My Unknown Hardworking Friend

Everywhere I go I tend to meet people who are in need of emotional support. These people could be from any culture, any shape, and any belief system. I have my 9-5 job at a non-profit organization in the heart of downtown Vancouver. One of my daily routine is to walk over to a local grocery store, a couple blocks away from my work and grab a bite to eat in their deli section. I am a regular customer and I enjoy sitting in their common area, where I have my daily sandwich and coffee.

As I have become a regular face here, I have some eye contacts and non-verbal greetings from the cashiers or workers. It feels good to be welcomed even implicitly although with few exchanged words. The introvert personality I have gives me the gift of enjoying my quiet moments, just being with myself, planning my days, mentally relaxing, or at times watching customers mostly coming for a hot soup or some fresh salad.

In this public grocery store I go to, I have met one hard working Iranian woman who has stuck with me since day one. Indeed I have not met her, I have found her. I believe I started noticing her about four years ago, year 2004 sometimes. I always have an eye for people from my own culture. I guess this is my human characteristic, looking for the same, checking for those who belong to a cultural context of mine. This is nothing unique. However, I tend to say hi to some people whose faces or gestures tell me they are reachable. For my hard working friend, it took her a while to respond back to my eye movements and silent greetings. From the very first time, I found this woman a little bit shy, distracted, stressed out, displaced, and somewhat depressed. These are my biased judgments coming from me being interested in the field of psychology.

Once in a while I would see her around in the food area where she was mostly cleaning or preparing food, I used my chance to say hi to her. Soon I noticed that she does not speak English well and indeed she uses a few words sentence structure to handle her customers. Those moments when I use some Persian words to greet her, I could see that her eyes shine, as if her day was empty of any joy.

Some days her quick, bewildered, and lost eyes would tell me that she is unhappy with her life. In those very short moments of saying “Salam”, I would sometimes have a shy respond back.

As time passed by, my hard working friend started to recognize my face as a more “regular” guest. About two years ago, when I was there on my lunch break grabbing a bite to eat, she said a couple of words in a low tone. She said; “I will say good bye to you”. I asked: “why”? She continued saying; “we are moving back to Iran”. I was a bit surprised, as we had never talked much before, now this lady was saying goodbye to me.

Soon after that day, I again ended up back at the store and saw my unknown friend. She again shortly explained that they are moving back and these are her last days at work. I wished her good luck and acknowledged her search for finding the life she needed back home. Without verbalizing my thoughts I knew that this family was unhappy about their immigrated life.

Again this story was not unusual; indeed, I thought this untold story is more of a usual case scenario. Now there are over five millions of us around the world. Many of us move back and forth to Iran, without finding any joy in either place. We have lost our identity and our roots. Many Iranians leaving Iran and immigrating to western countries feel lost in that sense of not belonging to the new place.

In the course of my 23 years life out of Iran, this was not the first time I met a person moving back home (Iran). However, in my experience, people would not be able to enjoy the return, as obviously life back home is harder than ever.

We Iranian tend to like the western values of individualism while having hard time acknowledging it.

We tend to like the peaceful life, the organization, and the respect for human rights in western cultures, without knowing how to help our complex life in our home country.

You cannot ignore those faces that are empty of happiness, those embodied souls who have lost their spirits, and those individuals who have never have taste much love. For all these reasons I knew somehow I would see this woman again.

These past two years I kept going to the same grocery store. I kept using my time to plan the day and pray for the days to come, while sitting there enjoying my break.

Just recently, about two months ago, I saw that known face again. My hardworking friend was back at work and had obviously moved back to Canada.

I was not surprised, I scanned her face again, even more desperate than before. At one point, once she was taking care of the cash register where people also order food or drinks, I could observe her more closely.

A lady asked for “chai” and my hard working friend was not sure “what chai was.” My hard working friend asked the lady who was ordering chi, to spell the chai for her. I could see in her face that she was totally embarrassed, stressed out, and even angry with herself and life in general. She had moved across the continent to come here and serve food, still she was unaware of the simple name as Chai tea. This is our Iranian daily hot drink.

I guess she did not know that maybe just in the past few years the word chai has been unofficially replaced the word tea. I guess my hard working friend did not know this buzzword of the hot beverage world. I did not wait to see how she would handle that simple task, I guess she let someone else get involved and serve that lady her Chai.

I was able to see how she wanted to be invisible. The harder she tried, the more stressed out she seemed to me, at least.

To make the long story short, my hard working friend is now more or less settled in the workplace. In the past couple of weeks, I have seen this woman around being more in charge of the food and drinks being served to the public. She is a real hard worker woman.

Just recently, as I went for my regular quiet coffee time, my friend saw me from over the counter where she was making sandwiches. She managed to loudly say hi to me. She explained that the other day she met me and due to the rush hour and many people around she did not have a chance to say hi to me. I was a bit shocked that she liked to make contact with me now. I was happy at the same time wondering if she is feeling a bit better about herself and her life in general. After I purchased my lunch and coffee, I settled down in one of the high chair-tables where I usually sit. That is the place I can watch the life out there, the rushing pedestrians, the moving cars, the ambulances, the fire trucks, and the buses.

