Monday, December 6, 2010

Driving with Ku

It’s 4:10 AM on a Monday morning. In one week I am getting married, and life will suddenly become incredibly hectic, but right now, outside Ku's apartment, the world is calm. My breath comes out in puffs of smoke in the dark chilly air. The truck that drove me to this door now sits idling in the parking lot behind me and in the distance the snow-capped mountains are purple in the pre-dawn light. I call Ku’s cell phone. A minute later he’s smiling at the door. He’s twenty-eight years old, but like many Karenni people, he is remarkably youthful, so when I see him I can’t help but be reminded of my little brother on his first day of school. His excitement is infectious. Today is Ku’s first day on the job in the United States.

Ku has limited transportation options; so, I’m getting up early, during the frenzied week before my wedding, to drive him to work. I’m not about to let Ku miss out on a good job opportunity, so I’m determined to find a solution to his transportation needs.

It’s 4:30 AM. Ku’s new supervisor at Easton Technical Products is a gentle, softspoken man with square glasses, perched precariously at the bottom of his nose – I assume, so that he can look over the top them of as he talks to you with his chin nestled snuggly in his neck. He tells me that the HR Director has spoken with him about Ku’s transportation situation, and he sympathizes, but he hasn’t had any luck finding someone to take Ku to work. I’m disappointed, but I thank him for his effort.

I met Ku while working as a job developer at a not-for-profit organization. Convincing employers to hire refugees – who tend to have little work experience and even less English speaking ability – has been difficult, particularly in a downturned economy. I’ve had to learn to be patient, persistent, and to consistently deliver on commitments in order to ensure our clients’ success on the job. Employers have come to appreciate the reliability of my clients and, therefore, continue to hire from my clientele.

Ku has had a difficult journey – His father was murdered by Burmese soldiers and he was forced to flee his village at five-years of age. Yet he considers himself lucky, because very few Karenni refugees are afforded the opportunity to resettle in the United States. His graciousness in spite of adversity has been a great source of inspiration for me. Furthermore, Ku is particularly grateful for something that I’ve always taken for granted – his state issued ID card. He told me that In Thailand he had no ID. The Thai government did not recognize Ku's existence, except so far as to place an armed guard around his camp to ensure that he never be allowed to assimilate into Thai society. This undignified state of existence is an example of what Giorgio Agamben has termed “bare life.”

Bare life is, according to Agamben, “human life… included in the juridical order solely in the form of exclusion.”[1] Life is thus reduced to its biological function and is stripped of its socio-political significance. This reduction is a form of ontological violence. Because of the deeply social and symbolic nature of human beings, being relegated to bare life is like being turned into a social zombie – biologically alive, but excluded from the realm of the living. Therefore, I am not surprised that Ku values his Utah ID.

The ID card is part of a huge bulwark of law in the United States that facilitates the smooth interaction of people in a remarkably stable way. Having an ID means having the legal right to travel, work and participate in civic dialogue. Ku has proudly joined a network of ID cardholders, thereby, injecting his life with social significance.

The US has a rich reputation for receiving weary immigrants from countries all over the world, and successfully integrating them into our legal, secular and even cultural institutions. I want to contribute to this effort.

For instance, Ku struggled to keep his job at Easton. For the two months that Ku worked there, he was never able to convince any of his co-workers to share a ride with him to work.

So, now it’s 6:00 PM, a few weeks after I started driving Ku to work. I’m in a meeting with the Secretary of the newly elected Karenni Community Organization. His name is Bel. Bel works an early morning shift at a FedEx, which is near the company where Ku is now working. After I explain Ku's predicament, Bel says, “Yes, Zach, I can take Ku to work.” Ku now has a ride to work. He can keep his job!

I really love my refugee friends and I love what Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature,” which have given birth to our incredibly diverse, yet incredibly inter-connected, United States of America. I feel that law – and ID cards – can help sustain these better angels. My experience with helping refugees has been so good that I don’t mind getting up at 3:30 AM on a cold morning the week before my wedding. Hooray for the United States of the World.

[1] Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ., 1998. p. 10. Print.

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