There was excessive cold that November. Many neighbors and friends said the previous year was better.
We would walk from Ellsworth Street to School Street for classes at Lutheran Social Services [now Ascentria Care Alliance] every day till 1 p.m. or so. Chris Lamboi, our RIAC [Refugee & Immigrant Assistance Center] caseworker, had also taken us to the Cathedral of Saint Paul on Chatham Street. We went there to worship on Sundays and for special devotions and prayer. The winter was not a conducive time for that without a car, but the snow was beautiful to see, I would tell my wife.
“What is beautiful about it? Plenty of water, too much cold and suffering,” Theresa would say.
“But the whiteness is very good for your eyesight,” I’d respond.
Going to class in the morning was terrible. We were marked for attendance and told we may not qualify for college if we were late or absent often. Our teacher, Monica Bond, was not ready for me to move on, it seemed, until her favorites had gone to college. Well, I thought, I should have to make my own moves. But then Monica held a special class briefing about college. “If you go to college on your own you will pay a lot of money. We have an agreement with Quinsigamond Community College that allows students from here to attend QCC free.” She said it was only possible with refugees. I was moved by this and decided to remain patient.
On several occasions, before we knew what frostbite was, the cold with the snow had caused Theresa and myself excruciating pain in the ears and fingers. Sometimes I thought I had no ears left on my head. It was worse for my nose, because it had nowhere to hide. My feet were only moving because I was alive but had very little power to carry me through to School Street every day. Theresa was often in tears; she said on several occasions that the condition was unbearable. She stayed home from class sometimes, and I told the teacher she was not feeling well. But she also did not like the idea of staying home while I went to school with those beautiful Cambodian, Kenyan and Haitian girls. So I was not too happy either.
We virtually cried walking in the snow and feared the cold, too, but we knew we had to venture out anyway. Christmas was approaching, and we needed a plan.
Augustine’s last chapter: The Kanjias’ First Snow Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale
As usual we needed to do Christmas shopping for our kids and get gifts for each other — mom and dad. The intention was there but implementation was another problem. My work at FedEx was extremely tiring. I could do nothing about it; I was new and I had to contend with whatever work was at my disposal. I made some money at the end of the week. It was a big boost. Theresa spent it quickly to feed the house, as our assistance was nothing to write home about.
Christmas was getting very close. I felt we were running out of time and the cold was too much. We had pressure from our friends and family in Africa, who did not understand what we were going through. They’d just seen us in a beautiful church and well-dressed in a picture that we posted on Facebook, and photos of beautiful Worcester streets as we stood on street corners. They insisted we must send them money when we were barely surviving — and cold.
As usual Theresa began inviting more and more of our new friends to come on Christmas Day for lunch and dinner. I did not know why she was doing so when we had so much else to worry about, so I became jittery. It was three days to Christmas. My children asked when the cold and snow would disappear and when we would get African-style weather. I did not know when and kept telling them to wait until I could consult a teacher to confirm what I’d found out. The children brought many more questions than I had answers. I had to learn very fast to be ahead of them. This is what Africa did to us.
It was coming close, and we had not got the necessary food for the house. I was given $500 by our church mate to add to our $200 to buy an old Dodge Neon. I was still without a license, but my permit was good enough to take me for my job searches. I’d had a license in Africa, but there are stricter rules and more traffic lights here. I would be able to grow from bad to good before getting my license.
We left for Joe’s Meat Market in Providence, Rhode Island. The place is full of African food and Spanish food. It is always jam-packed. My wife and I had a little money but wanted a lot of stuff. It was impossible. But God did not forget us. We left the place and while returning to Worcester, a friend of mine from my priest training in Africa, Victor Kaloko, called me to give me $150 for my driving test. We looked for the nearest Western Union to pick up the money. We did, and returned to Joe’s to fill our basket this time. Theresa got a lot of stuff, to our amazement. It would go a long way.
We returned home that evening in joy. There was no problem that night hauling all the things up to the third floor. The children were still full of the African spirit and would help us without complaint. They did not allow me take anything upstairs, because they said I drove well from Rhode Island.
It was a day to Christmas. We call it “Watch Night.” Normally we would attend the night Mass on Watch Night. It would serve for the Christmas Day Mass too. I tried to convince Theresa to let us stay home that night but she was stern about our tradition: we were going to attend midnight Mass. The cold was overwhelming. Our car had a small problem and there was no money to repair it. Theresa had asked for a ride from Deacon Tony, our newfound father who was quite concerned about our well-being, but he did not have time for us that night because he was busy with lots of Masses. We were trapped.
