Let me tell you about Askar. He’s this senior high school student I’ve been volunteer tutoring for a couple of years.
Askar came from Somalia, a war-torn country in Africa, three years ago and did not know English. The first year I tutored him he was a happy-go-lucky kid who smiled a lot, joined the track team, and was learning quickly. He made good grades in spite of barely understanding English because he worked so hard. Sometimes it was painful to work with him – I had to keep asking him to repeat his questions in order to understand what he was saying. He could not read one sentence of homework instructions without having to ask what two or three words meant.
In December 2009 Askar had to leave our tutoring session early because he said he had a job interview. He was a senior, so it wasn’t unusual that he’d want a part-time job. I asked what kind of work and he told me that it was on an assembly line working 5 days a week from 3-11 I pried and found out that his parents had split up and he had been living with his older brother, but the brother was moving and Askar had to find his own place. “I have to have rent money,” he said.
I knew he could not finish his senior year and work this job, which was located way out by the airport, so I begged him not to take that job. I mentioned to the librarian that he needed work, and perhaps she put the word out. As luck would have it, he got a job as a janitor right at the high school working from 4-9 Monday through Friday, which was a perfect set-up.
He had too much luck, however, because he had also applied at OHSU hospital and was hired there as well, working from 3:30 to 11 on Saturday and Sunday in the transportation department moving wheelchair and stretcher patients.
I advised him not to take both jobs, but he didn’t know which to turn down, and he wanted the money. He managed okay the first couple of weeks, then he became exhausted. He’d come to tutoring and lay his head on the table to and rest. “I am so tired, SuzyAnne,” he’s say. That’s how my name sounds with a Somalian accent. He complained of headaches and of his grades falling. He had found an apartment, but it was across town, which meant a long bus ride to school and after work.
I kept saying, “You are young, you can do this. Just don’t quit school.” It became apparent after the first month that he wasn’t gong to be able to manage it all. He didn’t have enough time to work, go to school, study and sleep, much else shop for and prepare food or hang out with his friends. Since he had to work, and he had to sleep at least a few hours, school moved down on his priority list.
I wondered what I could do to help him. I thought about giving him money so he could quit one of the jobs, but somehow this didn’t seem right. I prayed about it and racked my brain and finally decided that the best thing I could give him was time. One night when he got off work I showed up at the bus stop and asked him if he wanted a ride. He was surprised and hesitant, but accepted, and I drove him home. I told him, “I am supposed to do something for Lent, and I’ve decided I will drive you home from work and that will be something good I can do.”
He is Muslim and understood the concept of sacrificing for your religion, and so even though it was awkward for both of us, I continued to pick him up after work, and he accepted the rides. It usually took him an hour or more to get home on the bus, plus the waiting and walking time. I could have him home in 15 minutes or so. “You can use that extra time for sleep or studying or sleep,” I said.
Sometimes he would be so tired it would break my heart. I’d tell him a funny story or talk about the Trailblazers or ask him about work at OHSU to try and get his energy back up. “Oh, SuzyAnne,” he’d say. “The people are so fat. It took three of us to push the man’s stretcher. Three of us! He was so big and everyone there is so big! Why do they eat so much?” These stories, though tragic, made us laugh at 11:30 on those dark rainy nights, and I looked forward to hearing them.
I would ask him about the Muslim religion and was fascinated with the customs. “If you touch a girl in my country before you are married, even just on the arm, her father could come and shoot you in the head and no one would do anything to him because of the Muslim law.”
Once I brought my dog in the car, and she jumped over in his lap. He raised his hands in the air. “You’re not a dog person, I see.” “No, not really,” he said, waiting for her to get off his lap before he put his hands down. A few days later he told me that dogs were considered unclean. “if you touch a dog, you have to wash your hands seven times,” he said.
“Don’t people have them for pets?” I asked. “No, not one person,” he answered. “There is not one dog in the town I came from. Not even on the street. People have cats for pets, but not dogs.”
I will continue Askar’s story tomorrow.