Cross Cultural Illumination #2: Mam I’m Praying

I was very excited at the prospect of picking up Mahmoud at the detention center, after he received asylum. I felt like a tour guide introducing him to a kinder, gentler America.

I had been cooking all day in anticipation. I love to cook. I love to entertain. I was going to show him a good time. I had scoured the Internet for recipes for Doro Wat Chicken, Spicy Ethiopian lentils and injera bread. I had located an authentic Ethiopian market in neighboring West Orange. I bet he couldn’t wait to eat!

Injera Bread from Esey International Market in West Orange NJ

The detention center is located in the bowels of industrial NJ. To get there you, you pass Intercity Tire, Century Waste Services and Lookers Strip Club. The detention center’s giant truck bays hint of its past as a bustling warehouse, full of goods ready to be shipped across America. Now, men and women are stored here waiting for their asylum hearings. Amidst the towering truck bays, it is easy to miss is the small people sized door where those granted asylum are let out into the night, miles from any public transportation. 

Elizabeth Detention Center

I wait for Mahmoud across the street in the dark parking lot surrounded by a chain link fence topped with razor wire. It is a quiet night, nothing is happening. Then suddenly, the small Alice in Wonderland door pops open, and out comes the solitary figure of Mahmoud, with his small roller board suitcase trailing behind.

Although he is 6 feet tall, he looks Lilliputian against the massive truck bays. As soon as his carry-on suitcase clears, the door slams shut. Mahmoud stops and looks around. Later I learned he wasn’t even sure he was being picked up.

I take him to the other America, suburban New Jersey, full of brick schools and flowering trees. Once we got to my home, I show him the professionally decorated room where he would be staying 2 nights. I turn up the flames of my stove to heat up the food for his first post detention meal. His room is the closest bedroom to the kitchen. I am sure he will smell the familiar Ethiopian spices and make a beeline for the kitchen.But he doesn't emerge from his room. For a good 45 minutes.

So I knock on the door, enter and exclaim enthusiastically “ Dinner! Don’t you want some dinner?

He was on his knees and said, “I’m praying mam.”

I quickly apologize and shut the door to give him some privacy for his conversation with God.

You can learn a lot about a person from their priorities.

Mahmoud, Church Lady & Her Husband at First Friends Benefit Dinner

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