Maryland Women's Heritage Center

A Grown Up Life Lesson

Itís not every day that you find a great opportunity to instill a life lesson in your child. Finding a set of circumstances that will supply enough wow factor to really make a child of 9 or 10 ponder some cerebral topics is quite rare. And itís even rarer for the event or activity to have a lasting effect on a child. But on occasion it happens and the results are truly amazing.

A good friend and neighbor was telling me about a family her church was ďadopting.Ē The family was coming from Somalia, and had been barely surviving for almost a decade in a country that was ravaged by a civil war. The oldest daughter had managed to make her way to the United States, married and made a life for herself. She was now trying to get her mother, father and younger siblings into the country to begin again as she had. The documentation had finally been completed and they would be arriving very soon. She was both ecstatic and worried as she would need to find a way to help get her family a place to live, food and jobs. Her church, the same church my friend and her family attended, was offering to help get the family settled and started on building a new life in a country where they would be safe and able to provide for their children.

Hearing about a family of six who had absolutely nothing was mind boggling for me and even more foreign a concept for my 9 year old son. He had never known a time when he didnít have all of his needs met and almost all of his wants provided. I donít think he could really picture what the living conditions would be for this family, and especially these children. But he immediately wanted to know if we could help in the preparations for the familyís arrival. I was thrilled that as an only child, he would have an opportunity to practice sharing and thinking of other children before himself. He and the neighborís children began filling boxes with items that they thought this new family would need to begin their life in the states.

Finally, the day arrived when we were going to pack all of the boxes and our children into their van and my truck to deliver the items to the family. I wasnít sure what to expect, I only hoped that our gaggle of five children, all under the age of 10, was not too overwhelming to the family. When we arrived at the small two bedroom apartment, it was all we could do to keep the older children from barging into the apartment with boxes of goodies. Due to the conditions this family had endured for many years in Somalia, they were cautious, if not fully afraid of strangers; and especially strangers baring gifts. Fortunately, their oldest daughter was there and could explain that we were part of the church group who was helping them.

Slowly, we were all welcomed into their new home. As we began to unload boxes of food, it became clear that they were overwhelmed simply by the amount of food they would have, let alone the variety. Each box was carried to the kitchen and unloaded as if it contained rare and precious cargo. Our children didnít understand why even the children were so excited about bread and vegetables and juice. Our kids had never opened an empty fridge or pantry. But we explained that very often these children didnít have enough food of any kind, so to them these simple items would create a feast.

After the food was unloaded came boxes of clothes which were also gladly accepted. One of the last items to be given to the children of the family was a soccer ball. Our children all played little league soccer and they just assumed that every child on the planet had at least one soccer ball. When they learned that these children had no toys or sports equipment, they insisted that we arrive with a new soccer ball for them. It took some coaxing, but finally their mother let them go outside to play ball with our children. We learned from the oldest daughter, who was our translator, that in their country it had not been safe to allow the children to go outside to play. There was much we didnít really grasp about the world they had come from, but we were hoping to show them this was a safe place for their family and that there were caring people here who wanted to help them succeed in their new life.

When we left, we told them that we would be back next week with more food and to see how they were doing. We were thanked by their daughter and we got a half smile from her father, but her mother was still quite shy. She never made eye contact and she always stayed far across the room from all of us. She clung to her baby granddaughter whom she never met until she arrived here. Later we learned that she never sat the child down, she was so thankful to be here and to meet her. That child seemed to represent all of the potential the entire family had dreamed of. They would all begin a new life with her.

Over the course of the next few days, our children had many discussions about the new family they had just met. They were amazed by the joy that they got from such simple items such as clothes and a soccer ball. They also thought of them during meals. They hoped that the family was enjoying the food we had taken them and that they had enough to eat. Never before had our children thought of or mentioned others that might be going hungry when they had more food than they needed or wanted. It was a period of enlightenment for all of them as they began to understand that they were definitely very fortunate and should be thankful not only for what they had but where they lived and all that was afforded them.

The following week, everyone was eager to return and share more with our new friends. When we arrived, the children were outside kicking around a rough looking grey object. It was not the shiny new soccer ball our children had given them the week before. We carried boxes inside and then all the children were back outside to play. As it turned out, that was the soccer ball they had gotten last week. It was the only ball that most of the children had ever owned or played with. They had constantly wanted to play outdoors with their new ball and had completely worn the outside off of the ball in a week! And even in its current condition, it was still the best toy they had even had. Again, our children were in awe.

On this visit we learned that only the oldest son was born before the civil war began. He remembered living in a time of peace but none of his younger siblings had ever experienced that life. He was the only one who had ever slept in a bed and remembered their home. We also learned that the parents were a little bit afraid to let the children out of their sight because many times in their country children would go outside and just disappear. But they were working hard to overcome their fears and let the children begin to build a new and normal life in America.

This day also stands out in my mind because itís the day that their mother began to trust and accept us. She smiled at us and took her granddaughterís hand and waved to us. Through her oldest daughter, she asked us to join her on the couch. This seemed like a huge milestone, but little did we know that it was just the beginning. She began to speak and her daughter translated for us. She thanked us profusely and explained how wonderful an opportunity this was for her and her family. Her husband disappeared into a bedroom and returned with a tiny stool. This was the only thing that they had been able to bring from their previous life. He placed it in front of us. She had tears in her eyes as she spoke and then pointed to the stool. She wanted to give it to us as a gift, a thank you. The moment was more than amazing. We accepted her gift and told her that it would always be treasured and displayed with great honor. She smiled and then spoke to her daughter. Her daughter replied and then a tear ran down her cheek. She whispered to us that her mother wanted to know if we would like to hold the baby. She held the child out to us. Now tears were flowing from all eyes in the room. It was clear that she was offering us what she held most dear to her heart, her newfound granddaughter. It was an honor and a pleasure to hold the small child. She had no idea how profoundly she had touched so many people.

I left that small apartment feeling as if I had just been a part of something extraordinary. Iím certain it took more than just those few minutes for the full impact of the experience to sink in. I was both proud and impressed by the way our children had handled the experience. And I was glad that we had been fortunate enough to be able to share the learning experience with them. But it was not until much later when I clearly understood that I had gained much more than I was giving to that family. Numerous times over the years, Iíve thought of that day, the look in the womanís eyes and holding that child. The trust, respect and love she offered me still touches my heart after more than a decade. I learned so much about what really matters in this world from a lady who had not a single object. Trust and human kindness, sharing what is in your heart; thatís the most treasured gift that anyone can offer.

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