Two years ago my wife and I served as mentors for a family that had just arrived in America. They came from Kenya. They were admitted into the United States as legal refugees.
There was a mother and five children, ranging in age from nineteen to nine. In Africa they were the faceless castaway victims of political upheaval and rampant starvation, and had fled their original home in South Sudan to find a little security in a Kenyan tent camp established to keep the starving alive, but not much more.
The family lived in the tent camp for seventeen years. The educational and medical facilities were as scant as the food.
There was a father in the picture when they arrived in Kenya, but he vanished ten years into the ordeal. He left the camp one day to search for additional food. The surrounding areas were known to be filled with outlaw militia groups. Nevertheless, he set off to help his family, and was never seen again. No follow ups, no police investigation.
Newly widowed, the mother was newly desperate. She was frightened for her daughters. The same criminals who roamed the region were known for entering the camp at night and raping young girls.
That was their life for seventeen years. In 2014 the youngest child, then seven years old, was accidentally struck by a police car. The available medical treatment was, at best, limited and incomplete. She arrived in America with very poor communication skills, and seemed perpetually vague and listless. Her mother doted on her, as if a mother’s love could cure a child’s injured brain.
This is the family we were asked to help. They arrived in Idaho in early November. We were among those who met them at the airport. The oldest two children immediately started looking for work. Except for the now 9-year old girl, all the other children began attending school. All of them took classes to improve their English. The oldest daughter walked 3 miles to work each day, since there was no money yet for a car, or even a bicycle. This was the winter of 2016, the bad winter. None of the family had ever seen snow before.
We invited them to join us for Thanksgiving dinner. Also in our home that day were four of our own children and eight grandchildren.
That night we had white and dark meat turkey, peas, candied yams, stuffing, hand-mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, homemade biscuits with strawberry jam, fresh baked pumpkin pies, and a Sudanese dish that my wife found on the internet, and which she hoped she was making correctly. We wanted everyone to feel at home.
There was goodwill all around, and yet the dinner was tense.
Our visitors were clearly overwhelmed by our talkative family. They stared at the table, with all it’s food, and appeared baffled. It may very well have been the greatest concentration of prepared food in a single place that they had seen in more than a decade.
We encouraged them to eat. They nibbled. We encouraged them to relax. They were guarded. By our manner we encouraged them to laugh. They smiled nervously.
Soon after dinner I suggested driving them home. They gratefully accepted.
Experienced travelers understand the symptoms of culture shock. Our guests were not immune to it, regardless of the goodwill that surrounded them. It was too much, too intense, too difficult, too little like home. I sensed they all wanted their father.
Culture shock passes in time. Within six months they were adjusting. Their English was improving. Their youngest child received medical care and transformed almost immediately into a happy, inquisitive young girl.
Today they are in Portland, working, going to school, and taking care of themselves. But I remember that Thanksgiving dinner two years ago, when I saw our own dinner table through their eyes. How confusing it must have looked to them, just a month removed from a tent camp filled with starvation and death, the only home most of them had ever known.
And then there’s all of us, with so much to be thankful for that half the time we don’t even know where to begin.