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by Stephanie Saline
On my way home walking the dog, a woman in a sweatshirt, sarong, and slippers shuffled down the middle of a fairly busy road. She was older, and clutching folded clothes in her arms. She looked distressed and lost.
I should back up: we live in a neighborhood that is home to many refugees. Ten thousand people from other countries have resettled in our city over the last ten years, and many of them live in five hundred previously vacant houses in our neighborhood. Mostly, they come from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Central Africa, and Eritrea.
This makes for the not-so-uncommon sight of women, men, and kids going about their days, colorful sarongs or headscarves (or both) beneath their winter coats.
Last summer, I met a Burmese man and his son at a stoplight. We were all riding bikes. The man told me they’d been living in a refugee camp in Thailand prior to coming to the United States, and that his son was learning English. The man’s teeth were stained red from chewing betel nut, something I’d seen in my travels in Southeast Asia.
I should back up even more: I live in a Rust Belt city, whose population has been in decline since the 1950s. Once industry started leaving, so did the people. Well, the native-born people. People born in other countries have been moving in, increasing the number of homes that are occupied and the tax base.
It should be said that I’m a newcomer to this region, too. Like immigrants and refugees, I resettled here seeking a better life. My husband got a tenure-track teaching job at a local liberal arts college, and we picked up stakes from another Rust Belt town where we’d been living, and set up camp here.
If we wanted to go back, even more, we would see that all Americans have resettled in this region. Originally, this was Seneca Nation land.
But I digress. Here was a grandmother, a New American who looked to be from Southeast Asia, shuffling down the middle of the road, looking lost and in need of support.
Sidebar: in these tiny moments, life seems to ask, Who are you and what do you stand for? When they occur, I always feel a bit uncertain, a bit vulnerable.
My dog and I crossed the street, moving away from the woman. But I was turning the question over in my mind: Am I a person who sees someone who might need help, and looks away? I flashed to the story of Kitty Genovese, who was attacked and killed outside an apartment building filled with people who disregarded what some of them (wrongly) interpreted as a domestic dispute.
This woman could be crazy, I reasoned. Like the woman who jumped in my car last summer at a stop sign, ordered me to drive her to a bodega several blocks away, then pressed me for money (I admire the canny tactic. Pay me, and I’ll go away). When my husband came home a few months later saying, “You won’t believe what happened to me just now” — and started his tale with “A woman jumped in the car at a stop sign” — well, let’s just say I believed him.
Was my fear of being hurt by a small New American grandmother bigger than my desire to make sure she was okay?
I turned around to face her. I began to yell: “Are you okay?” It didn’t quite make sense, to yell at a stranger from a distance. But in these moments, reality gets very real, and we do the best we can. She didn’t hear me, so I yelled again. Did she even speak English?
Years ago, when I’d see a couple fighting on the street, I decided to be a person who, if I felt safe enough, would look the woman in the eye and ask her (in a glance or with words): Are you okay? And I’ve been told, on more than one occasion, often by the men, to mind my own business. But increasingly, I’m deciding that the welfare of other people, especially those who might need assistance, is my business.
As I was yelling at this New American who may not speak English, a car pulled up beside her. I stood watch, a witness, a sentry. The couple in the car asked the New American if she was okay, if she needed anything. I didn’t know what to do, so I witnessed. Just to make sure the woman was being tended to, and she got what she needed. It seemed like she needed directions. She wasn’t far from where she wanted to go, the hand gestures of the couple in the car said. She just needed to keep walking in the same direction, but maybe on the sidewalk.
Triage complete, the couple in the car drove away, the New American grandmother in a sarong with clothes in her arms shuffled on. My dog and I walked home.
A teacher and advertising writer based in Buffalo, New York, Stephanie Saline spent one decade on adventures in Japan, Seattle, and Montana, and another decade building a popular copywriting business. She now leads writing workshops. “Every person I know is a hero on a journey – and writing about it helps us see it.” Find out more about her work at www.stellaorange.com. You may also follow her on Instagram @stellawordsmith