I often see apartment fires on the news but today I almost saw one up close and personal.
We visit our refugee families once or twice a week. Last week we took two small kids, two teenage girls and the small kid’s grandmother to Howard Amon Park in Richland. I think it was their first time in a park.
In the eight months we have been working with these families, we have never been able to get a word out of the meek little four year-old girl or her seven year-old brother. I don’t know just what the holdup in communications has been but I’ve never heard a peep from either child.
At the park we got the kids to sit on swings and I began pushing them. They both yelled with surprise and glee at what looked to me like the first swing-set ride they had ever encountered. Each time I pushed the boy, he enunciated a big yell out of his grinning mouth. It was a very rewarding time to bring some happiness into their world. A simple little exercise that we’ll each remember for a long time.
Back to the apartment fire. Today we visited the families once again. Michele read stories to the little girl while I talked to her uncle who can be partially seen in the background.
Soon her grandmother launched into Swahili to her son (the uncle) about what had happened just a short time prior to our arrival. She talked so emphatically and fast that I didn’t understand a word she said.
I have as much Swahili under my belt as grandma has English. But I have mastered 3 Swahili words. “Missouri” is not a river in the mid-west but a general term that basically means “Good”.
And after picking the families up several times to take them various places and waiting longer than I thought was necessary, I’ve learned that “Kua Tuende” means “Get your behind in gear and let’s get the heck out of Dodge!” I also learned that the louder the “Kua Tuende”, the quicker our van got loaded.
Only after the doors were closed and the state-mandated seat belts clicked did I say “Missouri”.
We have noticed that electricity is a new and strange power that these folks are unfamiliar with. Last winter on days that we visited them we would notice the thermostat was turned clear up which made perfect sense to me since it was 10 or 15 degrees outside and these folks had just arrived from Africa. What didn’t make sense was when we walked by one of their windows, they were wide open and freezing air was pouring in.
I assumed they were checking to see if the heater could stay ahead of frosty Mother Nature or maybe they were just trying to make the ambient outside air temperature in Kennewick a little closer to that of the old Congo neighborhood.
We’ve also noticed that when these folks cook, the burners are always turned on high. When something is on the stove, the burner element is red hot. I guess they think a red hot burner in Kennewick is the next best thing to a cooking fire in the refugee camp back home.
After the uncle heard the story, he slowed down the conversation speed and converted granny’s Swahili into English. It turns out that fast-talking grandma had finished cooking lunch but forgot to throw cold water on the cooking fire before she went in the other room.
The little four year-old girl decided that since there was a nice electronic campfire on top of the Kenmore it was time to dispose of the trash. She lifted the week’s garbage, still encapsulated by the plastic garbage container, over her head and placed it on the campfire.
In the other room, grandma heard a loud screeching smoke alarm go off and rushed out of the bedroom to be greeted by plasticized smoke signals. The signals were billowing out of the kitchen and smelled nothing like the meal she had just cooked.
This is the campfire-style stove and the heat-seeking garbage container…
I’m don’t know how she got the fire out. Maybe she did throw cold water on it.
I’m sure the many families living in that particular apartment complex have no idea how close they came to sleeping out under the stars tonight with just the clothes on their back.
I told grandma in my broken Swahili that the next garbage can she acquired should be made out of a non-flammable material like cast iron . I also let her know the stove knobs work better than water when trying to kill an electronic kitchen fire.
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Claude kept harping and didn’t stop the impromptu flight school discourse so finally I said as I slammed the door, “All right, Claude, thanks for the ride. I’m going to take off with the wind just to show you!”…
(15 minutes later)…I pulled back on the stick and got no response. I wanted to stop this nightmare, but it was much too late. If I tried to abort the takeoff, I would hit the end of the runway, cows and trees at 120 mph. The point of no return was now a long way behind me…