Worthy of Friendship

In the last few days, the social media newsfeed has shown numerous posts reflecting upon creating our circles, and choosing friends wisely. It’s left me with this thought. We teach our children to choose their friends carefully, curating relationships based upon outward actions, reputation, behavior, and other attributes that we can see with the eye. This is understandable. We don’t wish ill will or difficulty to come to our little ones as they learn and grow. We don’t wish their reputations before being fully formed, to be tarnished. We don’t want them to be on the receiving end of cruelty or ridicule by other students, and honestly, by other parents. We teach them to select friends from whom they will benefit by matter of character. We use these same principles when selecting our own circle of friends and colleagues. It’s said, “choose your tribe”, “select those who will help you soar”, “be around those who benefit you and challenge you”. This has merit. Yet, I ask, upon what is this based? The majority of the time it is based solely on outward presentation. When first meeting someone we have no other knowledge from which to draw a conclusion. It seems to me, rather than draw a conclusion of any kind, rather than selecting myself who I want to associate with, rather than picking and choosing based upon reputation, the focus should be inward. Am I someone that others would want to be around? Am I someone that helps uplift others? Am I someone that has depth of character and compassion to be a good friend, a good human to any and all or only to those who fit a certain mold? It saddens me to read things about discerning the character of others based solely on reputation, especially so when the person is young. I knew a girl in high school who had a poor reputation. She was referred to by many as “trashy”. Yet, few knew the details of repeated abuse that stole her value. She truly had not even “slept around”, as it was said. All it took was one or two foul mouthed male students who took from her something and then by their actions made her daily life hell. Freshman year, my second school already, and being the new girl with few friends, I was fortunate to have made a friend in her. She was real. She was honest. She was smart. She was significantly more than anything ever repeated about her.

Sophomore year brought another change of schools and a student who was decidedly cruel to me was waiting there. I never understood why. She would call me names in Spanish that would be inappropriate to repeat. She whispered to other girls about me. She occasionally pushed too hard walking past me, but not hard enough to be considered hitting. There was no reason, of course, so on most days, I shrugged it off. Somehow, in my 16 year old jolly optimism, I decided to do the opposite of what I wanted to do. She did frighten me because of her tough persona. Yet, nearly every time I saw her, I said, “Hi Angelina,” as if she was my best friend or on lesser days, I would at least smile. She wouldn’t talk other than to ridicule me. Other times, on days when I couldn’t handle it, I did steer away. Flash forward to graduation night after all the diplomas were passed out. There before me in white cap and gown with black mascara streaks down her face stood Angelina. She looked much smaller that night than when encountered in the halls. She said she never understood why I was always nice to her even though she didn’t return the treatment. Then she thanked me. What?! This girl, this bossy mean girl was thanking me? She then briefly told me of a rough life, of not having much, of not even having one true friend. She apologized to me for the nearly three years of whispers and hallway jabs. There was nothing to apologize for and standing there on the field in 100+ degree heat of late spring Phoenix weather, we hugged a long, earnest hug. We never saw another again. We didn’t exchange numbers. Yet, to this day I am changed by that moment with that girl of bad reputation and mean outward behavior. I can only hope she was changed too. Rather than focus on those who we perceive as worthy of spending our time with and worthy of befriending, it seems to me, we should focus on being worthy ourselves by not giving attention to outward representation shown to us by others, but instead on the inward reality of ourselves. Show love, give love, be love. This is what changes lives. ūüíď

