Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Face of a Stranger

Next to the Peace Corps office in Samoa is a small convenient store. It’s situated at a busy three-corner intersection where the flow of customers is constant from morning till night. From my earliest visits to this store, there was a woman I came to recognize on the front step. She sat there day after day as people came and went. As people approached the door of the store, she would turn to them and ask for money and say she was hungry. Sometimes I saw people give her money, but I also saw many people pass by her without recognition.

In the beginning, I felt a little uncomfortable. I wanted to help her and trust her to use the money well, but at the same time, I was a volunteer on a limited budget. Rather than giving her money, I chose to befriend her with a smile, always saying hi as I walked past her, or asking how she was. I didn’t want to ignore her, but make her know she was thought of.

In the beginning, she was timid and somewhat unfazed by my acts of friendship. She would sometimes look at me with disappointment when I didn’t give her money, but instead just said hi. But over time, she returned my greeting with a smile and came to accept that I wouldn’t give her money, but would give her friendship.

I left Samoa at the end of my Peace Corps service without saying goodbye to her, and without even knowing her name. When I returned home to the States, I remembered her and felt a sense of regret for not at least asking her name.

Then in April 2012, I was able to return to Samoa for my time with the Catholic Church’s Youth Bands. I was walking down the warm and dusty streets of Apia my first week back and there she was, the same women who I had come to smile at in front of the convenient store. Except this time, she had moved and was sitting in front of a hardware store across town and near the church’s recreation hall. I walked towards her, although on the other side of the street, she saw me and got a huge smile on her face and said, “Hey, you!” I smiled back and waved. I was very touched that she had remembered me, even though I had been away for four months.

Because of the route I took to get to my band rehearsals in town, I happened to pass by her every day. Each day we would wave. I had been there for about a month when I started reading a book, which was Mother Teresa’s biography. In that book I saw how Mother Teresa came to serve and love the poor and reached out to them without hesitation. She wasn’t afraid to be seen with them or to minister to them. I began to feel a call to reach out to this woman whose face I had come to know so well, yet, who in reality, I hardly knew at all.

One day, shortly after having read the book, I bought a small stuffed apple pie pastry and took it over to her where she sat. When I gave it to her she thanked me. I knelt down beside her as people hurried past us. With the busyness of the Apia streets as our background noise, I asked her what her name was and she said, “Alitasi.” I told her my name and where I was working. It was a very simple conversation, but the meaning was much deeper for both of us.

From then on, when I passed her, it was more than just a wave; now I knew her name and would greet her as such. I think she forgot my name, since she never called me by mine, but I knew she never forgot my face. I continued to stop from time to time with food — either bread, rice, or one time, even a McDonald’s hamburger. I didn’t give her food every day, so she came to appreciate my ability to surprise her on occasion.

As my assignment with the band began to come to an end in December, my trips past her normal spot became less. It was approaching my last couple of weeks in the country and I wanted to say a proper goodbye. I hadn’t seen her for a couple of weeks and was beginning to wonder where she was. One afternoon, I bought her some food and took it over but she wasn’t there, so I just sat there where she normally would be, and began to pray. I prayed that I might see the world through her eyes for but a moment. I sat there and watched as busy people passed in front of me. Some looked down at me with a curious look on their face; perhaps they knew she normally sat there and wondered what I was doing in her spot. I remember as I sat there some kids had just gotten out of school and stopped to ask what I was doing. I wondered to myself if they would have stopped to visit with Alitasi?

As many of you know, the day before I was to leave Samoa, a devastating cyclone hit the islands and caused the airport to cancel all the flights. I had been in the capital and was trying to get out to my former Peace Corps village to pick up Saulo, Milo and Neueli who were supposed to be traveling back to the States with me for the Samoan Youth Empowerment Program. I was worried sick, not knowing if they and their families were safe after the cyclone and all I wanted was a friend, someone familiar, someone to talk to. I felt so alone, so frustrated, so angry at the situation. And then God gave me what I needed: a good friend.

Walking back from the grocery store through muddy water that came up to my knees, I saw Alitasi walking towards me and the smile on both of our faces could have parted the clouds. In all the commotion of the cyclone, I hadn’t even thought to say goodbye to her, but yet, God was giving me that chance this time, and besides that, He knew I needed a friend more than ever. We walked towards each other and she asked me in Samoan, “What are you doing?” and in a tone as if to indicate I was crazy for walking the streets after the storm. I told her my flight had been canceled and I would be leaving for the United States in a few days. I asked her if she was ok and she said she was fine. When she knew I was leaving, she told me she wanted to get me a present as a goodbye gift. She said she was going to find me an ie lava lava (sarong). I knew this would probably be the last time we would see each other, and although I knew she probably couldn’t get me that gift she wanted to, it meant the world to me that she had wanted to, just because we had become friends.

