Letter From Home “Education And Hope” 1/1/20

A few days prior to Christmas I was in a grocery store line to check out items needed for a gathering of friends to be held at our home.  The store is a place I stop a couple times a week and over the years I have come to know many of the employees through chats and laughter.  I did not, however, recognize the woman who was working my checkout line.

I have a habit of striking up conversations with folks I encounter in retail as I do not want them to feel under-appreciated.  Everyone is always in a hurry in our world, and it seems that we too often forget to acknowledge the people who are directly in front of us.  So I make it a point to talk to people who I interact with in stores and try to thank them by using their name on their tag.   But the new face in the grocery store line had a name I knew I was not going to be able to pronounce on the first try.  Or third try.

She had her hair covered and so I assumed she might be of the Islamic faith.  She told me her name was based from her religion.  Raised in Ghana she was new to Madison and wondered how she might adapt to winter.  With spring temps that we experienced in December, I alerted her to the mercurial nature of our weather.

But it was when she spoke about taking classes at our local technical school, and then transferring to UW-Madison, that I am sure my smile broadened.  Over and over I either talk with or read about immigrants who come to this country and seek out ways to improve their lives.  In this country, immigrants need to deal with new language skills, currency, culture, and in the case of this young woman, cold weather and certainly snow.   Added to that is the desire to strive for education and learning and personal growth.

There is so much to admire and be proud of when hearing such stories.  They confirm what I heard in taxi cab rides around Washington, DC two years ago when I would strike up conversations with immigrant drivers.

I was heartened that each of the men driving cabs was chatty and open about their life and experiences in this nation.   From Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Morocco, Sudan, and Sierra Leone each had strong feelings and all but one had language skills that made it easy to convey them.  The vast majority were of the Islamic faith and needless to say, were as proud to talk about it as anyone would be about their religion.  One soft-spoken man from Ethiopia seemed so humble and sincere about his life and outlook that upon leaving the cab I turned and offered the Islamic greeting of “peace be upon you”.

All the men had come to this country to make a better way in life.  Most had been here for about 15 years, a couple arrived only about 7 years ago.  Some had traveled with family and others came alone.  A man who came from India to get an education started his own restaurant.  An Ethiopian driver was surprised we knew of some foods from his native land such as Injera and Doro Wat.   We told him that in Madison we live close to a restaurant that makes these foods.  He smiled and told us that in his land Dor Wat is reserved for special days as it takes lots of ingredients and time to make.

Each of the drivers had made a bold choice of leaving the place of their birth to seek a better life.  It meant at times, as with the driver from India, leaving every member of his family behind and seeking something different.  It is a phenomenal undertaking to make such a journey.

And they work hard.  They are not slackers.  Most lived in Maryland where rental properties were more affordable.   One driver spoke of the rent increases over the past decade where his two-bedroom apartment now costs over $2,000 per month.   Other drivers told of their small children.  In one case a driver wanted his son to learn his native language at home while also speaking English at school.   James, as a professor of languages,  heartily agreed and offered some tips on how to make that process work.

Painting every person of the Islamic faith with one brush, as Donald Trump continues to do, was met with resentment and hurt.  “That is not American,” is how one man expressed it from his front seat.  And he is correct.

The desire to come to America and the thirst for education is a real and most uplifting combination.  We should applaud that and welcome it.

And that is exactly what I did upon hearing the woman at the grocery store. She expressed how many in Madison have been so welcoming and encouraging.   I told her many folks in the Midwest are big-hearted, want to see more diversity, and are not in alignment with what too often makes for dreadful headlines.

These types of moments and conversations are what truly makes me happy.  They can almost make me forget what I am doing.  As I got to the car I realized that I had not taken all my bagged groceries.  Walking back to get them I took stock of how important such conversations are in the chaotic times we find ourselves.

I am hoping for many more such simple conversations and interactions in the year ahead.

And so it goes.