A Glimpse at the Difficult Life of a Refugee Family

Morris lives in Long Beach

I'm not likely to be mistaken for kin of the Tucson Eleven, those dedicated souls who purposefully set about giving sanctuary to Central American refugees. When it comes to taking the initiative in resolving social problems, apathy might be my middle name. In a world with mind-boggling numbers of suffering people, I find it difficult to stir myself to light the proverbial candle.

But when someone with serious problems that I am capable of relieving appears on my own doorstep, it is not easy to remain aloof. It was in that kind of situation that my husband and I became involved with Juan, a small, personable Guatemalan schoolteacher, whom we sometimes later thought of as "our refugee."

Feared for His Life

Juan had left Guatemala in fear for his life after refusing to join that nation's often-murderous Civil Defense patrols, which were terrorizing his community. He was warned he would be killed, as numerous other young husbands in his town had been, if he did not leave the country.

With his wife and baby, he fled through Mexico, where police confiscated what money they had. When they arrived in this country, a church gave them sanctuary. But by the time my husband and I met him, the family was living independently in a largely Spanish-speaking section of Los Angeles.

Through a mutual friend, I had offered the parents a couch I was replacing. Told that both parents were unemployed, I agreed to hire the wife, Maria, to clean our house the day they came for the couch.

One day's work doesn't do much for a family without other work when they have arrived in an old car with a dying radiator. Face to face with the Guatemalans' desperate financial straits at the same time that my husband was preparing to paint our house, we decided to hire Juan to help him.

Scraping, sanding and painting a house on which a paint job is long overdue is hard work if you do it right. My husband does such things right. He is a careful craftsman and a hard worker. So is Juan. Working together, the two developed a warm rapport, although my husband speaks no Spanish and Juan's English was never sufficient for them to have much of a conversation.

Relied on Translators

Much of what we knew about his life we learned from others with some fluency in Spanish.

They had lived in the part of Guatemala "where the violence has been the worst," we were told by a friend formerly in the U.S. Foreign Service in Central and South America, who keeps up with what is happening there.

Life wasn't easy for Juan and Maria here, either. In the early weeks they suffered from culture shock and marital problems while living a goldfish-bowl existence in the midst of a church congregation in turmoil over other issues and soon largely out of sympathy with its troubled guests. A temporary house-painting job had allowed them to gain independent living quarters. But they were soon leading a precarious existence. Maria occasionally was hired to clean a house, but when we first employed Juan, the family seemed to be otherwise dependent on the two days of work a week we gave him, sometimes intermittently.

We tried to find other work for him through friends and acquaintances. With the help of the mutual friend, we managed to do fairly well at it for a while, but in a few months the work slacked off. After work on our house exterior was finished, we hired Juan now and then to paint a room or do odd jobs. We are people who usually do our own odd jobs and felt guilty about spending the money. At the same time we knew we would feel guilty if we didn't give him a chance to earn it.

Juan had other employment intermittently, but it seemed sparse. Whenever we offered him work, he seemed to be free to take a job on any day we suggested. To make things worse, he had several short bouts with illness, during which he would try to work, then have to take time off. Time off without pay, of course. How on earth were they managing to live? we wondered anxiously.

Prospects Were Poor

Even when Juan had sufficient work to get by financially, we knew his life must be difficult and frustrating. He was a former schoolteacher who had planned to become a lawyer. The jobs available to him here were often rough labor, and always on a casual basis. His prospects for improving his situation seemed non-existent.

Sometimes it was obvious he was depressed.

"He hates where he lives in Los Angeles," a Spanish-speaking friend, who had employed him, reported. "It is so noisy nights, he can't sleep."

A few weeks ago, Juan told us he was returning to Guatemala. His family there had convinced him his chances of safety were improved under the country's new president, elected some months ago. Part of his assurance of safety came from the fact that he now has a relative in the government. He wasn't going back to his old job as a schoolteacher, however. Even now, that might attract dangerous attention to him. A friend had arranged another job for him.

He was exuberantly happy to be going home.

"It must have been a nightmare for him here," said my husband, who lived close enough to the financial edge in his youth to sense all too well how he would have felt in Juan's situation.

But Juan survived here. His tiny daughter still has a father. And Maria a husband. For them as well as himself, their rocky venture to Los Angeles was well worthwhile.

So was the help contributed by numerous people along their way that made it possible.

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