The rush of traffic on North Indian Creek mirrors the pulsing anxiety in my chest as I scan the pavement and grass for my keys. I retrace the steps of my morning walk in the opposite direction. As I turn the corner onto quiet Rowland Street, the fallen auburn leaves in the gutter crunch beneath my feat and I imagine the millions of places my keys might be hiding. The beaten dirt path alongside Jolly Avenue not surprisingly reveals nothing. If my keys fell out of my coat pocket along the cracked asphalt of Debelle Street, I doubt they would still be there. My searching is in vain.
I return to the apartment and open the unlocked door, pacing around the kitchen one more time, lifting up bags on the floor and dirty dishes on the counter. Fuming with frustration, I storm into my bedroom and feel around in my coat pockets for the tenth or eleventh time. My bed stands before me with a plethora of hiding places in the bags and shoes stored underneath. I seethe for a moment before flipping up the mattress and hauling it to the other side of the room followed by the bed frame. Rummaging through the bags reveals nothing. I need to take a Karen woman and her daughter to collect forms from DFCS and the Labor Department to apply for financial assistance for a $1500 medical bill at Grady Hospital, yet after an hour of looking, I cannot find my keys. I retrieve my spare car key and call Lay Moo and Aye Be Wah to see if they can watch the apartment while I am gone, since everyone else left already to apply for their green cards.
“Ya thaw ta oh bah, bah hsa ya ga bah leh ta. Thoo gwa pa duh thayahh?—I don’t have my key, but I need to go somewhere. Can you watch our house?”
“…thay thay—We can.”
I cannot understand about 90% of what he says but hope that these two syllables mean that the apartment will not be burglarized while I am gone. I rush out of the door and hop in my car, annoyed that I cannot remotely unlock it.
Many Karen people upon their arrival in this country are surprised to find that they feel less free than they did in the camps in Thailand. While they have access to employment, wealth, and services that were unavailable in the refugee camps, the bureaucracy of everything, the stifling urban landscape, and plethora of anal regulations offer little of the freedom to live the simple life many desire. While Baw Baw and others have told me that they are very grateful to be in this country and never think about turning back, many people easily slide into depression and wish they could return to life in Thailand.
The stories I hear about Karen State before the arrival of the Burmese army paint it as paradise. People lived in friendly villages in the mountains where they were free to build and cultivate the land to their desire. Everyone would help each other with farm and construction work regardless of differences in religion or background. There was abundant tropical fruit to forage in the forest. And the fish paste in Gaw Thoo Leh was very pungent, but so delicious that even someone who did not normally like fish paste would find it very beh.
If all goes according to plan, Hei Nay Htoo and Baw Baw’s family will soon relocate to rural Comer, Georgia—the same town where Jubilee Partners is located. It is about one hour closer to Hei Nay Htoo’s workplace, the cost of living is a bit lower, and the quality of life much higher, with quiet and safe outdoor spaces for the kids to play and the opportunity to grow food. More and more Karen people are moving to this rural area because the landscape reminds them of their homeland. There is a Karen children’s song that goes; “Hsaw pah oh oh gaw geh ray goh, gaw geh ray goh—The rooster crows cock-a-doodle-doo, cock-a-doodle-doo.” In Clarkston, Lay Moo and Hei Nay Htoo often sing a parody of this: “9-1-1 oh oh gaw geh ray goh, gaw geh ray goh,” lamenting the replacement of roosters with sirens.
The Georgia Department of Labor is full of people. We are lucky to find three seats after checking in with the receptionist. The older Karen woman I am accompanying looks wearily at me as she leads her disabled daughter to the chairs, “Pwa ga nyaw oh ah ah—There are many people here.” We brace ourselves for a long wait, ears attuned for a mispronounced name. As we wait, they call for anyone filing for unemployment insurance. At least half of the people in the sterile waiting room rise to their feet and walk to the back. They call us to the desk and we quickly receive the paperwork and then depart for the Department of Family and Child Services. The DFCS customer service office is filled with three unmoving lines of people standing and waiting to be served. We stand there helpless knowing that once we acquire the necessary documents we are only going to have to wait in another waiting room another day. We squat on the floor and I pull out my Karen-English flash cards to pass the time. “Gaw la wah ah baw may luh hsay naw oh koh ah ah a hko—Americans are fat because they sit and wait a lot,” I tell them.
It is strange helping people to navigate this system, which offers support they might not otherwise receive, yet feels like it drains the essence out of life. What is the generative result of all of this paperwork, all of these people waiting? What hope is instilled, what will to live? I have the bureaucratic fluency to walk through all of these obstacles, yet I cannot help but wonder whom is being served by these tasks which no one seems to find life giving. I am assisting people to live in a world I myself do not want to live in. What is the legitimate reason to defer our dreams of Gaw Thoo Leh, of Eden?
I return to the apartment exhausted after four hours of waiting in offices and lounge on the floor. Wonderful reclines his head on my outstretched arm. Baw Baw, also weary from filing the family’s applications for green cards, hands me my keys.
“I find under Paw Ga Pu Blay’s diaper box in the room. I think she take,” she says. We both laugh as I remember the absurd frustration of my morning. I walk out to the balcony where two-year-old Paw Ga Pu Blay is squatting, drinking from a juice box. Her big eyes glance up casually at me, towering above her.“Ga puuhh, ya tha htaw daw na!—Ga Pu, I am angry with you!” I say. Her brothers and sister laugh and she breaks out into a smile as I bend down and plant a kiss on her forehead.