you all spend?", Suong mocked with a smile. "Guy stuff". He hadn't said a word and knew that Suong might have misunderstood them spending money on unnecessary things and jumped right in to clear it out.

-"We all had only 160 dollars which we spent on food and cooking stuffs".
-"I thought you guys got 200 dollars each", Suong said.
"No, just 20 each", Si insisted. And, they all raised hell and talked at the same time. He then asked if Suong was able to help them locate the sponsor.
-"Well, Tu had just moved before you guys came and I, myself, don't know where Tu lives", said Suong. "However, we have some other Viet people who may know where his new house is. We'll have lunch together at my apartment and we look for him in the afternoon".

Suong's apartment had 2 bedrooms like theirs with Suong and Phat in one room and a couple in the other. And, while they prepared lunch and ate together, he found out something new about those with whom he lived and his sponsor. Tam liked everything clean, neat and in well order. Lai and Xem were a good cook. Si, Phu and Hung liked to drink and Cuong was a gambler. He also heard that his sponsor, Tu, had just got married with the only Viet girl in that area and usually played cards in another Viet house 3 blocks away.

At 3PM, Suong led them to the house in which Viet people in the area often gathered to play cards on weekends or days off. There were about 10 people there but his sponsor was not one of them. Tu came to the gambling den after Tu left their apartment and lost a lot of money that night and had not been back since, they were told. And, none knew Tu's new house.

They went back to Suong's apartment at 7PM and they again prepared dinner together. Even though Suong promised during the meal that Suong would lead them to somewhere to apply for assistance tomorrow, he still worried because Suong admitted that Suong had very little English (he had just come less than a year) and did not know the proper procedure to apply. He decided to call his friend and asked to use the phone right after the meal.

There was a little girl's voice at the other end and he asked to speak with his friend, Thanh. They then talked for half an hour. Thanh was surprised he had made it to the US and only lived about an hour (drive) away even though they were in different States. He was told to borrow money from someone to buy food for the next 2 days and Thanh would pay it back on that weekend when he came over (Thanh was attending in an University and was in the final week with a lot of tests to take). And, before they hung up, Thanh promised to find him another sponsor.

V

Still, he wanted to go with the others to see if he was able to get help the next morning and they were all ready at 9AM. They wore everything they had and even though they did not have much on, they believed they could make it to somewhere. And before they headed out of the apartment, they all understood that they had to walk through a wood to cut the distance in half to about 3 and half miles and there was no place to hide in between, according to Suong.

Although it wasn't snowing that morning, strong wind was even worse and almost froze them to death by the time they got to the place (the Human Resources) at about 10AM. They gathered around the first heater they found for about half an hour once they were inside the building. And, they all finally stood in front of an office. "Who speaks English among you guys", Suong asked them. They looked at him while Suong continued.
-"Come in and ask the lady behind the desk for Mr. Le".
-"Can you do it (for us), too", he asked.
-"No, I can't .. speak English".

Anyway, they were all (except Suong) at the desk and the lady asked if they needed anything after saying hello.
-"We all came to the US 3 days ago and we'd like to see Mr. Le for help", he said.
-"OK. What's your name", asked the lady.
-"My name is Hung"
-"I'm sorry I can't find you. Did you call to make an appointment? Where is your sponsor?"
-"We don't know where he is".
-"What? Are you refugee?"

He nodded his head and gave her the yellow envelope which he had always had with him since landed here the other night. The lady took a look at the inside and walked into the side door. She came out in about 3 minutes and told them to have a seat.

Ten minutes later, a Vietnamese man came out of the side door and got them all into a private room. The man introduced himself as Le after they settled down. Le apparently knew Tu, their sponsor, and was upset with them showing up without an appointment. However, Le changed his attitude after he learned their situation and tried to call Tu. And, when Le could not locate Tu, he called the agency through which Tu sponsored them refugees. Finally, Le hung up and told them
-"Tu should come in half an hour and bring you all somewhere to apply for Social Security Number and check-up. He then bring you back here to apply for assistance. Anyway, you won't get anything in a week".
-"But we do not have anything to eat", Si insisted.
-"I have talked to Tu about that", Le said. "Don't worry. You will get some money when Tu comes. Each refugee is given 200 dollars (by the agency) after s/he comes to the States. By the way, how did you all get here?"
-"We walked through the wood with a Viet fellow", Tam answered. "Hmm .. I'll drive you home if Tu is not able to do it this afternoon", said Le. And, they all thanked Le and did not forget to obtain Le's number (just in case) before they headed out to see their sponsor.

There was a knock at the door about 10AM that saturday morning while most of them were still in sleep. He sat up (He and Tam slept in the living room) and saw Tam talking with Thanh by the door. "Still sleeping", Thanh asked him. "Yeah. We went downtown DC last night with a friend and did not make it back until very late", he said. Thanh smiled and mocked him that he was still tough and would not die easily once he got to a free country.

He smiled back without saying a word. And, that was the first time he had ever had a big smile since leaving Vietnam. He was then well understood that he was still a refugee even though he had come to the country of his choice. He still needed help and guidance to start a new life of his wish, the loved life of a man in peace and freedom. Even if it meant living in a strange country on the other side of the Earth like the United States of America.

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