Monday, May 26, 2008

It really does take a village

There is nothing like a profound and unexpected success to ward off job abandonment in the face of imminent burnout. Sometimes, just when you think you can't take another minute, or that the work you do doesn't change a thing, something happens to shake the doubt out of your head.

Abdi is almost 21 years old, but that is strictly in the chronological sense. He slips back and forth between two identities; one is a mature and responsible young adult who is leading his family through the adjustment years in a strange and overwhelming new culture. The other Abdi has a short temper and even shorter attention span. He tries to be part of everything and he has little patience when he can't keep up.

Abdi was born in Somalia, part of the Bantu ethnic group, the group firmly entrenched at the very bottom of the Somali social strata. When Abdi was ten years old, he helped his parents shepherd themselves and four younger children through a war-torn Somalia, across the border into Kenya, and then hundreds of miles further into the country to the Dadaab refugee camp. Abdi missed his childhood, just like the tens of thousands of other refugee kids in the Kenyan camps. He was able to squeeze himself into the overcrowded, irregularly held primary school classes at Dadaab. His formal education involved little more than learning the alphabet and some very basic reading, writing, and first-grade math.

When Abdi came to the United States four years ago, he spoke little English and lacked the fundamentals of basic education. Despite this, he was placed in a sheltered English program in a city high school. He was 17 years old, and the clock was ticking. If he couldn't cram his head full of state required competencies before his 21st birthday, he might never go on to get a diploma.

Abdi's family was resettled with the assistance of a volunteer team from a local church. One of those volunteers, a prominent local attorney, made sure that Abdi was properly enrolled and registered for the appropriate classes at school. Except, what classes are appropriate for a teenager who is carrying the burden of being the eldest son in a family where the parents are too disoriented to leave the house? The attorney assured Abdi he would be OK.

The next volunteer to step in was Susan, a soft-spoken, humble middle-aged woman whose long blond hair and apple-cheeked face bespoke her Swedish heritage. Susan is a practicing Buddhist, but in the real way, not in the trendy, next-week-it's-Cabala-and-then-Scientology way that so many empty nesters find comforting. Susan wears frumpy clothes--dark tights, flat shoes, calf-length dirndl skirts, and no makeup. I doubt she has ever worn makeup.

Susan took on Abdi as a personal cause. It was obvious to her, as it was to so many people, that this kid was pure potential, if only he could stay out of trouble and find something to keep him grounded in the rush of American culture and high school assaulting him on a daily basis. Susan called me. "May, I need a favor. There's this kid, and he's so good and bright, and..." "Susan," I said, "You know I can't take this on. The State will have my butt in a sling if they find out."

Susan backed off the first time, but she was really just waiting for a better opportunity. In the meantime, Abdi enrolled in after-school classes. He got a job working with elementary ESL kids in an after-school program. He completed the entire curriculum for the police department's community cadet cultural liaison program. He made friends at school. He played soccer. He helped with the little kids' soccer on Saturdays. He struggled academically.

Within two years after arrival, every single Somali Bantu high school kid had dropped out, with the exception of Abdi. The pressure to do the same was intense, not only from his friends but from a nervous school staff that didn't want to see any negative effects on their already abysmal graduation rate. The standard unwritten protocol is to push out the kids who aren't likely to meet graduation requirements by the age of 21. A dropout is not counted as a failure on the school's part the way an Unable to Graduate is. Abdi had a lot of people pushing on both sides, and he responded to all of it by becoming sullen and withdrawn. He was perilously close to quitting everything and moving to Minneapolis to join a similarly disenfranchised group of Bantu teens heading for trouble.

Joe came along just in time. I met Joe through my job and laid out my case. I explained that Abdi was a good kid who needed a male adult mentor--someone to be accountable to, someone who could help him understand his frustrations with the culture, someone who could help him master the five-paragraph essay. Joe was a 32-year-old graduate student who needed to get in some degree-related community service hours, so he figured he'd try it for the summer.

In the 18 months since Abdi and Joe met, Joe worked quietly and diligently to effectively mentor Abdi. Abdi started to focus more on school and less on his friends who were busy getting arrested, getting married, or doing nothing. Susan believed that if she could just keep Abdi busy, he would be OK. The thing is, he wasn't always OK. He was defensive and frustrated at school, and three of his teachers had already told him that there was just no way he would graduate--even though that was still a year away.

In September 2007, I asked Joe how it was going. He was a man of few words, and he only replied, "We're making progress." A week later I found out that Joe was spending between five and ten hours a week with Abdi. Abdi's grades shot up dramatically. By late November, he wasn't failing anything. By February, he was an A/B student. Susan told me that Abdi's senior pictures had come in. Senior pictures? Apparently, Joe had felt that if Abdi needed faith in the possibility of graduation, Joe was going to do anything he could to make that possibility more tangible. Joe paid for everything, including a haircut, a new shirt, and a tie.