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Shackled Grace

ngozi hands

Ngozi was a pretty girl with fine, delicate features and a dazzling¬†smile. She was a happy girl and truly loved school. Her favorite subject was science and she read as much as she could at school because she did not have any books at home. Ngozi grew up in a Somali village until the age of nine. That was when the rebels came. They tore through, destroying the simple patch homes with fire, slaughtering innocence and driving out her family. Upon returning from school, Ngozi found her burning home but not her parents and siblings. Along with other schoolchildren and the few¬†adults who dared come back to collect scattered belongings, she fled on foot away from all she had ever known. ¬†She walked and walked, frightened and unsure of where her steps led her. Days¬†later temporary lodging was found and a¬†terrified Ngozi was given to a family who agreed that she may stay with them until she could be reunited with her family. As the days passed, she often remembered her mother, sister, classmates and missed going to school. She remained with her adoptive ‚Äúfamily‚ÄĚ and in exchange for their generosity, she was required to care for the younger children, do laundry and help with cooking. She was not permitted to attend school or read. To comfort herself, she made a small doll to look like her mother out of¬†leaves and straw. At the age of 12, as payment towards her servitude, Ngozi was forced into prostitution. She was unclean and therefore forced to sleep outside of the hut ruled by her adoptive father. By 14, she was in a violent arranged marriage which later gave to her¬†a daughter of her own.

Ngozi and I met when she was about 19; her chubby cheeked daughter just a toddler. They had arrived to the U.S. only two¬†weeks before with her husband. Upon arrival, an apartment had been secured for them in the same community as the husband’s family. This is common practice in refugee resettlement as it typically ensures a more successful resettlement process. However for Ngozi any dream she had of a better life, away from the camps was stolen from her. She¬†had been kicked out of the home by her¬†husband¬†and forced to¬†fend for herself. We had never seen this happen in our work before, but there she stood, a small torn suitcase in one hand and the other wrapped in her daughter’s tiny fingers. As a refugee, the agency with which I worked was able to provide some basic support services to Ngozi. However the help was minimal and it was imperative that she¬†find work. Unsure of just how to handle the situation, Ngozi was brought to my office by her caseworker to see if I could arrange for¬†special assistance. She stood quietly with her head down, not looking up to greet my eyes. She was slight of frame and it was a struggle to support the bustling activity of her very active little one. Ngozi did speak some English and in an attempt to converse with her, I asked if I could give her daughter a toy and lollipop. The child began playing on the floor, freeing Ngozi’s tired arms. I had lunch delivered for us and the look on her face was quite comical when she held the chicken and vegetable spinach wrap sandwich and fruit smoothie. She had never eaten¬†green bread and looked at it skeptically. However she was hungry and within minutes the lunch had been completely consumed. The next order of business was locating an apartment for her. Concerned for Ngozi’s¬†safety, I was able to find a one room apartment in the same community where I lived. This would remove her completely from the Somali community but provide someone she knew close by in case of retaliation or other emergency.

We were separated in age by only a few years. Somehow this provided her some comfort and her story began to unfold. As she spoke, her long, graceful fingers would sweep the delicate features of her face in shame. I remember thinking how beautiful her hands were considering the struggle that bound them. She was bright, hopeful…even in the face of all she experienced. She dreamed of becoming a teacher. For three months she lived as my neighbor. A few times a week, often late at night, I would hear a slight tapping on my door. Ngozi would stand there, always with an apology for disturbing me, although it never was a disturbance. Her daughter had a severe diaper rash, or she was unsure how to work the oven or she needed help understanding forms for medical and¬†food assistance. I often saw her sweeping…sweeping not only her apartment in absence of a vacuum cleaner, but sweeping the stoop of the entire row of apartments that surrounded hers. As she swept, she would hum. Upon seeing me she would wave her hand with a shining smile. It is really quite amazing…the¬†power of the human spirit to overcome extreme adversity and still smile so genuinely.

Her public assistance ran out and after trying for a few months to find work and take care of her child without any support, sadly Ngozi fell back into the violence of her husband’s home. Overwhelmed, hungry, without food or a job to provide money, she felt there was no other way. Unfortunately there was nothing more the agency could provide to her. The last time I saw her, she still hoped that one day she would find her parents and siblings and return to school. She still hoped.

Ngozi’s story is common to many women and children around the globe and here in our very own communities.  I hope reading her story has made you think and want to take action. For more information and ways you can make a difference, go to: http://www.un.org/en/women/endviolence/index.shtml

The first step in building a society free from domestic abuse and violence is to take action rather than step back. Speak out against violence happening in your community.