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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Wishing things were different

A Little Something is changing, evolving. Members have come and gone, founders have moved on, new faces appear at each monthly meeting.

The meetings are too chaotic to allow us the opportunity to sit and talk with the new members, so we’ve reached a point where we know the names of most of the women, but we don’t much about them other than country of origin. This is much different from the early days when we knew important and often intimate details about each member’s situation. Perhaps it’s just a reality of growth and open-call meetings.

Some of our original members came to yesterday’s meeting. Sharifo, Fadumo, and Sahara showed up after missing many months of contact with us. Fatuma came, too, but chose to sit among newcomers rather than settle in with familiar faces.

I watched Fatuma with some sadness. I’ve written about her before on this blog. She has a large family but a mostly absentee husband who has all but abandoned his family in favor of a more carefree life. This has left Fatuma to struggle as essentially a single mother of eight, with another baby due in February. She doesn’t want to discuss the baby. It is doubtful the circumstances of her pregnancy were ever happy at any point.

Halfway through our gathering, I noticed that Fatuma was wearing athletic shoes that were obviously men’s shoes and easily three sizes too big. “Fatuma,” I said, “where are your shoes? These shoes are too big and you might fall.”

Fatuma laughed nervously and said these were her son’s shoes and the only ones she had right now. I hoped that the money she had just received for her recent jewelry sales would be put toward a decent pair of shoes for herself, but I know better. Fatuma never takes care of herself first. She spends her jewelry pay on her kids, on food, on necessities.

The family is struggling worse than ever, but Fatuma is not one to complain. I could see that she was clearly not her usual cheery self on Saturday, though. Her affect was somewhat flat, and she seemed preoccupied as she went through the motions of making beaded key chains. She didn’t want to chat. She seemed lost in her own thoughts.

At the end of the day, Fatuma helped us clean up, and when it was time to load up Jaime’s and my cars, Fatuma reached down and picked up two heavy, overly-stuffed canvas bags of supplies. I reminded her she shouldn’t be picking up anything so heavy. I thought about her pregnancy and the effort it must take to not only haul heavy bags up the stairs, but to do so in ill-fitting shoes. She insisted she was fine.

I had agreed to give Fatuma a ride home. I helped get her situated in the passenger seat and as I clicked her seat belt closed, I asked her what size shoes she wears. She said she couldn’t remember. Her feet looked cartoonish—oversized red and white basketball shoes poking out from beneath a traditional floral Somali wrap dress.

As we drove diagonally across Denver toward Fatuma’s house, she blurted out, “Sharon, I need help.” I know that Fatuma needs a world of help, and that for the most part, I’m not in a position to provide it. I asked Fatuma what was wrong.

“I need a washer. My washer broken. Finished. Sharon, I have eight kids, and in two months…” Her voice trailed off. She told me her children were washing their clothes by hand in the tub so they would be OK for school. Fatuma had faced a lot of challenges, but this one was beyond her ability to solve.

I know that her husband’s chronic absence and neglect mean the family never has enough money for food, no money for shoes, and definitely no money for a washer. Fatuma had struggled stoically through personal hurt, lack of support from her own community, the stress of trying to help her kids—especially when they got in trouble or faced insurmountable challenges at school—yet if you were to ask her how she was, how life was, she would always smile and say, “OK. Everybody’s good. We’re OK. Fatuma is not one to ever admit that things are not OK, nor is she ever likely to ask anyone to step in on her behalf. It’s the kind of thing you have to stumble upon in the course of a visit.

I was surprised that Fatuma had freely offered up the information that things weren’t going well at home. It was the lack of a washer and dryer that finally made her feel a sense of frustration and defeat that would have made anyone else crumple long ago that got her to come out and ask for help.

Fatuma went on to say that she can’t do anything. She wants to go to school, but she can’t because she has no access to daycare. I reminded her that despite this, she never misses the Saturday class she has attended four the past four years. She speaks English quite well for someone who hasn’t had the benefit of formal education. She always tries to speak English whenever possible instead of relying on her kids to translate everything. She looks for ways to learn and to help herself and her kids. She works multiple urban farming plots to provide healthy produce for her family from spring through fall. I reminded her that she’s a very good mom who is raising nice kids. She pays her bills, somehow. She is not on welfare. I told her that many people have trouble because they don’t try to help themselves, but she should feel good about trying to do everything she could to make her life better.

Fatuma was quiet for a minute. She looked at me and said, “Thank you. Today I’m tired.” Then, with great sincerity, she told me that she likes the way I drive—carefully and not too fast. I laughed at the turn of conversation topic and told her other drivers don’t like me very much for the exact reasons she thought I was a good driver.

As we pulled up in front of her house, Fatuma thanked me again. I promised to take her shoe shopping next week. I told her I’d think about how we could get her a good, sturdy, and reliable washer and dryer that will last a long time, but no promises that I had any answers.

I spent the night fretting over Fatuma’s situation. She has always tried so hard, she has a steady, can-do attitude, yet the universe seems determined to keep throwing obstacles in her path. There are issues of culture involved here, certainly, but there is also a large dose of life being unfair to someone who deserves a break. I can’t even imagine, given all that goes in Fatuma’s world, what a simple relief it must be to sit quietly among other women now and then, stringing beads into cheery combinations and not worrying (for an hour or so) about how she’s going to manage hospital bills or life without a desperately-needed washer and dryer.


(We are trying to help Fatuma get new appliances--something with a warranty, something that will last and stand up to the task at hand. If you are interested in contributing to this effort, click here.)

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