Driving down Independence Avenue in Kansas City in a dark blue 90’s jeep with the windows barely legible to read the streets through, I am reminded of a year ago, when I first took the job at the refugee resettlement office. Heavy cigarette smoke being blown out the driver’s side window that is only open a crack for the January cold. Me in the passenger’s seat, a little bit of adrenaline rushing through my veins as I take in the culture of Northeast Kansas City, known for its international flavor, its poverty and its history of prostitution and crime.
We pull up on Prospect and Independence, at the Safari Cafe which catered our refugee events over the year. It is closed, and I learn from Maka that the best Somali restaurant in town is being replaced by an Ethiopian restaurant soon. The cook got tired of cooking.
We stop by the convenience shop next door, and meet with the Somali family that runs the shop. I wander around looking at prayer rugs, Arabic coffee sets and international boxes of substances that are not labeled in English while Maka does business with the owner at the front of the store. He helps explain to the Somali man what the papers mean that he is handing to him, and lets him know that he wishes his family well and hopes their business continues to do well.
Maka and I head back out onto the cold January streets, and get back in his dark blue 90’s jeep.
He lights one more cigarette as we begin to talk about my job situation.
“You should not have quit before you found another job,” he lets me know.
I tell him I couldn’t stand it though. I was dreading going to work every day. I was having to clean up other people’s fluids on the regular. It was too much for me, that was my limit.
Maka lets me know how he worked as a hospital janitor when he first came to America, and he did all the unpleasant things I did in three months at the shelter every day at the hospital.
We let that sit. And I think about our different lives. Mine, a girl from Kansas whose parents paid for my college and still let me do laundry at their house at the age of 26, and him, a political refugee from Nigeria who had to work whatever job was thrown at him when he came to the US, had to take on the new culture that was thrown at him, had to take on the new people that were thrown into his life to help him adjust his status.
When you look at it that way, I look like an asshole. I look like an entitled 20 something living in America in the 21st century who had a cushy upbringing and now has the chance to be “lost” in the world, not knowing what I’ll do next.
Being lost is a luxury.
Our next stop is a tiny little Halal market that is just big enough for about three people to stand in comfortably. I walk in with Maka, saying hello to the two African men inside as I look at the three shelves making up the market, the centerpiece a big tub of onions. Maka talks to the men, and then we are on our way out again. The cashier smiles at me, “You’re almost taller than Mr. Maka! You must be eating some good African food.”
Next stop is the other refugee resettlement agency in town. There are currently two resettlement offices in the city on this side of the river. I used to work for the bigger one, but the smaller one was the one we stopped in today.
Walking in, we are greeted by a small waiting room with a few older African men sitting in chairs, and one younger African refugee with hair that sticks up just like mine, frustrated about rent. Maka is pulled like a magnet over to the younger refugee who is upset, and he talks to the refugee like he is his own son.
“You’ve got to keep good with your landlords. You don’t want a bad reference. What do you put on the application for a new apartment? Your old landlord’s phone number.”
It reminded me of the lecture I had received on the drive over, of my spontaneous decision to quit a job without finding another one prior. Maka tells the young man we will finish this discussion later, and is whisked away by the director to talk in a back room about other matters.
While I sit in the waiting room, I talk to a Somali woman who has recently joined the crowd. She has a gold front tooth that adds character to her fireplace warm smile wrapped in a headscarf. She asks me if I drove here, she’s looking for a ride.
“I drove with Maka,” I say. “I’m sure he’ll give you a ride though!”
Yes, yes, she says. “He will.” She laughs, and then introduces herself to me.
“I own the international grocer down the street- you know the one?”
Yes, yes, I say.
We’re smiling and laughing again when Maka comes back, and we head out the door, with Somali friend in tow. On the street, she sees another Somali woman who decides to give her a ride instead, so Martin and I head off by ourselves.
Smoke in the car. Silence in the car. Occasional conversation. Routine detours. When we worked together, this was our daily.
We pull up at the Banadir Cafe, another Somali restaurant in town.
We speak with the Somali owner, a brother of a few of the other Somali men we’ve spoke with today. He says, what would we like to eat? Goatmeat or Chicken?
The first time I went out to eat with Maka, last January, he ordered for me. I ate a whole plate of goatmeat, rice and hotsauce as the full blooded vegetarian I am. Because, when in Somalia, you go with Somalia.
This time, I’d been to Somalia before, so I ordered rice with soup vegetables on top.
Maka, instead of going with a plate and a half of goat meat, said he wasn’t hungry today. He got a red bull, and looked around the African grocery store while I filled out some paperwork, and ate my Somali salad and rice with tomato sauce, peas and potatoes.
We talked about the election and my protest efforts a bit, but Maka repeated he is a staunch believer in elections, and protests were futile.
“We are not a third world country. We just must vote again, and vote better, in four years.”
He tells me that the Nigerians from his part of the country are pro Trump, because of Trump’s proposal of a Muslim ban.
I ask him what other immigrant groups are pro-Trump, and he says there are a lot. The Sudanese Dinka, some Burmese communities… you just had to ask around.
We end the day back in the blue jeep with the scarred windows. I tell Maka thanks so much for lunch, for opening the refugee and immigrant world up to me in the past year, and for being an invaluable friend and mentor to me. He says “next time I see you, hopefully you have a job.”