As the rain began to drizzle on us, we embraced with a big hug and then she gave me a kiss on the cheek. I remember people walking past us and seeing our goodbye there along the edge of the road. She told me to take care of myself and I told her I loved her. She said “Alofa atu oe,” (I love you).

As I walked away, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and gratitude for her friendship, for her comfort during that time of distress, and for our getting to know one another. That was the last time I saw her, but I think of her often. I try to remind myself never to forget her and the things she taught me about myself and others. She was a true friend when I needed one, and hopefully I was able to be the same for her.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Moving Forward

Boarding the plane after a week delay.

I’ll start this by admitting this blog has been neglected for too long. I can remember I was about to post a blog about Cyclone Evan’s approach into Samoa on December 13, 2012, when the internet crashed in Apia, just hours before that historic storm devastated parts of that country. Much has happened since then, and although I have since left Samoa and returned to the United States, I want to add a pulse to this blog again. There is still so many things to share and reflect on about the Samoan culture, its people and traditions.

Having lived there for nearly three years, I found that it became expensive and time consuming to try and update blog posts with quality writing, but now that I have had some months away and time to reflect once again on where I’ve been, what I’ve done and how I’ve changed, I feel it’s important to share more stories that I believe are worth telling.

Therefore, I am setting the goal to write at least two blogs a week, at least until I feel I have exhausted all I can. Some blogs may be longer, while others just a short bit, but my goal is two! I invite you to continue reading about Samoa and the people and places that make that country so amazing!

I want to dedicate the rest of this blog post to providing a follow up on Saulo, Milo and Neueli’s trip to the United States over the Christmas holiday last year.

Our faith and patience were tested late last year when Cyclone Evan bore down on Samoa. After months of paperwork and fundraising and the demanding task of obtaining visas for all three boys, we were all ready to leave the country together on December 15th when our plans were altered by the wild winds of the South Pacific.

Cyclone Evan did lots of damage, but most of that damage was felt on the eastern portions of Upolu, the very location of the boys’ village. After the Cyclone skirted off the shores of a fragile Samoa, the true faith of its people shone. Perhaps that faith was seen the best in the three young men I was about to take to America: Milo, Saulo and Neueli.

Upon arriving at their house following the Cyclone, I was moved with emotion to see Milo’s family had lost their entire house. Saulo’s family had lost their roof. And although Neueli’s house wasn’t damaged, he clearly was shaken by what he had lived through. Not knowing when our canceled flight would be rescheduled, I decided to take Saulo, Milo and Neueli with me that day back to my house which was closer to the airport. Their faith in God and their family was evident when they each told me on their own that they still wanted to travel to the United States, even though their houses had been damaged or destroyed. I told them how proud I was and that I don’t think I would have been able to do the same.

Our flight ended up being rescheduled a week later and we flew back to Chicago just in time for Christmas, arriving on December 22nd.

I could spend another 50 blogs just writing about their experiences and activities while in the United States for those five weeks, but instead I will refer you to the blog for the program (empowersamoayouth.blogspot.com) which many of you have read and are up-to-date with. That gives a more detailed account of their trip along with videos.

For this space, I’ll simply say it was such a joy for them to be able to visit and learn. They grew so much and I can see how it changed them to become more confident and more outgoing. When they returned to Samoa they shared their experiences with kids in their village and showed pictures as well. With the help of my Peace Corps friend Lilli and her husband David, they taught the kids how to play the American game of baseball with a bat and ball I had sent back with them.

Also, before we left for the United States, I had a friend who is a language instructor from the Peace Corps office give them an interview in English and record their scores. Following their trip they met with the instructor again for a similar interview, but asking them questions about their trip. She was very impressed by their improvements and by their confidence levels. Milo went from a 47% to a 71%, Neueli from a 38% to a 70% and Saulo from a 92% to 100%! All three of them accomplished so much!

I will end this blog by saying how proud I am of Saulo, Milo and Neueli and all they accomplished. They left their families at a very difficult time to travel 7,000 miles to a new country for the first time. They did something that most in their country don’t have the opportunity to do, nor even kids their age in the United States! They are going to turn out to be great leaders in their villages, churches and families and in the end, that is what the whole program was about, changing their lives to help change other Samoan’s lives in the future!

I’m trying to construct a flow chart diagram to illustrate all those people who helped play a role in making their trip possible. Perhaps I will share it on this blog when I am able to count everyone. However, I do know that without the help of so many others, and the good gifts that God gave to us throughout the whole process, nothing would have been possible. Thank you to all, and I look forward to writing more about our wonderful Samoa in the weeks and months to come!

After their first Interview in December.

Trees that washed down the river to the bridge near Aggie Grey's.

The famous Pulu trees fell down along Beach Rd. in Apia.

Visiting the John Hancock Building in Chicago!

Visiting with their new friends in the 5th grade here in the U.S.A.