Sometime in February, Abdi began to stumble. His attitude had tanked, and he wasn't up for listening to any motherly American women telling him to hang in there. I called Joe. Joe had taken a few weeks off from Abdi when Joe's wife gave birth to their first child. It was OK, he said. He'd stop by and talk to Abdi the following day. We'll never know what this gentle, soft-spoken man said, but Abdi turned himself around immediately.

In April, Susan called me, frantic. Abdi had gotten into a fight at school. They wanted to expel him. She was on her way over there to pick him up.

When Susan arrived at the school, Abdi was sitting alone in a conference room. She opened the door and stepped inside, and as soon as she did, Abdi, burst into tears. "I didn't do anything! I didn't. It's not what the security guy said. Susan, I didn't do anything!"

The principal, assistant principal, and the social worker were all out at a conference, so Susan had nobody to speak with except the teacher who was filling in. He couldn't tell her much, except to say that if security had brought Abdi in, there must have been a good reason. Susan tried getting the assistant principal on the phone for days. When she finally spoke, he said they would have to talk about Abdi's cse, but he didn't see why they should believe Abdi and not the security guy. On the day of the meeting, Susan arrived early to talk to Abdi before the meeting started. She put a paper in front of him, a long list of names. The first four names were Joe, Susan, the attorney, and May. "What's this?," Abdi asked, puzzled. Susan explained that this was Abdi's "village," the community of people who had put in a real effort toward his success. Susan went on to point out that if all of these people hadn't believed in him, Abdi never would have achieved so much during his short time in the U.S. "Abdi," she said, "These people care about what happens to you and have made you their repsonsibility. Do you understand that you have a responsibility to believe in them?"

As Abdi thought about that, the attorney came in the room, followed by the social worker, Joe, and Abdi's parents (who had taken off from work for this meeting). The assistant principal listened to each person speak on Abdi's behalf. He said that Abdi could stay. Now Abdi just had to keep his temper in check for a few more weeks and then he would leave high school behind, diploma in hand.

The days came faster and faster. I knew Abdi was in the home stretch, but I was holding my breath, afraid he just wouldn't make it. But he did. He met all of the state requirements to graduate. His walk across the stage represented a much longer journey--from Somalia to Dadaab to Kakuma, to America. In four years, he had learned to read and write, to take on geometry and algebra, and to master the five-paragraph essay.

Abdi had reached his goal, but he had a lot of support. It made me realize that for kids at risk, getting through school isn't so much about the academics as it is about knowing that someone is paying attention, someone is rooting for you, someone is going to show up and stand by you when you get in trouble. For students like Abdi, success isn't predicated on standardized achievement; it is rooted in the unwavering faith of the people you respect.

As I sat in the theater on Friday night, my eyes welled up with tears. He had done it. He was the first Somali Bantu kid in the entire state to have a high school diploma. I looked around at the proud families surrounding me. Abdi's family was there, and his parents--who still speak very little English--applauded enthusiastically for every kid who didn't have a cheering section of his or her own.

I picked up my program booklet and as I read the names of those in the graduating class, I found no fewer than ten names I recognized. These were the children of refugees, and for many of them--most of them--they were the first in their family to finish high school. I knew them. Some of them had translated for me, some of them had served me tea, and I had served all of their parents in the course of their resettlement. Just for a moment, I could see it. I could see that I had made a difference. My work had taken away some of the stress from these parents. They had been given resources. Because of this, they were able to concentrate a bit more on the task of parenting and supporting their children. The proof of their success was steadily filing across the stage.

After the ceremony, we made our way into the crowded lobby, where the constant camera flashes were blinding. In the midst of it, I heard my name in heavily accented English: "Miss May! Miss Voirrey! Hello, hello, my friend. This is my friend. She helped me. She helped me so much. Hello, hello!" I got kisses, hugs and smiles, and I was photographed repeatedly, much to my dismay. Afghanistan. Somalia. Sudan. Bosnia. Krasnodar. Ethiopia. They were all here, and suddenly, it was my night, too. I got the message. I wasn't graduating, but I was commencing the next part of my career. This was the infusion--the proof--I needed. I should stay.

After the ceremony, I went back to Abdi's house. The small apartment was full of rambunctious little children. One of Abdi's friends had come over to wish him well. Abdi's 15-year-old sister and her best friend served huge slabs of sugary supermarket sheet cake with huge scoops of ice cream. Abdi's mother sat on the floor and ate fried chicken and salad that Susan had brought. I sat next to her and said, "Halima, are you happy?" She broke into a huge, sunny smile and said, "Happy! Yes, yes. Good. Everything goooood.!" She may have come from a culture with absolutely no history of formal education, but it was clear that Halima understood her son's accomplishment.

Abdi has big plans for the summer. He'll spend ten weeks in the AmeriCorps progam, and then he's going to start community college. He doesn't know yet what he wants to study, but he's thinking about social work. He figures, he likes helping people and working with kids, and since he's never had any money anyway, it's not like a career in social work will negatively impact him financially.

I told Abdi he has time to figure out the details of his course of study, and for the next few months, he should enjoy just how far he's come. Consider it a rest stop before the next big journey.

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