We first met Isak four years ago. He had been in America for one year. In his past life he had fled Eritrea (under the threat of death, we later learned), a small NorthEast African country that often tops lists naming the world’s worst dictators. He sought refuge in Ethiopia, where he lived in an overcrowded camp before winning the luck lottery and settling in Kansas City.
Four years ago we had no kids and found ourselves with extra time on our hands after finishing our MBA programs. After being fairly selfish with our time while we were in school we wanted to give back. We had no idea how much we would receive!
We had just recently applied to adopt from Ethiopia, but I didn’t make this known to the refugee agency. The fact that we were paired with Isak was definitely a God thing. There are a lot of refugees in Kansas City, but very few from Ethiopia/Eritrea. Just a handful each year.
I’m now pretty comfortable communicating across language barriers, but at the time I was just a white girl from Savannah Missouri whose only interaction with foreign speakers was when I flapped my arms like a chicken to order food from a Mexican fast food worker. I definitely wasn’t comfortable around people who couldn’t speak English very well and Isak’s English was pretty darn rough. We had dozens of awkward moments, like the time Isak thought he ticked Mark off after he told me he loved me, or the time we helped Isak set up a Facebook account and his first post on the husband’s wall was that he was a “nice and funny gay” (instead of guy).
Over the years we watched Isak work his butt off. Seriously, he’s one of the hardest working guys we know. One time he was telling us how he worked a bazillion hours a day and then went to school after that. I asked him when he slept and he said “Work now. Sleep later.” We helped him apply for better jobs, cheered as he received good grades at school, and drank a million cups of coffee his friends made for us. It didn’t take long for our “volunteer” time to feel like we were spending time with a close friend.
Isak works hard enough that he could have all sorts of nice fancy things. But instead he sends a good portion of his money home to his family. His dad is currently visiting- Isak paid for his plane ticket. Most folks that are here from other countries have a deep longing for their family back home and a deep sense of responsibility towards them.
Two years ago one of his sisters and her children, currently ages 6 and 10, joined him here. By this time we had Wiggles and the girls loved having a real-life baby doll. We loved having homemade Ethiopian food prepared for us regularly! We helped the girls prepare for school, celebrated when they moved just a few minutes away from us, and watched as Isak adjusted from living as a single man to living with 3 women! When we traveled to Ethiopia to meet our kids, we brought some gifts and delivered them to his sister’s husband. We met their mom and watched a soccer game at their house in Addis Ababa. (I also puked in their van…awesome).
Their friendship has been a huge blessing in our lives. Especially as we welcomed our children- roughly the same ages as Isak’s nieces. Isak’s family speak the same languages as our kids. His sister helps me with Diva’s hair. They cook for us and tell us stories and I am so thankful for our kids to have that connection to their past.
When a refugee has lived in the United States for five years they can qualify to become a naturalized citizen. They have to meet certain criteria and pass a test about our government. Isak did all this and on December 11th he became a citizen of the United States of America!!
We both attended the ceremony, but I had the littles with me so I watched through the doors. I couldn’t hear the words, but just standing there watching a few dozen people renounce their past lives- many of them cruel past lives- and pledge allegiance to this country made me get teary-eyed. It’s not like I’m some super-patriotic person. There are plenty of bad things I could say about America, but how many countries in the world welcome folks from all over the world? There were over 30 countries represented in that courtroom. How I wished I could hear and each and every person’s story.
In history class I listened to stories about how immigrants worked their tails off to make America great. People’s great-great-great grandpa swept warehouse floors for 16 hours a day to enable his children to have more opportunity. Now I know that the story isn’t done. Tomorrow’s great-great-great grandpas are today’s table bussers, cab drivers, and meat packers. If you come across someone you suspect wasn’t born in America, kindly ask where they’re from. Show some interest in their story and be forgiving of their English. They’re working so hard. Pay for their groceries or give them a huge tip. Welcome them to this melting pot country!
Way to go Isak, we are so proud of you!