the girl whose mother lives in the sky
Tahirih Thach prepares to mow
DRESSED TO MOW: Wearing high heels and a tutu from the preschool’s dress-up collection, Tahirih Thach prepares to mow the classroom carpet.

It is the morning of Friday, May 6, the last school day before Mother's Day.

At Lad 'n Lass, the preschool next door, it is a special morning. The children and their teachers have invited parents to the school's four classrooms to hear them sing and to see them put on plays and other productions. At the Southeast Asian Preschool, however, it is a day much like any other. These children are not particularly excited about Mother's Day. Many of them do not even know what Mother's Day is.

Mrs. Chip tries to explain it to her class.

"Sunday is Mother's Day," she says as her children are getting ready to head out to the playground. "It's a special day when you tell your mom you love her, okay? So when we come back and after we rest, we're going to color a card for your moms, okay?"

The children stare at her, nodding. A few minutes later, they are out on the playground, chasing each other and climbing on the monkey bars. Suddenly the doors to the classrooms from Lad 'n Lass open, and the Lad 'n Lass children pour onto the playground.

The insult washes across the faces of the children. They look around, fighting off tears. Mrs. Chip feels a burning in her cheeks.
There has been a mix-up. The Lad 'n Lass classes are getting out early so the parents and children can eat some cake and drink some punch outside together. Unfortunately, the teachers at the Southeast Asian Preschool are not aware of the change in the schedule; had they known, they would have waited until the celebration was over before bringing their students onto the playground.

Now it is too late. By the time Mrs. Chip and Mrs. St. Clair realize what is happening -- Mrs. Crow is out sick today -- the Southeast Asian children are being overrun. The Lad 'n Lass children are climbing on the swings, lining up at the slide, filling the sandbox. Moms in bright floral dresses stand nearby, chatting loudly. Dads in suits and ties hold video cameras, chronicling every movement of their sons and daughters.

Mrs. Chip watches, amazed. She knows many of these families from Lad 'n Lass; she realizes that these are nice people who would never intentionally be disrespectful to others. Some of the Lad 'n Lass parents, in fact, have donated clothes and toys to the Southeast Asian Preschool.

Yet the scene now unfolding before Mrs. Chip is disturbing. She sees the Lad 'n Lass students occupying the playground, using their greater numbers to seize it from the Southeast Asian kids. The Lad 'n Lass kids do not physically push anyone aside; they don't have to. They simply move into the other group's personal space, planting themselves a few inches away from the other children, acting as though they are not there.

Even more astonishing to Mrs. Chip are the adults who do not stop their sons and daughters from behaving this way. Moving in with their cameras, most of these parents do not talk to the Southeast Asian children, do not look at them, do not acknowledge them. Absorbed in their own children, they act as though Mari and her friends are invisible.

The insult washes across the faces of the Southeast Asian students. They look around, fighting off tears.

Mrs. Chip feels a burning in her cheeks. She turns to Mrs. St. Clair and tells her they need to get their students off the playground. Normally they would line up the children according to the two classes, but there is no time for that now.

"Let's get 'em out," says Mrs. Chip, "and then we'll separate them."

Chieu Ho tries to rest
Sleepless in St. Petersburg: Chieu Ho, all decked out in a frilly dress and practical shoes, tries to rest after playtime.

They hustle the children back to the classrooms.

The teachers pass the rest of the morning as cheerfully as they can. They read stories to the students. They give them crayons and let them color swans and flowers on their cards for their mothers. When it is time to rest, the lights go off and the children stretch out on their towels on the carpet. They are not fidgeting as usual. They are still.

Mrs. Chip stands at the back of the darkened classroom, studying the children. What do they make of what has just happened out on the playground? How can they possibly understand it, process it, know what to do with the hurt of it?


The husband and wife are sleeping on the living room floor when Vanessa Petrie knocks at the front door.

It is a scorching afternoon in late June, and the couple have been working past midnight, sewing clothes on consignment, pushing to make a few extra dollars. Now they are stretched out on the rug, taking a nap inside the suffocating heat of their home, a rental with no air conditioning that sits on a quiet street just north of downtown St. Petersburg.

Sim Sao's apartment
REACHING OUT: Vanessa Petrie, who oversees the preschool, visits the homes of students and gives guidance to the families as they build a new life. Here, Mrs. Petrie speaks to Sim Sao about a problem with the family’s electric bill.

At the sound of the knock, the couple get up quickly. The wife disappears into a back room. The husband comes to the door. When he sees Mrs. Petrie, he breaks into a smile. He knows her; she is the woman from the Methodist ministries. The one who works with the preschool.

"How you doing?" she says to him now.

"I stay home," the man says, shrugging as if to apologize.

He invites Mrs. Petrie inside and offers her a seat at the dining room table. In Vietnamese, he calls out to his wife, asking her to get their guest a glass of water. He looks politely toward Mrs. Petrie, resting his hands on the table. His right hand is missing its little finger.

Mrs. Petrie glances over toward a young girl who is standing nearby, watching them with unblinking brown eyes.

"I want to talk to you about your little daughter," says Mrs. Petrie. "How old is she now?"

"Three and a half year," he says.

"I'd like her to come to our preschool, so she can learn English and go to kindergarten."

