As I have mentioned, I have two cats—Maggie and Chip and they are very different. Maggie can’t be bothered to run away. If she gets outside, she just plops down on the sidewalk in the sun or grazes in the grass. She likes being outside–she just doesn’t go far. Mr. Chips is a different kind of cat. He looks for every opportunity to run outside. He’s jumped out windows, escaped from the garage, and I swear one time I saw him tying bedsheets into a rope. He is fast and more than once I’ve chased him through the neighborhood in my robe and slippers, screaming “I’m going to turn you into ear-muffs if I catch you” (I would not, but it feels good to yell that).
I’m like Maggie. But today I am in the airport en-route to Kassel Germany via Frankfort. I’d be happy to stay in my “cozy apartment” (that is how it is advertised) find my sun spot and watch TV and follow my little routine, but I told myself when I accepted this Fulbright that this was the time in my life to say “yes” to opportunities. My colleague Sigrid James, formerly from the USA but now living back in her home country, extended an invitation for me to teach and to view some residential programs in Germany. Sigrid is one of the experts in out-of-home care and a friend, and I’ve very happy to spend time with her and her colleagues at University of Kassel. I teach two classes and a seminar and visit three programs to make contacts and collect data, one of which is a center for unaccompanied refugees. The University of Pittsburgh University Center for International Studies funded my travel and support of this research.
My time here has helped me to think about the potential my research has for extending an understanding of “home” beyond the rather limited academic path that I’ve taken with it.
Although Portugal does not have a lot of refugees, it has a group of involved researchers at my university, who have been studying how the refugee experience impacts education. I also personally have thought a lot about home and what makes something restrictive or not, just from my own experiences of living in several kinds of places in Porto. So, this house cat is on her way.
When I think about the work that I have done professionally and as a volunteer, I realize that “home” and “family” play a large role in the narrative of my life and research. While I’d like to think of myself as an “explorer”, I’ve realized in my time here in Portugal that “house cat” would be a better adjective. I’ve come to terms with this and embraced it. I’ve created a space here in Porto until I can return home.
Which got me thinking about how difficult it must be for families to be away from all that is familiar when their children are here in Porto at the Centro Hospitalar de São João (CHSJ) e no Instituto Português de Oncologia (I.P.O.) do Porto. If I found it difficult to be away from home and all that is familiar and routine, how much harder is it for families undergoing a medical crisis of a seriously ill child? Because it is the largest medical center in the north, families come from small rural areas and towns across the center and north of Portugal so that their children receive treatment. As in the United States, the Ronald McDonald house offers a home away from home for these children and their families, and the Porto Ronald McDonald house is on the hospital campus. I volunteer there on Mondays and it is usually the highlight of my week.
So, what do I do? Sometimes I help with clerical tasks or with cleaning rooms or public spaces. Each of the families has a room and a bathroom and they share kitchen and laundry facilities. They have their own pantries where they can store food and they cook their meals and eat as a family. There is a large library which I usually end up rearranging and trying to suggest reading material, but my signs of “try this book “ were not a hit here. Maybe that is an American thing–they called it the “american experiment”.
But the best volunteer days are those when I get to play with the kids.
Play is the work of children, whether they are healthy or undergoing treatment for cancer or another serious illness. My job is to follow their lead and play. I think that this is particularly important during a health crisis. Playing with them is made easier by the fact that I speak like a 2 year old and that I can’t “direct” their play. I lack the language to do it. As a result, I listen and observe and follow their lead. Sometimes I am a T-Rex, chasing them around the play room. Sometimes I’m in the play cozinho with them as they direct me to make a meal. Sometimes I push them as they ride bikes and trucks. They tolerate my horrible Portuguese as I read board books to them (I do great with the books that have English/Portuguese words). Sometimes they just want to sit on my lap and read or watch a video.
I feel that I’m really learning how to listen when I’m at the Ronald McDonald House.
If you would like to read more about the program in the United States and in Porto: