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Fun with Syrians: Teach a Man to Fish (Economics 101)

Updated: Jan 8, 2023

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime."

- Chinese proverb

I arrived at the Syrian’s house at 3:00pm, holding a gift bag containing several gift cards generously donated from a local Christian family. When I gave Zaynah the cards, she was overjoyed. “Yeh-la, Yeh-la!” she said, assembling her hijab. (Arabic for “Let’s go - right now!)

It was 10 degrees outside, with a windchill that made it feel like -1. The two younger boys were wearing crocs with no socks, and no one was wearing gloves. The left door of my minivan was frozen shut, so they had to pile through on the right side. Zaynah’s husband was working, so I transported Zaynah and her four children. I did my best to explain that it would be best to buy extra winter gear, acting out the words for scarf, boots, gloves, and very cold. I used google to translate save money, knowing that they will have many more tangible needs as the year progresses.

She nodded. She always nods. In reflection, it is quite possible that they did not understand that gift cards can be saved and do not expire.

I don’t shop much, but I should have known better. What on earth possessed me to go to Burlington the day before Christmas Eve - without a translator?! I must have temporarily lost my marbles. It was a madhouse.

We wandered from department to department. First, I helped Saad, the littlest boy, find a fitting coat (a worthy purchase). Zaynah pointed to her leg and said “Ahsan,” and I knew she was trying to buy pants for her husband. We found the pants and then she pointed to the tag. With every item, I responded “good money” if well-priced and shook my head and said “bad money” if the item was overpriced. They cannot yet read the English script, so shopping is always a challenge that leaves me exhausted.

The little boy bought a Lamborghini toy car. The teenage daughter bought two fancy dresses, a purse, and two pairs of diamond studded heels. The teenage son bought cologne. Zaynah, like any mother, bought herself nothing. In the cart, she put in men's underwear, a few thousand socks and five identical pairs of tennis shoes for Ahsan.

I knew that nothing we were buying were things they needed for the winter, but yet, this was a gift. I couldn’t dictate what they did or did not buy. I’m sure the freedom to buy things they actually wanted was a joyous occasion. But I cringed as they spent more money in one shopping trip than I will spend on my family’s clothes for the entire year. It was clear that they do not yet understand the value of the American dollar.

I thought back to the principles of When Helping Hurts (a book we highly recommend to any Christians working in compassion ministries). I knew this shopping trip wasn’t my finest moment. Most of my writing about refugees will be recounting my mistakes.

Ahsan has a job and is working very hard, but he earns only slightly above minimum wage. The resettlement agency is no longer involved, so they must still rely upon government assistance and charity from the local church. Housing here is insanely expensive, so paying rent will require both adults to work, which Zaynah has never done and does not wish to do, feeling it would compromise her role as a stay-at-home wife and mother.

Many Americans imagine refugees sitting on the floor of their African huts, penniless and dirty, just waiting to be rescued by the American government. This is often far from the truth.

While many refugees have experienced poverty, many others come from countries where they had a relatively high standard of living. Many come here to the USA hoping to find the American dream, only to find that the American dream is elusive. Their international degrees and experiences are often not recognized in the USA, so in order to practice their profession they’d need to return to school - but they are rarely in the financial position to do so. For many of our immigrant friends, refugee or not, it’s common to find a dentist or accountant working at Dunkin Donuts making $9/hr.

On top of the unimaginable loss of property, possessions and often loved ones, refugees are dealing with other forms of loss, like the loss of control and identity. Many of them have lived through atrocities that are hard to fathom. Combine complex grief and trauma with a large dose of culture shock and you have a recipe for PTSD and other forms of mental illness. This is yet another barrier to finding suitable employment and achieving financial independence.

But America is touted as a land of dreams. Unfortunately, the white-picket fence ideal is quickly shattered by the harsh realities of living in a country where they are often misunderstood, facing isolation, and struggling with the physical daily toil of menial work.

“I need a new phone,” Zaynah says via google translate. (An indirect request).

“Well, save for it.” was my teammate’s baffled reply.

Americans value “pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps,” in a society that rewards individualism and hard work. So, when it seems that others expect handouts, it can be frustrating. (How can you ask me for a phone? Don’t you see that I’m using an I-phone 5 with a broken screen?)

