It was a bright, cold winter morning when she decided to make up her mind. To stay or to leave. For a fourteen-year-old, it wasn’t an easy choice, for it was a life-turning decision. To stay in her parents’ home or to go out into the world – without the slightest idea about what to expect.
Her mother was alienated from her relatives; she couldn’t turn to them. She knew nobody else except a few neighbors and tradesmen in her small town in Virginia. She had saved a few dollars from the odd jobs she did for the local grocery and a dress shop. That saving would not go far in a city. It was a city she had to go to, for that is where she was likely to find work and shelter.
She waited for the weekend when her mother and stepfather went out together for a drink. She had checked the bus time earlier. Now she packed the suitcase she had hidden under her bed, wrote a note to her mother, went to the depot and bought a ticket for Richmond. Once there, she trudged her way to the local church that she knew had a shelter for girls.
That is how her new life began. The church found her a cleaning job nearby. She found a second job on her own, looking after a widow’s two small children while she held an evening job at a call center. After four months, she also took a part-time responsibility at the church itself which earned her a few more dollars. Once she was sure of her three-way allocation of time, she went back to school.
I was talking with Moira, the Outreach Supervisor of the Richmond church. She also served on the county’s board that looked after refugee rehabilitation and that is how we had met because of my work. Her formal blue-gray dress and quiet demeanor might have suggested a woman of fifty, but her sprightly responses combined with her ready smile made me place her in the early forties. I had asked her about the background of the average woman in their shelter and she had started on a typical case history. Moira pushed a newly brewed cup of coffee toward me and resumed the story.
The girl worked long hours, slept a few hours and devoted every available minute to her class lessons. She graduated creditably from high school and the church considerately reduced her hours and increased her pay. The widow found her a job at the call center, where she quickly became a star employee. In three years straight she finished college, securing a scholarship the last two years.
She received other job offers, but she decided, from a sense of gratitude, to work for the church in its outreach department. This is where she came across some refugees from South America and East Asia and felt deeply committed to help. She identified with them, for she was once a refuge seeker herself, and she contributed hours of service in the county to help them. She even learned some Spanish to connect with people from Salvador and Guatemala. Her outreach work in the church also slowly veered more toward poor and helpless refugees.
When Moira stopped, she knew she had let out the secret. What she began telling me was the case history of the shelter’s average denizen; what she had ended up with – it was clear to us both – was her very personal story of survival and success. She had overcome overwhelming odds and achieved her goal of doing what she felt was important to do.
What Moira did not know was the surprise I was about to spring her. The county board had decided that they wanted to create a new position of a Refugee Director and we had informally agreed to make the offer to Moira. We had already quietly gathered some of her personal data from the church and I was asked to explore more by personally talking to her. Now I knew her full story and I felt I could confidently tell the board that Moira was the right person for the job.
I said, “Moira, I have not been entirely candid with you. I am something special to tell you, and your story was the right place to start.” I then told her that the board wanted her for the new position, which would be an important position where she could continue her life’s chosen work. I added that she could continue her church work as a volunteer.
Moira was touched and overwhelmed. She would be able to contribute to the refugee community far more than before.
I still had a personal curiosity, but I hesitated. “Are you in touch with your parents?”
“My stepfather died three months ago. I have persuaded my mother to come and live with me as soon as she can sell the small house she owns.”
This too was characteristic of Moira.