Low Income Families in Crisis

I wish I had this worked out better by now. I think, watching the world wrestle with refugees and fear and self-protectionism and welcome and closed borders, that we all wish we had things like this worked out better by now.

families in crisis

Last month a Djiboutian family I know well was struck by a tragic medical crisis. This is a low-income family with two unemployed parents and a few almost-grown children who earn enough money to keep the family fed, clothed, and sheltered.

The crisis involved a newly married young woman, the eldest sibling. She was admitted to the hospital and remained there for over a week. On her third day in the hospital, I received a phone call.

“She needs a urine test right now and she needs money to pay for it.”

Medical care here is different from medical care I am used to in the United States. In Minnesota when my family undergoes surgery or medical tests, the doctor simply orders them and we get the (massive) bills later. Hopefully the insurance company will cover the costs but rarely does it cover everything.

Here, tests are performed and paid for one at a time, in cash and up front, so though the patient might not know why the test is being done and might not be informed of the result, she at least knows how much it costs. Also, supplies must be brought by the family (including food, sheets, pillows, water, soap, etc).

Getting a urine test required that cash, a trip to the pharmacy to get the cup, a trip to the hospital to pick up the urine sample, a trip to the lab to drop off the sample, a return trip to the hospital to deliver lunch (not provided by the hospital), a return trip to the lab to pick up results later in the day, and back to the hospital to try and find a doctor who could, and would, interpret the results.

I felt frustrated with the phone call. My first thought was, “Where is her mother and where is her husband?” I masked my anger and helped take care of this test. I spent hours there, I drove all over the city to find prescription medicine that wasn’t stocked at the hospital (I eventually found some, not at a pharmacy but at a friend’s house). I spent more hours back at the hospital, tracking down doctors and nurses, asking questions, making sure my friend had eaten and washed.

By the time I got home that evening I was completely drenched through my clothing and emotionally and physically exhausted. I canceled a meeting, ordered a pizza, and collapsed in my air-conditioned room.

The next day, again at the hospital, I saw the young woman’s mother, crying. She looked utterly weary, lost, and confused. She told me that the husband had been taking an exam the day before, during the time of the urine test. The exam was to help him get a job, something he needed in order to provide for his wife and soon-to-be-born child. She had been at home caring for several younger children and trying to find someone to watch them so she could come to the hospital today.

I had judged far too quickly.

I had been ignorant of all my advantages.

If the husband left the exam, he would not get that job. He needed a job for the future care of his family. He was trying to do the right thing and had to choose between two impossible things. Staying in that exam was not an easy, selfish thing for him.

If the mother had left her home, in a rough, poor neighborhood far from any kind of police oversight, her house would possibly have been broken into. They don’t have electricity, no refrigerator. She also has to cook meals fresh every day, including a long walk to the market for supplies. Every day. She had to choose: feed several young kids or go to the hospital? Staying at home was not an easy, selfish thing for her.

Me, on the other hand? I had a car, I could zip around from pharmacy to lab to hospital. I had the ability to order a pizza. I had back-up childcare and a secure home that could be left empty. I had power at the hospital, even though I am not a doctor and, as much as I detest it, because of the color of my skin and passport and the money in my wallet.

In other words, I had ease, privilege, and a buffer zone. I had margin.

This family had no margin. They were already living on the edge. They were surviving. They had enough to eat, they had a family support network established, they worked hard to maintain a clean, safe, and stable home. But they had no margin and when disaster struck, disaster requiring money and time, it pushed them right up to and nearly over the edge.

They hadn’t called the foreigner because they were uncaring or selfish. They called me because we have a relationship and because they had little other recourse. They were doing the absolute best they could and asked for almost nothing else beyond this test. Even through weeks of further medical interventions, they scraped together what they could, extended relatives got involved, and other friends rose up to help. With the bit they had, they simply needed a hand to keep them from tipping into the abyss of this crisis and being swallowed whole by it.

I was wrong to be critical. I was selfish, uncaring. Over the weeks that this crisis unfolded I saw family caring for each other in practical, tangible ways. I lent a hand, a car, or a bill, when appropriate. I learned to be much slower to cast judgment and much quicker to serve.

I learned, again, (always learning even after thirteen years as an expatriate) that I need to be less certain and more humble.

The Least of These

Quick link: They Want to Be Here

The kids in my neighborhood prompted to write about sexual harassment and rage.

