by Gabriela C. Garver, John Wesley Scholar, Class of 2016
I offer this piece to you, my reader, that you may share in the blessing I was given in the summer of 2013. Last May,
after completing my first year of college, I accepted an internship with a field office of the U. S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. Despite encouragement I received to write down my experiences, I hesitated to pick up a pen for the first month of my work. After beginning to write, I realized I was living a story worth retelling. Furthermore, the story was one my brothers and sisters in the Church needed to hear. With that said, I struggled with the format and content, eventually settling on a vignette style memoir. My retelling is not complete, nor meant to be educational, per se. Simply put, I want you to meet some of the people I met. The following stories are true, with names changed to protect the privacy of my friends. As you read, I hope you will wrestle with a few of the questions that arose in my mind, some of which remain unresolved: Can we love people who are different than ourselves as if they were our own? What does it look like to be a Christian among other religious people? Why does God ask us to care for aliens? And, at the heart of it, who am I?
The first vignette is published here; the rest of Gabriela’s memoir is available here: Foreigner by Gaby Garver (PDF)
One: Baptized By Fire
Across the desk sat a short Iraqi man, his heavy brows knitted. I was alone with a client in a case worker’s office, after one short week at my new job. Equipped with a five minute rundown of the procedure and a toll free phone number, I had been snagged to help a client transfer his electric service into his name. One ear occupied with elevator music playing on the phone line; the other the man’s laments about life in America, I flipped open the blue case file: Haider Mohemed Mustafa Al-Karem.
“You must help me,” the man pleaded, his palms outstretched. “My wife, she cry every night. I cry every night. They say two hundred dollar for rent—how can we pay? How can we pay? I only have one hundred. My case worker, she no understand. She no help. I tell her, how can I pay? I cannot work, and my wife, she is pregnant. How do we get money? You must help us pay.”
“Your wife is pregnant?” I interrupted. “Congratulations.”
“Yes, praise God. He send me one son—” He paused to pull a photo out of his wallet, “—and now my wife, she is pregnant.” His smile faded. “But she must go to hospital, which costs money. How do we pay?”
“I don’t know. Please just hang on a second,” I repeated.
“No, I cannot wait any longer,” he cried, his neck muscles bulging. “Everyone tells me wait, but I cannot. For how long? For how long?”
“May I have your name?” the woman on the phone interrupted.
“And the address you’re calling about, Miss Garver?”
“Well, I’m calling from the International Institute about one of my clients.”
“Your position with the company?”
“Case worker,” I offered gingerly. Labeling myself as an intern would be advertising my inexperience but declaring myself a case worker gave me butterflies.
“What is your client’s name?”
As I ran my finger over the letters, I swallowed hard, prepared to butcher the name with its angry owner sitting right in front of me. Hay-dur? No, that sounds like “hater.” But what else could it be?
“Could you spell that please?”
I glanced up at Mr. Al-Karem, hoping he would forgive me my mispronunciation. Realizing he probably didn’t even know what “hater” meant, I relaxed a bit.
“You must help me,” Mr. Al-Karem started again. I juggled both conversations, motioning for him to calm down with one hand, and writing down the electric company’s fax number with the other.
“Now with your permission, I’m going to transfer your call to the advanced move-in department,” the woman on the line told me, prompting the return of the metallic elevator music.
“You must help me. Look at you. You are young. You are kind. I am like your father,” he pleaded, tilting his head with eyes straight off a Humane Society commercial. “You are like my daughter. You must help me.”
“I’m sorry this is happening,” I responded, trying not to laugh at his wiles. “I don’t know what can be done. We will have to talk to your case worker.”
“No!” He planted a fist on the desk. “She never tell me nothing!”
“Would you like to talk to Amirah? She can speak to you in Arabic so that you can understand.”
“Yes, Amirah will help. Can we go now?”
“No, we need to finish on the phone here and then we can go to her office, ok?”
“Yes, thank you. God bless you,” he sniveled.
A pause in the elevator music introduced a tired voice to the line. “Ma’am, could you please put Mr. Al-Karem on the phone so that we can make sure it’s alright for us to start service in his name?”
“Yes, but he doesn’t speak English very well.”
“What language does he speak? We can get an interpreter on the line.”
“Ok, one moment please.”
I handed the phone to my first client, and listened blankly to his end of the conversation. After several minutes, he handed the phone back and we both rose to find Amirah, the employment counselor. Having been a refugee from Iraq six years prior, Amirah’s mother tongue was Arabic.
“Yes, hun,” she responded, as I poked my head into her office. A lacey blue hijab, which fell in a semi-circle across her chest and shoulders, framed her olive face and dark eyes. My few interactions with Amirah had established a near reverence of her. She wore strength as if it were an evening gown, with an elegance I had rarely observed in business women.
“High-dur,” I heard Amirah say as she stepped out of her office. Of course! I thought.
When I left the conversation, Haider’s temper escalated, raising the hall volume several decibels. Within minutes, Marj, the director, was covering the length of the hallway with long, even strides.
“Please come into my office so we can discuss this. Amirah, could you come with us?”
I slunk back to my borrowed office, glad to be invisible as an intern, but giddy with adrenaline. I said good morning to Jacob, who was coming out of Anand’s office, across from mine. Jacob set up apartments for incoming refugees and had been among the first in the office to befriend me. Now his eyes held mine, bright islands amidst a dark sea of pockmarked skin. He said hello but didn’t smile. He was thinking. Pressing his hands against the sides of the doorframe, he spoke.
“Gaby, are you going to play soccer this Sunday?”
I hoped he could not see my discomfort. Jacob had played semi-pro soccer in the Ivory Coast before arriving state side.
“Just call me on Sunday and I’ll let you know,” I offered, promising myself I would be somewhere—anywhere—on Sunday if my phone rang.
“Ok.” “I’m really not sure I can play with you guys. I’m not that good!”
“No, Gaby, it will be fun. He plays, too.” He threw a thumb toward a young Iraqi standing in the hallway. “And he is very good. Better than me.”
“Oh! Well, call me and we’ll see.”
After he left, I turned back to Haider’s file, images of myself playing soccer poorly pounding through my mind. I wished I was better just for Jacob’s sake.
Ivanna, one of the Ukrainian case workers, passed by the office and stopped, surprised to see me behind a case worker’s desk.
“Little case worker, eh?” She smirked. I smiled faintly, nodding. “Are you working on something now, or could you come help me?” Following her across the hall, I sat down in front of her cluttered desk, observing her bright gray eyes and thin lips. Her bobbed gray hair was parted in the middle and fell on either side of her wrinkled face. She handed me a case file and then withdrew it.
“Did-did you sign the release form to look at these files?”
“Did you fill out the form and pay the twenty-five dollars?”
I shook my head. “No. They did a background check on me, but I never signed anything.”
“And they’ve been letting you work with files? And on the computer?”
I nodded, and she shrugged, raising an eyebrow somewhat suspiciously. “Ok. I guess it’s ok then.”
With that, I was baptized into the Institute by Ivanna Aliyev, quite unaware of what my commissioning entailed but eager to meet the task.
Continue reading the full memoir here: Foreigner by Gaby Garver (PDF)