We had a visitor, Emmanuel Kamara. He was one of our earliest friends. He would talk big. He was very much like Chris Lamboi. Big talk with less action. He came that night hoping to celebrate with us, not knowing our merriment would be on Christmas Day itself. He was kind enough to take us fast to church. He told us he was a Catholic but had not been to church for over 20 years. He had been a Mass server too. I told him I was a seminarian, once wanting to become a priest. We all laughed about it as we arrived late to church.
The Mass was solemn, with decorations similar to those of our church in The Gambia. The crib reminded me of the one I’d created one Christmas, putting the artificial Jesus, Mary and Joseph around it with the animals and the Three Wise Men. We sang loud the carols with the choir. My voice was at its pitch, beautiful and heavy. I only meant to drive away the cold. The place was shining brightly. It looked like daytime. We prayed about being in America, and for God having brought us to a city that opened its arms to welcome us. The church was a nice addition.
The carols raised high, and voices joined in. We were overwhelmed by the joy of Christmas and the joy of being where nothing bothers us, especially me.
Meanwhile they were asking for me in The Gambia at my workplace. It was the secret service. But this did not bother me; I was busy enjoying my achievement of bringing my family to America. We did not have a good camera or phone to take photos. I used my old camera which did not open or let us see the pictures anymore. I think the American pictures spoiled the camera from Africa! It was a good digital camera, but it died with our first Christmas.
We were eager to pray after Mass. Theresa knelt before the big crib, while I went to the tabernacle. The kids, Glen and Mary, were busy moving around. One could see the joy in their hearts and faces. We got to meet a lot of church members who wanted to associate with us. We made connections and were shown places to get help from. The church had given us $500 to start our life. It was for our Christmas. We had to think about how to enjoy the money and add it to the little we received as help.
We nearly walked home that night, but we learned it was dangerous. Alice, my eldest daughter (who’d traveled to the States earlier), was with us. America had not soaked into her much yet, so she was still obeying my calls to go to church. She came with her son Austin, so we made a complete family. A church family decided to take us home that night. It was past 2 a.m. The night was short and we hoped the day would be bright to start our full preparation.
I slept in for a while, but woke up and joined the group to prepare lunch. We returned to church in the morning at 10:15 a.m. That was Christmas Day. The Mass was a bit slow, not like the night Mass with enthusiasm and vigor. We wore the same clothes, but it all looked like new. Mine were light and did not serve the purpose, but I managed. The songs were beautiful. My childhood Christmas songs were sung well. At the end I offered to join the choir. It was good meeting new people.
Our house was small but Theresa did not fear inviting many people. I realized that the party was all black men and women. Well, I had not made a lot of friends yet. I had just started understanding those I had already made friends with. We returned home and spent time on further preparations. Theresa had bought more wine and brought out new bottles as people came in. We had our friends over in time. I drew up the program, and included a magic show that I would perform. I knew I would have them fooled. I was used to those tricks and they never fail me. We were all ready to enjoy.
Our prayer was conducted by Uncle Tunde Horton, a Sierra Leonean American. He comes from the same tribe as Theresa. He prayed very hard for Theresa, deviating from the traditional prayer over the food. He prayed for Theresa to bear a baby girl, an American, since children were valuable here. Some years later, while not expecting it after our own prayer, it happened, and we got Ann-Britt [now 3 years old].
The party started. Chris Lamboi asked all those who drink to hold the tiny glasses that he brought along with his strong wine. He went round and poured, and said it was a shot that all of us should take at once. I did not want to drink, I had not drunk before — but I had to join the fun. We all drank hard. That knocked me off. I was out, and woke up later when the party was at its peak.
I was quite fresh and active — after about two hours or so. I joined the dance and food. We played music from Sierra Leone and Nigeria. It was nice to be there. We enjoyed the day and it continued to the wee hours. I performed my magic and baffled the crowd. That brought the party to its climax with joy. Many of our invitees were lying down sleeping, they had drunk enough. Some could not go home, and we all slept in the house together, men and women. I met some people for the first time but it felt as though we were all born in the same house in Africa.
We did not have much sign of Christmas at our home except for the joy. There was no Christmas tree. We were all seated after the cleaning in the morning. Many guests had woken up and taken their breakfast, both in wine and food, before they would leave. The party remains in all of our hearts as the best of our early days. That Christmas was an eye-opener for subsequent Christmases.
Christmas here brought me very close to Christ because I felt the real cold winter’s night so deep. I experienced snow — not on Christmas Day but the entire week of Christmas — and it was then that I knew the song “The First Noel” was an appropriate soundtrack for my first Christmas in Worcester.
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