An excerpt from the book, “From Grandson To Grandfather”, by Edmund Hansen with permission from the Author. (My sponsor a.k.a. my Grandpa Hansen)
Refugees Sponsored in 1979
November 1979 ushered in a new stage in our lives. That is when the first of six family units walked off the plane in Oshkosh. I intend to do a lot of writing describing our experiences when this book is completed. For now I’ll “whet your whistle” with an article written and published by the Tampa Tribune:
We Remember It Well
It was 5 PM when the phone rang. The now familiar female voice said, “Please help me. My cousins from Thailand come in two hour. My car too small to carry them from airport.”
Of course we went and soon the plane landed. We waited hoping all would have coats. November of 1979 was unseasonably cold in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Soon off walked a mother, father and five daughters ages 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11.
We loaded everyone into the two cars and went to her small spartanly furnished apartment.
“And where will they sleep?” I asked.
She pointed to the floor.
“People can’t sleep on the floor.” I stated with assurance.
“They sleep on the floor in refugee camp. It warm and dry on floor.”
I had read newspaper articles and heard news reports about “boat people” from Indochina but now it was becoming real. Now “boat people” were coming to Oshkosh.
It was the Monday after Thanksgiving and we had feasted sumptuously at the holiday meal. Seeing these people was a reminder of the Biblical story of the rich man and poor Lazarus. I realized now was our time to share.
Leaving, we quickly returned with our camping supplies of sleeping bags and air mattresses.
“And where is the sponsor?” I asked.
“No sponsor. I find no one to sponsor.”
This prompted my wife and me to have some very serious conversations. At that time she was on the Church Council. It had been her suggestion the council approve a request to sponsor a refugee family and appoint me as chairman of the project. I quickly organized a committee to research and identify the needs.
Once organized Lutheran Social Services put us in contact with this Laotian woman. She had requested reunification with relatives in refugee camps. She needed the assistance of a sponsor to help assimilate them into the community.
Soon her relatives came. Not one family came but two, a woman and her 18-month-old daughter and a single man. The church agreed to sponsor both small families.
What the woman never told us was that her request was for three families. It was this third family that just arrived. She had hoped to obtain help from another church for them but help didn’t materialize.
Our church was overwhelmed with their first two families, requiring two apartments and two sets of furnishings, therefore said ‘no’ to the third. Could my wife and I, already deeply involved working with the church caring for the first arrivals, take on more responsibility and sponsor this large family ourselves?
After deliberating three days we personally became the sponsors of this seven-member family. We were given vouchers from Catholic Charities valuing $1750 to be used for rent and food. Not much for so so many mouths but it was a start.
We had both husband an wife working within one week despite their not knowing English. In two weeks the family was moved to an apartment. Our money for food was short having to pay rent in advance plus another month’s rent for a security deposit.
Both Oshkosh High Schools were contacted. Normally at Christmas, students collected clothes for the needy in the community. This time they identified the refugees as the needy. What we couldn’t use we took to the Saint Vincent de Paul Society who, in exchange for the abundance contributed, provided household items still needed by the family.
A local doctor provided free health screening so the children could attend school. Within four weeks the parents were attending evening ESL (English as a second language) classes while my son and I babysat.
By Christmas we had been showing up regularly in church with our greatly enlarged family. Hearts warmed and any concern about the churches over-involvement with refugees dissipated, in fact, the people of the church provided a mountain of toys and I donned my Santa Claus suit to make an appearance delivering the presents on Christmas Eve.
Within six weeks of arrival the children were mainstreamed in the public schools. The evening before classes were to being my wife instructed the girls on how to say, “Where is the bathroom?” She also attended classes with them until they were adjusted to school.
The family had difficulty understanding why we would help people from across the world. People we didn’t even know. Finally the father said, “We must be cousins. If not, you would not help.” Six months later the father, who had been an orphan, said to us, “Your are my father and you are my mother.” We learned that relationship, not only biology, would make a family.
By 1983 we had sponsored the rest of the extended family, another ten Laotians. We obtained jobs for all of them. None were placed on welfare. To all we became known as ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad’, ‘Grandma’ or ‘Grandpa’ and, now, ‘Great Grandma’ or ‘Great Grandpa’. We have been given the title of the roles we play in our extended family.
In 1993 I became ill and my health deteriorated. Soon I was physically handicapped and forced into a premature retirement. Needing time to rest and recuperate we moved to the sunshine filled warm days of Florida. Who moved us? Yes, those we started helping in 1979. They loaded and drove the truck, and settled our belongings in our new condo.
It is almost twenty years after that fateful Thanksgiving phone call. So how about those five little girls? They are beautiful women ages 22, 24, 26, 28, and 30. Four are married with five children among them.
The fifth woman, the one who was 5 in 1979, graduated from college last January and will marry her college sweetheart September 5th of this year. We will travel back to Wisconsin to participate in the wedding ant to ‘puff’ our chests as proud grandparents. And yes, the wedding will be in the same church whose hearts needed warming in 1979.
Most of our Asian relatives have been to Florida at least once for a visit. I introduce my extended family member as “This is my granddaughter” or “This is my son”. The person receiving the introduction isn’t expressionless. The eyebrows raise, the mouth opens, and bewilderment crosses the face. But rarely do words get uttered as they look into the brown eyes and black hair on the person standing next to the blue eyed blondes. I’m so proud to call them family.
Our bond is strong and our love for each other is great. This clearly was and continues to be some of the most significant times of our lives. Growing older I not only have these pleasant memories but phone calls on Father’s Day, birthdays, and holidays. And the love of these relatives as they visit us in Florida.