My daughter and I have both been inappropriately and aggressively touched, mere steps from our front door. I’ve been called every name imaginable, in several languages, and I understand them all. I’ve heard comments about all my body parts and I’ve seen people mimic how I move or what they would like to do to/with those body parts.

Several things help me move beyond the anger but some of the most powerful things are when I see local people countering these negative experiences.

When a teenage boy tells his friends to knock it off.

When an older man apologies to me on behalf of something someone he doesn’t even know said.

When a truck full of young men stop, tell me and my kids to move on, and tell me that they will handle things with the group that was harassing us.

When women loudly shame the people who have shamed us by reminding them we are all made in the image of God.

And, when I see people striving to live a different way, to teach kids about a different way to interact with people.

This last thing is what I found when I went to visit a school around the corner from where I lived. The kids in this school were incredibly well behaved, polite, and engaged in their education. The women working here were pouring out their lives, time, money, and energy to invest in kids many other people might have ignored or shunned.

(I also wrote about this school, and one of their unique students, for the Sahan Journal)

the least of these

Almost fifty children ages four to twelve are crammed into a single classroom in Djibouti City. The windows are open and a couple of ceiling fans swirl the steamy air and cause papers to crinkle and fall to the bare cement floor. A young woman who recently graduated from the University of Djibouti stands in front of a blackboard. She has written the days of the week and the months of the year in chalk, in French, and the students are copying down the words.

Some of the kids hunch over their notebooks with their pens gripped in their fists. Others lean back, done with the assignment already while the youngest nibble on their pens and glance around the room, not sure what, exactly, they are supposed to be doing. One little girl, tired of struggling to copy down the words, tears open a bag of potato chips. The chips fall to the floor and she carefully picks up each and every crumb. I’m surprised. This is a country where plastic bags and candy wrappers fly out car windows, where no one thinks twice about dropping a soda can or an egg carton on the side of the road. But this classroom is spotless. It is also nearly silent…

Click here to read more about this school that provides education, food, and healthcare to low income kids and their families, They Want to Be Here, at EthnoTraveler.

7 Books to Read Out Loud

read out loud

I had certain books I wanted my kids to read as they were growing up, my favorites of course, but they wouldn’t comply. They wouldn’t read the books I recommended or put on their pillows or talked about. I’m not exactly sure why not. But, I get to choose the books I read out loud to them and we didn’t stop with Dr. Seuss. Even after they could read on their own, we kept reading out loud.

Still, with two in high school, we read out loud. I can think of no better way to get teenagers to sit close and lean in than to read out loud together. Inevitably, the books I loved and wanted them to love became the books they started reading in secret, to find out what happened before I could read to those parts. I had to hide the books we were reading together or they would get too far ahead. Turns out they did love the books I loved, I just had to jump start the journey.

Here are seven of our favorites middle-grade out loud books.

  1. Lord of the Flies by William Golding

This book led to deep questions about morality, power, authority, leadership, character. We read it every morning while waiting for the bus during a snowy Minnesota winter. I don’t, however, recommend reading about Simon’s death seconds before the bus arrives!

  1. This Island Isn’t Big Enough for the Four of Us! by Gery Greer and Bob Ruddick

This book was all about laughing together. It was my favorite book as a kid and I still love it, I wore off the cover and could probably finish almost any sentence. Two boys on the verge of junior high are off for a boys-only adventure on a ‘wild and uninhabited’ island. Except they find two girls, also on the verge of junior high, have already arrived on the island. What follows is creative, clean, prankster fun.

  1. The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Steward

This book, the first in a series (I’m a big fan of quality series) was one the kids stole from me to find out what was going to happen. Fun, funny, creative, and smart.

  1. Number the Stars by Lowis Lowry

We also read this book while waiting for the bus on those dark snowy days and had lively discussions about history and bravery and World War 2.

  1. The Giver (Giver Quartet) by Lowis Lowry

I love getting my kids hooked on an author who will always deliver and Lowry is one of those. This book really got us all thinking about right and wrong, making choices, and memory.

  1. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

Again, I love a good series. We read all seven of these after dinner while waiting for daddy to come home from work. We still listen to them on audiotape and learn something new every time. Gripping story-telling, brilliant imagination, and lots of fun character.

  1. The Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine l’Engle

This book led to talking about science, magic, faith, and courage.

