Goodness Knows

Updated: Sep 29, 2021

Today, we share a story about a woman we will call, to protect her safety and dignity, Goodness. This seems an appropriate name considering the horrors she has endured and any goodness that could come from helping her find a new life.

Goodness needed to report her story to support her immigration case but, unable to read or write, I helped her write the affidavit often asking, “Do I understand correctly?” or “What do you mean by that?” Goodness was born to an extremely poor family in an African village. “We had nothing,” recalls Goodness.

Her family could not afford to buy food so usually they were starving. Enduring starvation, bodies stop regulating temperature, then kidney failure, and eventually death. Goodness found her parents dead when she was only 15 years old. She described how none of the children had anything: no clothing, no shoes, no food. Goodness had bare feet until she was 16. My own teens came into self-awareness about being judged by other kids as different long before they were 16. As privileged people we worried more about fashion, affordability, or that they grew, and their pants stopped covering their ankles. But they had clothes and they had shoes.

Goodness explained, “We had no house. We constructed sleeping places from thatch and bamboo under bushes.” She explained that “My parents passed away because of poverty” keeps echoing in my thoughts. As a parent myself I know the sacrifices I’m willing to make for my children. I imagine the reason Goodness survived is because her parents gave her their food and sheltered her with their bodies.

Goodness was 15 when she left Africa to escape death from poverty which was the fate of her parents. Her stepbrother helped her leave. She spent every penny she had, borrowing from others in her village, selling everything of value to get on a plane and fly to the U.S. She had no money, no resources, no job.

After arriving, following a long wait, she finally received permission to work. And work she does. She works and works and works but cannot save anything. Now, nearly 60, Goodness reports that the poverty situation in Africa has not improved. She has children in Africa. “I do not want them to be there,” she says. She sends them every extra penny she makes to pay for food and a room she rents for them. Goodness is their only help. “Our family is all gone,” she says. She lives with the crippling fear that her children will be taken. This happens in her country, particularly to the young and comparatively healthy.

In the face of extreme poverty and the will to survive, people do unthinkable things. People disappear because they are killed for body parts that can be sold. Goodness also knows she cannot return. Africans still stuck in her home village severely punish people who escaped and return as they are now considered privileged. They don’t understand that she still struggles to survive in the U.S., how people here have taken advantage of her and how her life continues to be in grave danger.

Goodness arrives in the U.S., hungry and afraid. With no people to help or place to stay, people took advantage of her. Physically and psychologically confined, Goodness spent many months thinking she escaped death in Africa only to die here.

A local agency found Goodness a way out, beginning her case to stay in the U.S., and referring her to live at Sarah’s. Goodness says, “I was saved” which at Sarah’s means sleeping without worry of attack, eating healthily, without worry of shortage, and a trustworthy staff who treats residents with dignity.

Soon finishing proving her own case and hoping to have saved enough to bring her young adult children to the U.S., Goodness continues working and pursuing her health. Such a hardworking, caring woman, despite her illness Goodness works full-time in a cleaning job. Even during COVID-19, she continues her essential nursing home job, contributes $300 per month to the CSJs to support Sarah’s, and pitches in at home. The agency that referred her to Sarah’s will help her find family housing she can afford since the lowest private rate housing costs more than her monthly income. Bi- monthly Sarah’s residents reevaluate their goals, working always towards moving on.

“You come to Sarah’s in order to leave.”

At move-in, each resident signs an agreement including to move on within one-and-a-half years. This agreement may be extended if a resident’s goal work continues with good effort and she remains a supportive community member. A typical length of stay is three years. Staff support through life transitions continues after moving on.

“Sarah’s will always be your home.”

With economic and political conditions as they are, even with a few new housing providers helping asylees, the need is big enough that we work together. Sarah’s still serves individual women while other nonprofits serve women with children and men. Many of these programs were developed with Sarah’s as a model.

Sarah’s Director, Cheryl Behrent, reminisces: “When I started 13 years ago at Sarah’s, residents had limited access and knowledge about mobile phone and email devices and technology. Today, email and cell phone communication (especially for international calls with family) have become necessities for every resident. We helped many get established, teaching them to use the ‘new’ technologies. In 2020, we are beginning to view video conferencing as equally necessary and are mentoring residents to help them into this new age.”

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