September 30th we stepped off the plane into a cool evening and a new life.
As we walked into the office the next morning, a kid was kneeling against the wall in the directors office with his hands behind his back. The workday was bustling around him, but he didn’t move.
Seeing that the scene had our attention, the director nodded in the boy’s direction and said, “He’s being punished.”
“How long will he be there?” Brady asked.
“Another 20 or 30 minutes.”
Uhhhh… Cue internal alert system: Don’t look shocked. Act normal. Poker faces everyone!!
He continued, “Everyone hits them. They get hit on the street, hit by the police, hit by their parents. We don’t hit them. So we have to do something else.”
I’m culturally adapted to the near east. Where “working” meaning being physically present regardless of what tasks are or are not completed. Where people won’t tell you no, even if the answer is a flat no. The operating by “wasta” (favored relationships) and mediators. Where everyone has been at the losing end of someone’s need for power and later made sure they were on the winning end. I get it.
You know what I’m not culturally adapted to? Life with kids without families. Specifically, kids who’ve had enough bad stuff happen to them that either they don’t have parents (victims of the Syrian War, for example), or the court removed them from their parents. And not in some American I-left-them-in-the-locked-car-for-three-seconds way, but in a the-father-killed-their-mother-in-front-of-them or tried-to-sell-them-to-pedophiles kind of way.
Turns out I’m not so acclimated to that.
And of course, if you put 30 boys used to defending themselves on the street in the same room, they’re going to start knocking each other around. And, being the protector of all the kids, you have to discourage this. And let’s just acknowledge that time-out isn’t going to cut it for a 13-year old from the streets. So you figure out another way to make them not want to do it again.
That kid limped out of the office, and my American sensitivities made it hard to watch. But in a world where there are no privileges to take away and where violence is a normal part of making it out alive (even at eleven years old) and where they didn’t have the opportunity to be enculturated into healthy norms, what do you do?
And while that punishment is different in severity from the world of my upbringing, it’s also different in severity from the world of his upbringing. In the exact opposite direction.
The challenges of family-less-ness don’t end with discipline issues, of course. You know all those little things you just “catch” from your parents? How you talk to people you don’t know, for example, or how to carry yourself, or how to puzzle through everyday decisions? These kids are entirely without.
My hope is that one day they will no longer be without. That one day there will be enough adults that these kids can have lots of good examples and be able to spend one-on-one time with people who care for them. But for now, we’ve got what we’ve got and, like all of us in every situation, we’ll do the best we can we what we have.
I’ve been re-reading the Harry Potter series, and last night I got to the part after the Triwizard tournament where Harry is beat up and exhausted in every way possible, and yearns for sleep from his hospital bed. He has no parent with him, of course, because they were killed when he was young. And then this happens: Harry’s best friend’s mother “bent down, and put her arms around Harry. He had no memory of ever being hugged like this, as though by a mother.”
It’s this exactly that they don’t have. Someone they trust to hug them like a mother. One day, I hope they will.
Until then we jump in. Bandaging kids who cut themselves, deeply, on purpose. Providing activites so they can have something to do during the day, and dreaming up ways to accomplish the impossible.
Except I can’t help but think it might just be possible.