The man nods. As Mrs. Petrie goes on talking, it becomes clear that he is eager for his little girl to attend the school. He calls his daughter over to the table.

"She learn easy," he says. "I know."

The visitor smiles. This is exactly what she is hoping to hear.

Mrs. Petrie, a 38-year-old social worker, is director of Southeast Asian Christian Ministries, the local Methodist program that oversees the Southeast Asian Preschool and provides other services for refugee families. Day after day, she drives around the southern half of Pinellas County, visiting families from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. She enters homes where roosters peck at the dirt in the front yard, where the smell of lemongrass drifts from the kitchen, where families sleep in hammocks suspended from the ceiling, where ancestors are worshiped in Buddhist shrines erected in the living room.

She makes sure the families have clothes and other essentials, assists them in finding jobs, leads them through the maze of government bureaucracies and shows them how to deal with doctors' offices and pharmacies. For years now she has devoted herself to working with Southeast Asian families; she has even traveled twice to Laos in order to better understand the culture and the adjustments the refugees must make when they come to the United States. What she saw in Laos -- the conditions in the clinics and schools, the suffering in the faces of mothers and children -- has stayed with her.

So, too, have some of the things she has seen here in St. Petersburg. On streets only a mile or so from city hall, Mrs. Petrie has visited impoverished houses where rats run across the children while they sleep and where the parents -- struggling to establish a foothold in a new country -- keep key phrases of English scrawled on the wall by their telephone, reminding them of the words they must speak if they want to feed their family.

I am out of work, reads the writing inside one home. I do not have a job. I am applying for a job.

Mrs. Petrie is committed to helping these families because she sees how hard their lives are, how much they must overcome, how little they have when they arrive in this country. As she once explained to a Methodist congregation, she does this work because she believes the best way to find your calling in life is to look into the face of whatever breaks your heart.

the bathroom ceiling
CRUMBLING: Sim Sao shows Mrs. Petrie the condition of the bathroom ceiling in her rented home. Mrs. Petrie will talk to Sim Sao’s landlord to try to get the ceiling fixed.

A few years ago, when a Cambodian woman she knew was about to give birth, Mrs. Petrie was asked to join the woman and her husband at the hospital. When the doctor informed the expectant mother that the baby would be delivered by Caesarean section, Mrs. Petrie had to calm the woman. In Cambodia, soldiers in the Khmer Rouge used to slash open the stomachs of pregnant women and rip out the fetuses; the mother was terrified that the same might happen to her and her baby. So Mrs. Petrie stayed with her throughout the delivery, holding her hand and assuring her that she would soon be cradling the child in her arms.

Today, on this hot summer afternoon, Mrs. Petrie is not doing anything so dramatic. Still, the task before her -- searching for new preschool students for the coming school year -- is equally important. Recruiting students is difficult because of the language and cultural barriers and because the refugee families are often hesitant to open up to strangers, no matter how well-meaning. But after all this time, Mrs. Petrie has cultivated relationships among the families.

The Vietnamese man she is visiting today, for instance, has seen her many times before, assisting Asian families in his neighborhood. Now he listens carefully as she tells him about the preschool and how it is funded. The school operates mostly on money collected from Methodist churches and a grant from the Juvenile Welfare Board. In addition, some of the parents pay tuition.

"Most people pay a little bit for the preschool, but I know that you are not working," she says. "So you and I will work that out. We'll see how you're doing in September when she starts."

The man and his wife gather the necessary documents to enroll their daughter. They show Mrs. Petrie the girl's Social Security card and her resident alien card. Mrs. Petrie asks if the man knows of any other families with children who are ready for preschool. He tells her he will ask around.

"I like for all the children to go to school," he says.

For almost an hour, he sits at the table and talks with Mrs. Petrie in his halting English. Most of the conversation is devoted not to the preschool, but to his family's story. Sweating in the summer heat, he tells how they came to America.

He and his wife, he says, have eight children; this girl is their youngest. In Vietnam, this man was from a family of soldiers. His father fought against the Japanese in World War II; he -- the man sitting before Mrs. Petrie -- served in the South Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War. And when the Viet Cong took over, he says, they blew up the family's home.

"They take all," he says.

He points to his mutilated right hand. "The Communists cut here," he says.

He points to a scar under his chin. "And they shoot here."

For years, he and one of his older sons kept the family fed by selling charcoal they gathered from forests in the mountains. But they barely got by. Finally, two years ago, the Vietnamese government gave them permission to leave the country. He and his wife and the older children have earned a meager living in St. Petersburg by sewing clothes and performing other tasks for minimum wages.

"Are you getting assistance?" asks Mrs. Petrie. "Welfare?"

The man shakes his head. "I don't like government money."

She asks him if anyone is helping him find work. He nods and talks about another Vietnamese man who is keeping an eye open for a steady job for him; he met this man through Mrs. Petrie. That was the first time, he says, that she helped his family.

"Well," says Mrs. Petrie, "you're a nice family."

"Thank you."

He tells her that he is tired, that he works very hard. But he is not complaining. He says he is grateful for the opportunity to live and raise his family here.

"I love American country," he says.

Chapter Two: Part 1 Chapter Two: Part 3
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