Life was hard as our rent and bills piled up.
Our food stamps and financial support were reduced. I worked and worked but rarely saw the money. My wife, Theresa, took control of the little salary coming in. She suspected I was too generous and might want to send help to the many people we knew in Africa, even while we suffered.
I thought of my friend David Jordan, president of Seven Hills Foundation. He was the man who had promised me a job, and my wife too, if we had our driver’s licenses. I did not know the nature of the job, but I knew I wanted it.
Getting the license was a big deal. I was prepared for the driving test. Affording it was another question. I fought hard and sent messages to friends who had lived in America for a longer time. Two of them sent me a total of $300. That was enough for the road test, so I went.
I made a mistake by touching the yellow line right by the RMV. The examiner said I had failed the test. I could not object, and in 10 minutes I was dropped at home, quite sad and thinking the examiner was out to get me. But I soon scheduled another test, this time at Central Mass. Safety Council in West Boylston. I went with the examiner for more than 20 minutes. He kept giving me questions on signs; I made a three-point turn; and parallel parked.
I passed with ease. I was given the license. My whole house rejoiced as though I had just found a big diamond.
Augustine’s last chapter: New Year, Tough Beginning Or scroll down to catch up from earlier in the remarkable tale
I rushed home, took my old car and drove off to Hope Ave. for the job.
I got an interview, but the manager said the job was only part-time. My friend was contacted and asked me to hold on. I wanted a full-time job due to the many problems we were faced with. Theresa was still without a license or a job. It was on me now to improve our quality of life.
After waiting for a few more weeks, I had started engaging with and applying to newspapers. Richard Burke, the one who had given us $500 for our first car, had invited my family to a dinner at his home in Worcester. We liked it because we got to know a lot more people. I was introduced to Chris Sinacola, then an editor and columnist for the Telegram & Gazette. Richard introduced us, and I told Chris how I was a reporter in Africa and had sought asylum here escaping the wrath of now ex-president Jammeh.
Sinacola became a link with the T&G. We exchanged emails, and he asked me to keep in touch. He eventually alerted me to an opening for a reporter. I was delighted to apply there. I was invited for an interview. They liked my application. A good number of candidates applied. I had to defend my articles to explain why they sounded too hard, more opinionated than a typical American news article. My interview was tough. I was not yet used to the terrain of the Worcester area, and my job was going to be based on going to towns closer to Framingham. I did not know where that was, and I had no good car with no GPS.
After my interview, with the questions I had to answer, I knew there was a problem.
Then there was a call. I answered instantly after Theresa jumped as she passed on the phone. “Good news!” she said: It was from the Telegram.
Someone said, “Telegram & Gazette regrets to inform you that your application was not successful at this time. We could not employ you this time due to a few reasons: You have the writing experience but you have not gained enough experience in Worcester County to be able to handle the position. Secondly, you do not have a reliable car. When such problems are [resolved], the Telegram & Gazette would not hesitate to employ you, thank you.”
Thank you Telegram and God bless you, I thought in disappointment.
Theresa was quite discouraged. She knows what I have achieved in writing. A few days later I decided to press Seven Hills on where our hopes rested. A friend, in conversation, said Seven Hills does not pay well and wondered why I would want to go there. Well, for now, I would accept any job that can make me look like a man.
I was called again to go for an interview at a group home in South Grafton. The lady was too nice, she introduced herself as Maya. This was my new boss. She appeared very pleasant. I think I was the second person to be interviewed. It was well done. I thought I handled her questions well and got to know her. She was also new in the position. She was going to practice her interview skills on us, I thought.
I was successful. I got night shift and would be able to do the same work as the day shift for a dollar more an hour. The work was not hard. It was all housework, which my grandmother had taught me from a very young age so I could be useful when she was not around.
The work challenges would start by the next week, but I was quite excited.
Well, I said to Theresa, I will go to Quinsigamond Community College to find out how to get into school. Theresa thought I should tell Monica Bond, our instructor at Lutheran Social Services (now Ascentria Care Alliance), but I felt she was another problem behind my back. Everyone knew I was overqualified for that refugee school she kept me in. She decided to try me for the qualifying test in Mathematics before I went for the English exam, the one I understood better. I could have gone to QCC by myself, taken the test and started my course. But going through Lutheran Social Services was a blessing, because the program was free from the start until one got student loans or other aid based on their grades. Why did Bond focus on me doing Mathematics first? I thought it was because she wanted to prove to everyone that I was not college bound.
I did the Mathematics with another student. I scored high enough for Bond to send me for the English test the next day. I rejoiced all over the place; that was my best subject. I cleared it with ease. I had no doubt I was overqualified for college work. My college education started from this point.
I felt good about myself, that things were working out for me: My job had started and I was going for my college placement test. I was in haste to make a name for myself that year and to start my career. I had missed education in Sierra Leone, where I was brought up by my grandmother, who could barely provide meals for us. She was quite a strong woman and wanted me to be educated. She prayed all the time for me to become a teacher. In those days teachers were the most educated, so she wished for me to become one.
When I was asked to go for the Accuplacer test at QCC, I started off with Mathematics and was terribly afraid. But that was the only sure way to get started. I worked at the test for hours on end, but I could not complete it. I was the only potential student left in the room. I finally handed it in. I had no idea how to solve many of them, and I could not guess as I did with the pre-test. This was real. I failed badly and was advised to do it again. There was no harm. I joined students in a math boot camp to try to upgrade my chances before I tested again.
The boot camp was intense and I was gaining nothing.
The teacher concentrated on me and gave me extra attention. On the last day, we took the test and I scored even lower than I had previously. Was the boot camp necessary? No, I thought quietly within myself. I was not even technically eligible for a beginner’s math class. My English score put me in English 101, to the surprise of many. If I had passed the math, then I could have been placed in an honors class.
I had already worked for a day at my workplace. And I would start my college education, so despite the disappointment it was a true joy for me. It was going well. Going for evening classes was my only difficulty: I wanted to be like a normal, young college student. I thanked my God for the opportunity of going to school in America, which was impossible in Africa for the lack of money. I placed my QCC parking sticker on the windshield. I was very happy.
I faced the most uphill task adjusting to my new job with Seven Hills. I was very uncomfortable with my new boss. She seemed very unhelpful and did not appear to understand my position. The first day I started working in the Grafton House, she made sure I was served a warning letter the next day. As humble as I am I would not argue with her. But it was becoming habitual. She apparently had several employees reporting to her on co-workers’ mostly minor shortcomings. Perhaps it was because I was the only Sierra Leonean among Kenyans, Ghanaians and a Latino. My boss even reprimanded me for not being friends with the other employees at the house.
But we all found out later that she was only trying to secure a new, higher position. By her nature my boss is a kind person and loves children.
We began getting money from my job. Our rent was $750 per month then, but our food stamp allowance dwindled with the better salary. And work was getting tougher. I was reprimanded for coming late while others came even later and the boss remained silent. I had nowhere else to work nor another way to pay the rent. School was equally not easy. But I made good grades, and I was given scholarships. I enjoyed the facilities at QCC and was even given special gifts at presentations.
At the same time, I felt a pinch from some French refugees from Central African Republic. They were quite pathetic and could not speak any English, so it was difficult for them. There was nothing else I could think to do but set up an organization that dealt with refugees, teaching them English, since I speak French. That was when Humanity First Inc. was born.
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