The story I am going to tell you reminds me of this parable, which I am sure you have heard or read:
An old man had a habit of early morning walks along the beach.
One day as he looked down the shore he saw a human figure moving like a dancer. As he came closer he saw that it was a young woman and she was not dancing but was reaching down to the sand, picking up starfish and very gently throwing them into the ocean.
“Young lady, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”
“The sun is up and the tide is going out, and if I do not throw them in they will die.”
“But young lady, do you not realise that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it? You cannot possibly make a difference.”
The young woman listened politely, paused and then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it in the sea, past the breaking waves, saying …“It made a difference for that one!” (Source Unknown)
DC's parents attended another church in our town, and they had sponsored two widowed Cambodian sisters and their children. They were eager for their brother to be able to come to America as well. Our church was approached with the idea of sponsoring this family. We were very small at the time, and I remember all of the discussion that took place before we stepped out on faith to bring the Yim family over.
At the time we contracted to sponsor them, there were 5 members of the family - Chhien, Noral, Chana, Sokoma, and Sarah (all pronounced with the accent on the last syllable). By the time everything had been processed and approved, they had twin boys - Richard and Thomas - also with pronunciation on the second syllable. That came as a bit of a shock!
I had been persuaded to be the coordinator of this project. It was quite an adventure. The first step was to find people who would pledge enough monthly funding to pay the bills - apartment, insurance, food, clothes, you know - the basics. We were blessed to find and qualify for a four-bedroom low income apartment. People brought furnishings, clothes, kitchen supplies. On April 28, 1982, we went to the airport with the church van to pick them up.
Chhien had a wonderful smile, and was very industrious. We were able to get him a bicycle to ride to the job we helped him get at the pottery factory out in the canyon. The family had become Christians in one of the camps, where someone held church services and children's Bible clubs. They arrived with one large box of possessions on his shoulder.
We thought they would be so thrilled with all of the room in the apartment, but we soon found that they were all sleeping in the same room, bringing mattresses from the various beds. We provided a bit of spending money, and we found out that Chhien had gone to the nearby drugstore and bought a very pricey bottle of perfume, which they splashed on their bodies generously after a cold bath or shower. We realized, after hearing the horror stories of their escape from Cambodia, that they needed the feeling of security which came from being all together. They were used to being crowded into one room.
We had committees for each area of need: someone to take them grocery shopping, someone for medical needs, someone as school liaison, someone to get them to church, and others I cannot remember at the moment. They also received WIC provisions, which helped greatly with the little ones. However, their digestive systems could not handle dairy products, so they wanted to give the milk away to us when we came to visit. They always insisted we stay for a snack when we came to visit. They also received garden produce which was brought to the residents of this complex. They always shared it with visitors as well. (I was called daily for some crisis or another, so I was often the recipient of their generosity).Noral was an excellent cook, and she used mostly vegetables, spices, rice, and a bit of meat. One day my sister, the grocery store coordinator, took Noral shopping. She kept asking for a cigar. My sis was quite puzzled, quite sure they didn't smoke - and if they did, CIGARS? She finally figured out, through much walking up and down of aisles, that she was trying to say SUGAR.
We soon learned that Noral had a large tumor on her thyroid. She needed surgery. They wanted no more children - so we were discussing tubal ligation with her. (Of course, Chhien was not eager to do the V word!) She was so very fearful. Her brother, who was in California, talked to her on the phone and convinced her that the surgery would kill her - she was convinced that the cutting open of her throat would be reminiscent of what Pol Pot did to her citizens back home in the time of war. We had to locate a Cambodian doctor (who could not practice in America) that she was willing to listen to. We loaded everybody into my car and headed to Denver, to a very large colony of their countrymen. We spent the afternoon listening to this former doctor convince her that the surgery would be good for her health, not kill her.
One day the school called me to come and talk to the nurse. It seems that the girls had been sick and the cultural way their parents handled sickness was to scrape the backbone with a spoon, hoping to release the germs. Somehow this was discovered by the school nurse and she thought they were being abused. We had to find an interpreter who could meet with us to inform them that they were in danger of losing their children to social services unless they stopped doing something they did in their own culture to care for their children - this in the land of the free and home of the brave!
Chhien was very eager to see snow, so one summer day we all piled into the car again and headed for the mountains, where there was still a remnant of winter. I'll never forget it - Sokoma got carsick and was about to lose her lunch - Chhien put his hands under her mouth and caught it, making sure none spilled in our car. We pulled over as quickly as possible and he carefully carried it down to the river and cleaned his hands off. I was impressed!
The Fourth of July came and we were so anxious to show them an American celebration. We joined our church friends for our annual tradition of watching the fireworks together on the parsonage lawn. It didn't turn out as we expected, though. The explosion of the fireworks sounded too much like war to them, and brought back horrible memories of the Pol Pot regime. They became very agitated. We took them home quickly.
After her surgery, Noral wanted very badly to join her brother in Long Beach, where there was a huge Cambodian population. She was going to the pay phone and calling him daily. They finally were able to get it across to me that they wanted to move to California to be with family. They were getting more and more fearful of the coming winter. We were just getting ready to try to round up coats, boots, gloves, mittens, caps for their large family when they packed everything up and left on the bus. They came with the one box, and left with 32.
I thought of them so often (and still do), and was so happy one night late when I was awakened by a phone call from Chhien. The girls were in high school and excelling in their grades, Noral still didn't speak good English (not necessary when you live in a totally Cambodian community), but was "fat" according to her husband. I immediately realized she did not understand our directions to her that she had to take the medicine for her removed thyroid for the rest of her life. I was able to find out the name of her doctor and make a call to him, letting him know about her history. I haven't heard since, and wonder how she is doing physically.
When they left, Chhien told me that someday he and the family would come back to visit - I kept hoping that someday they'd come driving in to my driveway. It hasn't happened yet. I would love to know what has happened to them.
We couldn't save the masses of people trapped into refugee camps, but we could rescue one family. It was a privilege and an honor. So while we're celebrating our country's birthday and our independence today, we'll be thinking of this family that we as a church family were able to help achieve their dream of independence in this great country.
Happy Fourth of July!