We must understand that our refugee neighbors often come from collectivistic societies, where the prevailing cultural attitude is harmony and generosity. Collective societies are quick to help family and friends in need, knowing that one day the favor may be repaid. If Zaynah and Ahsan are the norm, then Syrians are incredibly generous. I see this generosity in the way they always send me home with extra food, or how Saad tries to give his toys to Jonah, despite not having many for himself. People are so much more than cultural stereotypes, but in general, collectivists have deeper family ties and are much better than westerners at caring for the sick, the poor, and the elderly.

Collectivism stands in sharp contrast to western individualism.

But this is cutthroat America, and generosity isn't going to pay your utilities.

South Africans have a word for this collectivism - “umbutu.”

Ubuntu: I am because we are.

Ubuntu in South Africa has led to what my Xhosa friends call “black tax.” This is the idea that part of your hard-earned dollars (or Rand) are yours, and part belongs to your alcoholic mother, and also your third cousin-once-removed, who fell off his motorbike and can no longer work.

All that is yours is mine and mine is yours.

You don’t have to like “black tax," but you still pay it, because it is your debt to society. South Africans believe in black tax as much as Americans believe in paying taxes to the government. You can choose not to pay it, but there will be detrimental consequences. (When I suggested to my Xhosa friend that she not pay her mother’s rent, which would enable her alcoholism, she was appalled. She'd rather work two jobs as a single mother than see her own mother on the streets).

Black tax illustrates one way that resources are understood very differently by a collectivistic society.

Understanding different cultural values can help us choose compassion when we are tempted to grow weary and frustrated working cross-culturally.

The familiar proverb says, “teach a man to fish.”

But you can’t - it’s not that easy. Before you can teach this man to fish, he needs a fishing pole, so you must teach him how to get to the store and purchase one. In order to do this, he must read a map. The map is in English, so you must first teach him to read English. Then, he will need transportation. Public transport won’t take him all the way to the lake, so he will need to acquire a car. To purchase a car, he will need to learn to drive, get a driver's license, and purchase a car - but since he can’t (metaphorically) fish, he has no income. So, you give him a ride, but you do not want him to always be dependent upon you for a ride. And if by chance you make it this far, who do you think is going to buy the pole, bait and tackle?

“But” says the collectivist, “why should I learn to fish? You have fish! And I hate fishing! Give me some of your fish, and I will bake you some bread.”

(And if after all this preliminary effort he says to you, “But I don’t like this pole. I wanted the pretty green one,” you will be quite indignant).

So, you see, it is all very complex. And this is why it’s so much easier to just give a man a fish.

For refugees, handouts are absolutely necessary for survival. But as life becomes more settled, they must become more financially independent and rely less on external resources. And helping people thrive in America entails far more than financial independence; it also requires adapting to culture and a new way of life.

There is always a difficult tug-of-war in compassion ministry between meeting immediate needs and building long-term sustainability.

In order to survive here, Zaynah and Ahsan are going to need to both work very hard, drastically adjust their expectations, lower their standards, and endure living without some things.

My Algerian friend Thiziri has been invaluable for her translation skills and also sharing cultural insights as a fellow immigrant. She’s developed a sweet relationship with the Syrians. “Don’t buy that,” she pleads with them in Arabic, “It is too easy to have debt in America, and is not paying interest haram? (Bad or unlawful; the opposite of halal).

After we returned, the kids threw their new clothes and shoes on the living room floor, sprawled out like gifts from Santa on Christmas morning. Zaynah made a meal of warm soup and stuffed cabbage leaves. She’s completely ruined me on over-priced Middle Eastern restaurants; her cooking is far superior. (Maybe that’s it! She should start a catering business! Problem solved!) If only it was that easy.

Looking at the piles of clothes, I felt conflicting emotions. I knew we could have stretched the money so much further. I had done nothing to help them learn to navigate life in America. But I translated to them that Christians give gifts at Christmas because God has given us the greatest gift of all, through his son, Jesus. If this generous gift was meant to demonstrate the unearned, extravagant love of God, perhaps our outing had been a success.

As I was walking out the door, I turned to give Zaynah a hug goodbye. She kissed me softly on the cheeks, three times in Syrian fashion and said, a little sheepishly, “olive jew."

I giggled a little as I responded: “I love you too.”

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1 commentaire

Julie Morrill
Julie Morrill
18 juil. 2023

This is so insightful, Rachel. I've spent a lot of time with refugees and I still learned a lot from what you wrote here. You show the reader how to see life through the eyes of a refugee. Very raw, real, powerful writing.

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