Expectations, Power, and Gratitude

October 11, 2020 at 3:27 pm (Uncategorized)

We were matched with a family the day after my last blog entry. I am deliriously excited, but haven’t written again since then because… there’s very little I can say.

I haven’t actually met any members of the family yet, and I don’t even know their names. I know their first language, their ages, their approximate location, and a few things about what our group will probably spend our time working on with them. But I can’t share any of that publicly yet.

Last Thursday four members of our core group, including me, joined about a hundred others around Australia to meet some more experienced people who could give us some advice (all via Zoom). One of the most challenging things for me was talking about the power dynamic between a sponsor group and a refugee family. How do we make decisions about what to spend money on? What do we do when a refugee disagrees with our advice (eg. Don’t look for work yet; you need to work on English acquisition first)? How do we say no if a refugee asks for something we think is unreasonable (say, a computer game)? And how do we actually develop a real friendship when all the power is on our side?

Of course the crucial thing is to help the refugees become independent of us as soon as possible, both financially and emotionally. Then they can choose whether to continue spending time with us or not.

And what do we call them? Well, at the moment almost all we know (certainly all we can say public) is that they’re a refugee family. But the sooner we STOP calling them refugees the better. (At the same time, acknowledging their refugee status is important for fundraising, and if there is a smiling, successful family to point to as proof that we’re doing a good thing, then that is extremely helpful for fundraising. But we can’t assume that the family is willing to be our poster child, and in fact that role could be actively harmful to them.)

And—this is the bit that hits home for me the most—when are they allowed to stop being grateful?

During the Zoom meeting, a highly-educated dark-skinned man talked about how he came to New Zealand as a very young child, but every time someone discovers this (and people of course ask, “Where are you from?” which is a question that anyone with non-Caucasian skin learns to dread), they say, “Oh, you must be so grateful!”

Why should he be grateful, when those born in New Zealand are not generally consciously grateful to be living in one of the safest, richest places on Earth? Being born in a great country doesn’t make a person morally superior. (Quite the opposite.)

I am what I call “Omo-white” (that is, very very white for several generations… it is not a coincidence that I am descended from a South African man on one side and Brits and Germans on the other). But I have been heavily involved in a bunch of fundraisers ever since I was nine years old, when my family was raising financial support to go to Papua New Guinea as STAs (Short-Term Assistants) for Wycliffe Bible Translators. Leaving aside the various colonialism-tinged implications of missionary work for some other blog entry, I learned young about gratitude as salesmanship.

When people gave us money, we had to be pleased and happy. We also owed them success stories further down the track. My mother wrote regular newsletters that were fun and cheerful, and that told people their money was well spent. We would focus on the stories that people wanted to hear (“This is a photo of a young woman reading the Bible in her own language for the first time”—and of course she’d be attractive, but also just a little bit exotic—perhaps she’s be in traditional clothes for a dance instead of her usual faded T-shirt) rather than the mundane or tragic (“A bunch of your money was spent getting dental work this month”, “We were robbed the other day and had to buy new clothes as a result”).

Missionary fundraising set me up well for when I had to raise $10,000 for stomach surgery. I knew immediately that I should emphasize my umbilical hernia, and call the procedure an abdominoplasty, rather than talking about my sagging belly skin and calling the procedure a tummy tuck. I also knew I needed to be careful not to complain about my health publicly for at least six months afterwards, regardless of my other disabling chronic pain conditions. No one wants to hear that their hard-earned money didn’t give me a shiny happy ever after, but only helped me a little bit.

I’m a chronic over-sharer (and an advocate for others who are disabled or mentally ill or overweight like me) so I often talk openly about my poor mental and physical health. But I’m careful to balance updates like that with humour, cat pictures, and so on. If I have a good day, I’m careful to be public about it, so people don’t get overwhelmed by all my bad days.

But even I am careful not to be ungrateful in front of someone who may…ugh… prove USEFUL in future. (And I hate that sometimes my life is bad enough that people become resources in my mind. I have gone hungry more times than I can count, and if I wasn’t married to someone with a steady income I’d probably still be going hungry regularly. As it is, I often put off necessary medical stuff for months or years because… well, that’s life with chronic illness. It shouldn’t be, but it is. And I’m wealthier than millions of people.)

That veneer of happiness and gratitude must not be something I expect from others. People needing help from others is not a moral failing, and it is not fair to expect those who have suffered more to have to put on a show for those who are more privileged.

May I remember that lesson when I am the one in the position of power.

[sorry about the lack of pics; I’m having technical issues.]

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