It is a day during spring break for my grandchildren, the lucky ones, who have a lovely home, an thriving family, a marvelous school. It is a day we are sharing with those who are refugee children, who have none of the above. After playing at their house, after games and toys and selected gifts of books and a fine lunch, we all pile in a car and go to the nearby mall to see the newest hit children’s movie, “Beauty and the Beast.”
No continent nor country has a monopoly on the blatant gap that exists between its citizens who are materially blessed and those who live among them in desperation. But as I am again a visitor to Jakarta—and an avowedly “blessed” one—I am today painfully aware of how the gap becomes a gilded crevasse Asian-style.
Today I spent much time with some of these refugees, who number in the thousands here and represent only a small percentage of our fellow humans who are trying for mere survival. By fleeing impossible homelands for unknown futures, they are ensnared by separation from home and family, by poverty, uncertainty, and the imprisonment of endless waiting.
Today, I chatted and walked among them because of my daughter, Heather, who with her friend Ashley saw the need, and two years ago took on the arduous task of founding a school, a center, a gathering place for these desperate and misplaced persons trying to find a safe harbor somewhere in the world. The center is called Roshan, meaning Bright in Farsi, the most common language for its habitués who mostly come from Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan.
Today while in the reception area for the school, I chatted with R., a young man from Iran who has been here for three years. He now works at the school as a guard in exchange for a room, good digs for one in his position. In decent English he tells me his story. About wanting a life for his family, about the little three-year-old daughter he left behind who is now seven, about missing her terribly. About waiting. “How is it with Mr. Trump?” he asks. “Always we hear news from Internet.”
I leave the Roshan Center to return to my daughter’s house, where S., from Pakistan, is waiting at a table in the sitting room, her round, smooth face looking up from behind her headscarf. My grandchildren and her four children are playing in various corners of the house—a palace by the standards of the shelter where they are now living. Twice S. has fled her abusive husband—a culturally courageous act, and in these circumstances, also a dangerous one. A refugee—a woman– with no means of support and no legal protection, she has tried to keep her family together under horrible circumstances.
The first shelter she landed in kept them as virtual prisoners and often forgot to feed them or bring water. The mosquitos were so prevalent that she contracted dengue fever and was sent to a hospital while the children were left to fend for themselves. Someone contacted my daughter, who got S. released from the hospital and brought the family to her own house until a different, better shelter could be found.
Still, the abusive husband is on the prowl to find them, which makes going out very difficult and renders it impossible for the children to return to school, where they were thriving and the girls at the top of their classes in English. For an hour S. and I sip tea together while she tries to explain her plight in the English she, too, acquired at Roshan Center, when she was able to go. “Mr. Trump?” she says, as if posing an existential question. “For me, my situation…” she shakes her head to complete the thought.
The mall where we have come for an afternoon’s distraction is a marble and gold splendor, similar to others I’ve visited in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore. We thread our way past the name brands vaunting the first-class tastes of the world’s wealthy—Louis Vuitton and Tiffany, Hermes and Armani, to find our plush seats in the air-conditioned theater. There, together, we watch the unfolding drama of the rough-hewn beast and the feisty girl with a wise heart in a crumbling castle where wolves in the forest and vain and heartless men from the village threaten to crush all vestiges of human hope.
Hope, and love—this is a fairy tale—prevail of course, and the children, move on to eating fancy gelato, giggling and discussing the meaning of the story they have, however briefly, shared. Then S. and her children get back in the car to return to the shelter, where the next day it will be again impossible for the children to go to school. Where, today, they will wait. Meanwhile, my children will return to the lovely house with sunlight and a garden, the house on the other side of the crevasse, and resume their lives among the blessed, which will continue tomorrow.