Trusting: a Volunteer and a Survivor of Torture Make a Connection | The Center for Victims of Torture

Trusting: a Volunteer and a Survivor of Torture Make a Connection

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Laurie Bangs is a retired high school English teacher who taught abroad for the past several years. She now volunteers for CVT as a bus tutor and a befriender.

When I first met my CVT bus buddy at her social worker's office in St. Paul and asked her through the translator if she had ever ridden a bus before, she relayed back to me with a bemused smile, “There aren't any buses in the jungle.” I was relieved to see that she had a sense of humor. For our first outing, we had arranged to meet at her home, an apartment in a small complex next to the freeway that houses mostly refugees like her. As I stood on the front stoop of the building, I realized I didn't know which apartment buzzer to ring, so I gave her a call on my cell phone.

A couple minutes later, she stepped out onto the front stoop, adjusted her wrap-around skirt, double-checked the contents of her hand-woven cloth purse – bus pass (check), cell phone (check), wallet (check) – and flashed me a shy smile. We set off, neither of us knowing what to expect, both of us a bit nervous but excited too, wondering if we'd make it there and back again. Trusting.

With maps and bus schedules in hand, duly marked and highlighted, I had charted a course for us through time and space. As we waited at the bus stop, I turned to nature to form the basis of our first conversation in English. The fall colors were ablaze. I pointed and said, "red,” “yellow,” “orange.” She repeated after me. Plucking a pine needle from a “tree” and touching my fingertip to the pointed end, I said, “sharp,” and then I gently poked her hand and she repeated, “sharp.” It was a “windy” day, and I spread my arms like a bird. She laughed and repeated “windy.” The “wind” rustled the leaves overhead and little “birds” chirped in the branches.

Our destination on that first trip was a thrift store not too far away. I figured that this might be a useful place for her to know about, and the prices might be right. I hadn't anticipated what a perfect English lesson it would provide. We headed for the women's clothing section first and looked at sweaters. Concerned that she and her family be well prepared for the oncoming Minnesota winter, I thought it might be helpful for her to see what the natives wore when it got cold. We talked about sizes, sleeve lengths, colors and textures. My client especially appreciated anything “soft.” After checking out the coats next and trying to emphasize which were especially “warm,” I thought I'd show her the array of items the store offered besides clothing.

When we hit the bedding aisle, suddenly my client perked up. “I need, I need,” she insisted as she pulled out a set of bed sheets hanging there in order to examine them more closely. She looked over the various colors and was especially alert to textures. Clearly she could tell the difference just by feel between those that were all cotton and those that were a polyester blend. I wasn't so sure she was aware of the different sizes of beds in America, so I drew her pictures of twin, double and queen sized beds with stick figures enjoying a night's sleep. Eventually it became clear she was seriously shopping for sheets for her two daughters who each slept in a twin bed, so I was able to direct her to the twin sheet section.

Soon I realized that I was in the presence of a master shopper. We pulled sheets from their hangers, and she directed me to hold one end while she held the other, our arms spread wide so that she could closely examine each sheet in its entirety. We turned the sheets over so that she could scrutinize them on both sides. When I explained through drawings the different uses of a fitted sheet compared to a flat sheet, she quickly caught on and started stretching the elastic on the fitted sheets to see how springy it was. Price came into the equation as we discussed which were “expensive” and which were “cheap.” Eventually she settled on two fitted sheets, and we headed for the checkout. I asked her if she had “money” and she flashed a twenty-dollar bill at me. We did the math so that she could figure how much change she should expect from the cashier.

As we waited for the bus back to her home, our conversation turned to family. She asked me how many children I have. I replied, “One son.” I knew she had two daughters who are both in school and speak some English because they had helped me when I called their mother to set up our bus excursion. My client turned to me then, opening the door to her pain just a crack. “I have two sons,” she said. “One died.” She took a pen out of her bag and wrote some numbers, a year, on her palm like a brand. I put my hand to my heart, understanding her meaning.

Then the bus came.

We made our way to a couple of seats. Sitting side by side, we looked out the window at the trees streaming past us like a many-colored river and held the silence like a fragile thing between us.



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