ASIAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY FELLOWSHIP REFLECTION: Kiran Bhat
ASIAN AMERICAN STUDIES COMMUNITY FELLOWSHIP REFLECTION
By Kiran Bhat
It was perhaps, an unusual thing to witness. The room, demarcated by a grey sofa, was home to a cluttered children’s play area to the right and about a dozen sewing machines to the left. The play area flaunted a mini rocking horse, some dolls and coloring books, and a great abundance of the peculiar crowd favorite: small plastic eggs. Every Friday morning and afternoon women would file in and take their place at one of the folding tables on the left side of the room. They would sit alone and focused, next to their friends gossiping, or beside one of their children- a few years too cool for the play station. And for 2 or so hours, in this strange place thousands of miles from their homelands, they would learn to sew.
They would hold up beautiful fabrics in front of their friends, mapping out the lines needed to transform the cloth into clothing. They would shake their heads in frustration and beam when the stitching came out perfect. Their murmurs and soft smiles would bring the gentle and beautiful energy that animated this space. Here, in El Cajon, California, held by four, windowless green walls, lay the delicate ecosystem of the Women’s Resilience Center, where I had the privilege of interning this summer.
The Women’s Resilience Center (WRC) was started by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in San Diego in 2020. The IRC is a global nonprofit that provides aid to people whose lives have been upended by humanitarian crises. In San Diego, IRC services most often take the shape of resettlement support. This means helping families and individuals who have just arrived in the United States, and asylees who have recently been granted asylee status, navigate a new life in America by focusing on economic well-being, health, safety, education, and empowerment.
Honoring this mission, while centering the needs of female-identifying members of IRC, the WRC draws upon the powers of collective care and creativity to cultivate community and well-being amongst refugee women and girls who might not otherwise interact, striving also to empower its members as autonomous individuals. The WRC offers art classes, health and gardening workshops, and educational seminars, and is a safe place for members to seek information, resources, and support.
So it was unusual, but not out of the WRC ordinary, to witness the nine or so Afghan women behind their sewing machines, nearly all hijabis, conversing in Dari and Pashto and learning to sew as usual, only this time a Black woman from Haiti who spoke neither Dari nor Pashto (the language of instruction) was there, also trying to make a blouse. To make matters more complicated, like the other Afghan women, she also spoke limited English. Where the absence of a shared language typically lay between WRC members and me, I had a rusty background in French. I walked over to her, introduced myself, and asked how it was going in French. Her eyes lit up. For the next few minutes, we talked, across so many layers of difference, through a handful of cognates and similar-sounding words. She told me about her children and we laughed at how difficult it was to sew. These were the moments that pulled me to the WRC every day.
The main intern project of the summer was the “Annual Needs Assessment”, a report that my co-intern and I would present to the WRC board and members of IRC San Diego’s Safety and Wellness team, about barriers in participation, ideas for new services, and recommendations to remedy areas of inefficiency in the WRC. To do this, we undertook the task of calling the 120+ WRC participants, gathering data through administering surveys about their experiences, and asking open-ended questions to hear their feedback. In some ways, one of the few factors that remained consistent across the varied tasks I was responsible for and situations that occurred this summer, was absence. The absence of a shared language, the absence of my ability to provide adequate help, and in this case, an absence of greater knowledge.
There I was, spending an hour on a three-way call with a language interpreter and each WRC participant,
listening to their stories, hearing about their children, and joking with them, without ever really knowing who they were. There was so much that I didn’t know and so much that I would never be able to fully understand through lack of shared experience. It doesn’t take much to imagine the heartbreaking things these women had fled and endured to end up with the “refugee” label plastered across their lives. Every day they would come in for classes or to get diapers or to let their kids play in the play station and you could only really know of them what they let you see. But I realized that this is the way things usually are. And it certainly doesn’t take ample knowledge of a person to be mindful of their situation, to offer a listening ear and some support.
Over my time at the WRC, I thought decidedly very little about Asian Americanness. Though much of my prior organizing experience arose from Asian American spaces and mentors, once I got to the WRC, it didn’t feel like the right thing to center in my mind. One of my earlier undertakings was to call participants of Attachment Vitamins, a program teaching women with young children how to form healthy attachment styles in parenting. I was calling to gather feedback and demographic data. But when I asked about the ethnicities of the participants’ children, I was most often met with confusion. Ethnic identity was simply not a focus, or even a concept, for most of these families in the same way it is for so many Americans. I remain incredibly grateful for the Asian American Community Summer Fellowship enabling my work this summer, but after getting to know the women of the WRC, I can no longer cannot confidently say that the WRC specifically “serves the Asian American community”. This is something I’ve been grappling with in reflecting on my summer.
The majority of WRC members were Afghan and though Afghanistan is geographically situated between Central and Southern Asia, I’m not sure these women would claim Asian-ness for themselves, much less American-ness. In the face of immediate needs like food and safety, I can imagine that American conceptions of racial identity might feel trivial. What I can say, however, after getting to know these women, is how urgently they were driven to find community. This, of course, is something we all know- people of Asian diasporas especially. Home is how we define ourselves, and how we brave this chaotic world. It’s the haven parents hope to create for their kids, the rush of tasting something like your mom’s cooking, so many miles from her. Home is what we come back to, each day. Home is safe. But for so many of these women, home was a thing they had to leave behind.
Although in a different magnitude, I grew up on stories of isolation. Both my dad, who left India in the 90s, and my mom, whose parents immigrated from Thailand to Ohio, despite being in America for so long, often felt detached from American culture and people. To be here is not enough. One can immigrate or go through the lengthy process of refugee status approval, but spaces of friendship, learning, and creativity are vital. I found the WRC from an initial desire to help Asian women near where I grew up, find an empowering community. I leave, inspired by the ways that the WRC embodies values of Asian American organizing and communities and extends them, helping women and their families of varied origins find home in a foreign land.