We sat next each other on the red couch in the living room and I asked him about the beaded bracelets on his thin wrists. He pointed at the green, yellow and black striped one and said, “This is for Uganda.” The red, white and blue one was an American flag, and he described the one with thin stripes of various colors as, “A flag for Gay people.” He went on, but stopped, not remembering the word for “rainbow.” I filled him in and showed him my matching rubber bracelet that I got for free at Pride. He was ecstatic. “I did not know people knew about this!” I showed him my bedroom door. Three small rainbow flags adorned it, and a giant rainbow flag was draped across my window.
His name was Alex and he was a refugee that was helped by HIAS, a non-profit Jewish organization that assists refugees. Or Zarua, a small community somewhere between a synagogue and meditation club, had recently sponsored his arrival. Due to American influence, Uganda had become severely homophobic in recent years. Alex fled and ended up in a refugee camp outside Nairobi, Kenya. People starved in the camps but perhaps due to the fact that he was small (about the size of an American 12-year-old) he managed to survive. That was around the time that refugees had become a global hot-button political issue. My family and I are members of Or Zarua. We sponsored Alex through HIAS, which gave him connections for food stamps, job training, and free money. In conversation, I discovered that so many little things I took for granted were novelties to him.
It had been only two days since Alex had come to the United States. He needed clothes so my dad took him to Goodwill. They spent a lot of time there, mostly due to the fact that Alex did not know what size pants were a good fit. He chose pants that were way too long and my dad had to tell him so, realizing that Alex may not have worn long pants in his life. Finally, however, Alex went to checkout as my dad continued looking around. The cashier urgently called my dad forward to show him that Alex, who had been charged 13 dollars had pulled out about 200 dollars in cash. Alex was so unfamiliar with the value of a dollar, he had assumed 13 dollars must not be the correct amount. Many people would have been unnerved by this experience, but Alex is unflappable. He had been through too much for too long to be shaken. He understood there was a learning curve and if he was going to get anywhere in a new country he needed to learn.
Since his arrival, many people had been asking him questions out of a place of regretful ignorance, that is, an understanding of one’s own ignorance and a desire to fix it, without fully knowing how to go about doing this. Alex was constantly asked about how Africa “works,” as if it is one place, but the thing is, Americans, including myself, are very ignorant about our own country, let alone someone else’s continent. We only really care about the unfamiliar when suddenly it affects our lives because of someone like Alex. This kind of ignorance can then conflate him with Africa itself, making him a symbol, not a person. Even considering all of this, Alex was patient and kindly in answering our questions.
One day, we were both in the car, riding to my house to watch the first presidential debate (those were the days). I tried to think of something we could both talk about on an equal level. Something that wasn’t about how something “works” in Uganda or how to do something in America.
“Alex, what kinds of music do you listen to?” It took him awhile to understand the question.
“Ehhh, I like mostly hip hop and RB,” he said.
“I don’t know,” he was referring to my question itself, not the answer he was meant to provide.
“Who’s music do you listen to?” This seemed to clarify things and he slowly started mentioning artists. I asked him about other rappers that he probably liked based on the others. We started talking faster and faster, not only in names of people but specific songs, albums or overall critiques. I noticed, however, that with the exception of Drake (Canadian) and Rihanna (Bajan) all the artists we mentioned were American. Then I asked him a question I knew I would be outclassed on: “What singers and rappers from Africa do you listen to?” He mentioned Akon. I mentioned Jidenna. In a back-and-forth we exhausted our knowledge on the subject.
It was at this moment, I believe, that we saw true humanity in each other. It was obvious that we were very different and had very different lives. A realization of humanity comes when two people can connect through their similarities. I cannot say that I’m in some über-aware state of living, but knowing Alex has become an important reminder that in my life are so many privileges that are not universal. I am from an economically stable (at this moment) country where most people speak my language; I have access to grocery stores (a phrase that Alex kept on forgetting the meaning of); my first job was not washing dishes and I have never felt forced out of my country. On the contrary, I have felt welcome in almost every place I’ve gone. That means it’s my job to help welcome others. Others like Alex.