This is the turning point for me to watch people and perceive how they are thinking. I usually like to observe people based on their moods, showed affect, appearance, and movements. Now having my hot soup, I realized that my friend had come closer to me. She was pretending to clean up the table close to me. I knew she was using this excuse to exchange some words with me.

My intuition was that she liked my short company, even the few words was exchanged. I did not want to push her for talking to me as I could see she was distressed enough. Now that she had got close to me, she greeted me like we Iranians regularly do. I told her that I was happy to see her again.

She explained in few sentences that she could not stay back in Iran; her children liked it here more. She kept saying that now that she is back she has got a hard time with her children. They did not like to go to school in Iran, and they do not like to study here. She was saying that she has a problem with her children not doing their job, which is in our culture, only studying.

I think my empathic tone or my friendly words that was used to confirm her being upset about her story went a long way. She continued that this was her greatest fear, now that she is back and her children are not doing well in school. I asked how many children she is talking about. She said three children, the oldest being 18.

She was particularly concerned about the 18 year old daughter that did not like to go to school, stayed in her room all day long, chatted on the computer, did not like to talk to mother, and did not show any interest in anything in general. Now that this friend was giving me lots of information, I started to feel concerned about her and her explicitly hard time. She stated that she cannot work full time because she wants to be home around the kids who are exhibit low mood, depressed, neither liked Iran, nor here!

Somehow I started to think that this family needed help. I started to say that the most important thing for all of us is to have a healthy family first. Now that she had to go back to make more sandwiches, she left me thinking, wow, this is the hidden aspect of migration; lack of support and loss of hope in finding a stable home.

After a couple of minutes this woman came back to my sitting place again. Now she was pretending to check with the newspaper left on the tables. I guess she was afraid her manager would catch her wasting the working hours. Now she asked me what I do as a job. I guess she wondered how come I told her about the hardship of migration for adults and children. I did emphasise that children sometimes have a harder time when the family is not stable. Their sense of belonging, loss of friends, loss of attachments, and lack of hope for a family life, makes them fearing the most.

Now that I explained to my friend that I am a counsellor, she asked what I do, meaning, what exactly being a counsellor means. After some more few explanations, she thanked me and went back to her duties. Now for the third time she came back again after a few minutes, apologizing to take my time, she asked how she could help her children. She added that she would like her children being seen by a counsellor. Maybe they need help as she was unable to do more than she managed. She continued asking if she could have my card and contact number.

As I did not have any business care, she went to bring me a pen and a piece of paper. She asked me about the charge for counselling and I told her that can be worked out. She again thanked me and disappeared. For the fourth time she came by asking if she could pay with her care card. This is the most common question; Iranians always ask if they can pay counselling with care card, believing that this is a service being provided by the health authorities. My lunchtime became a counselling session, which does not bother me. I was left with the thoughts that how this woman and her children would find a healthy happy life here. I wondered if the daughter is depressed and hopeless.

I kept thinking that many Iranian families living with this ambiguity about where to live, here or there. I am not sure of what will happen next but I do know that it is my duty as a citizen and student of clinical counselling to give her all my support.

I recall, as I was preaching about hardship of immigration, her face turned red. She said, it is not that only. I asked how so. She said: I am from khoramshahr. I realized that there is more to her story.

I asked if she remembered the war.

She said: “more than remembering.” At that moment I realized that life has not been the easiest for this woman. With some simple words she said I am one of those “war-hit” families. These two words told me a whole deal. Having been hit by the war for many Iranian families mean having lost homes, sense of belonging, and people they knew.

I have heard, observed, and experienced myself these sometimes unimaginable attachment injuries when losing things that matter the most. In some simple words she started to describe her recollection of what was once a home for her.

In 1980 once the Iraqi soldiers invaded Khoramshahr, up to that point, this woman had a life. She was married about three years. Her husband was an oil engineer working for the huge oil-gas company in south Iran. He was well sought and well paid due to his knowledge and skills. She was married three years at that point and she had her first child about a year.

Her short term childhood was spent with playing around the date and palm tress in that hot southern weather. She pointed out shyly was now feeling quite contempt and in love. The little she knew that world around her would soon fall apart and turn into hell while her country would be defenceless and invaded.

Giving me this new information, I forgot totally about her children and their lack of interest in school. I kept thinking this woman being displaced and depressed, what else could be in her baggage? In this western culture, a woman like her would be easily put on medication if she went to a doctor for any of her low mood symptoms. However, would meds be enough for someone with her layers of experienced trauma and hardship?

In deed just being alive today and working in a grocery store, serving food, and not knowing about “chai tea” is still called resiliency and strength. If there was a noble prize for being resilient, this woman would for sure deserve that. Up to this date I have not heard from her. I will go back to the grocery store to see if she could use some more few moments to tell what she needs to tell. I wish she would call me to ask for a counselling session. I would do anything to help her.

Note: I have changed some details and some aspects of the story to protect the privacy of this person.

Poran Poregbal

June 9, 2008



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