Really, any book will do. Grab Harry Potter and read it together, grab Treasure Island or Pride and Prejudice. Reading out loud means if something seems over a kid’s head you can talk about it right there. Some books read smoother than others and when I find myself tangling my tongue or simply annoyed by a certain writing style, I get to set that book aside and choose a new one.

Other out loud favorites?

When Boys Grow Up

Quick link: When Your Son is Faster, Taller, and Stronger Than You

when boys grow up

I’ve been struck lately by what an amazing thing it is to have a kid who isn’t so much of a little kid anymore. The physicality of that change is really amazing. I’m not raising a particularly tall son, not when both my husband and I are 5’6″. But, as I reference in the essay, Adam Gopnik who writes for the New Yorker says short men make the best husbands, so height doesn’t really matter. Still, I’m kind of in awe of this process and this person.

When women are pregnant and we picture our unborn children, we imagine them as infants. Maybe as toddlers. But we rarely picture them as full grown men. We spend the early years of our parenting shaping them into the men we want them to be but then one day we turn around and they are that man.

A voice comes from the living room and we wonder when a man stopped by to visit, except that is our son and there is hair on his face.

An arm scoops up a bag of groceries and we wonder when biceps grew on toddlers because aren’t our sons still toddlers? Won’t they always be toddlers?

A rugby ball comes hurtling at our heads and we wonder when the infant we breastfed developed such aim and power.

When did this happen? How did he get stronger than me? Faster than me? Bigger than me?

Click here to read the rest of When Your Son is Faster, Taller, and Stronger Than You

*photo by epSos.de

Closing the Confidence Gap

This essay was originally published at She Loves in 2014.

Closing the Confidence Gap

In June The Atlantic published an articled called The Confidence Gap, which cited evidence that women are less self-assured than men. They found that confidence affected success just as much as competence and that women, in general, suffer an acute lack of confidence compared with men.

Even female leaders, women at the top of their careers—investment bankers, pioneering engineers, WNBA stars—revealed that they are plagued by self-doubt, that they feel they came across their success by luck rather than skill, that they feel like imposters or frauds, undeserving. Women don’t consider themselves as worthy as men for promotions, predict they will do worse on tests, underestimate their abilities, are less likely to ask for raises and if they do ask, they ask for less. Unless they feel 100 percent confident, or borderline perfect, a woman is less likely to take a risk or initiate something new.

“Having talent isn’t merely about being competent; confidence is a part of that talent. You have to have it to excel.”

Women are more likely than men to blame themselves. In a tough course at school, men will say, “That was a hard class.” Women will say, “I wasn’t smart enough.” Women fixate on performance and are more likely to strive for perfectionism which, ironically, keeps them from getting anything done.

This little post cannot do the article justice and I encourage you to go read it, take the confidence test at the end, and then work toward change. I took the test and, to no one’s surprise, ended up with lower than average confidence.

My husband read the bios of writers at a site I write for and he commented that almost all the women included sentences like, “trying and failing to …” or “blundering through …” or “a life filled with mistakes …” while few of the men’s bios included these kinds of caveats and disclaimers.

Knock it off!

Seriously. Knock it off. (Me, too.)

I didn’t write for my school paper in high school or college. I wanted to, but I was afraid. I didn’t study creative writing. I wanted to but I was afraid (instead I studied an equally useless-when-it-comes-to-getting-a-job-degree). Afraid of what? That I wasn’t good enough. That putting my desire out so clearly to the world and then failing at it would be worse than not going for it at all. That is the confidence gap, it is timidity and cowardice and I have spent the past few years trying to wrench myself out of that gap.

How about you?

Can you look at the work you do and say, “I am good at that?”

Look at your painting, your pottery, the sermon you wrote, your diaper-changing, the meal you created last night. Look at your essay and your photography and the blanket you knit and the math class you taught. Look at the surgery you performed and the bill you got passed through congress and the hairstyle you designed. Look at the financial portfolio you managed and the house you sold and the client you represented and the blog post you wrote and the baby you nursed at three in the morning. Look at the committee you chaired and the 5k you ran and the leadership you provided.

Look at the labor of your hands, your mind, your voice, your imagination.

Look at the work you do and say, “I am good at that.” Look at the work you dream of doing and say, “I would be good at that.” And then do it.

“The natural result of low confidence is inaction. When women hesitate because we aren’t sure, we hold ourselves back.”

Don’t hesitate. Act. Risk. Initiate. Lead.

Let’s close the confidence gap.