My husband and I recently watched The Soloist, a drama starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr. that told the story of an LA Times reporter who tries to help a homeless musician who once played at Julliard. The themes to me, at least, weren’t new – they talked about the frustrations one can feel when someone tries to help, but learns more about themselves than they do helping that person in the end. They were, however, a thought-provoking reminder for me as I live in a building composed largely of Turkish refugee families that I’ve tried to help in the past.
When I first met a lot of these families, they were fresh off the plane from Russia, and I went about helping them get set up on food stamps, doing some basic English lessons, etc. But more than 4 years later, many of them were still needing help with food stamps applications and translation, even as their kids were learning English, and I began to feel overwhelmed and discouraged as it seemed that my efforts never enabled them to become truly independent. Additionally, it seemed like every visit I had with one of them was more about what they needed from me than just a simple cup of tea.
Because of this, I felt like I needed to pull back for awhile. We went on a couple of vacations this summer, which helped, but I did miss seeing some of the women. And, there were still the needs out there. Several of the families’ fathers were recently laid off from a food factory that supplies pastries to Starbucks as the factory closed, and they were (and are) subsisting on unemployment benefits and food stamps. One of the women asked me to help her find a job, and for awhile I deferred, because I really didn’t know where to begin to look for work for someone who doesn’t speak that much English in an economy like we have right now.
But I recently saw an ad for a new Panera Bread bakery opening up, and thought this particular woman might be a good fit. This morning I went over there to help her fill out the online application, and in the course of my time there, she mentioned in passing one of the Turkish men who lives up the street and is related to several of the families we are good friends with.
“Yes,” she continued on in Uzbek, “and now with Ilias having been shot . . .”
I looked up from the computer. “What did you just say about Ilias? He was shot?”
She looked at me, surprised and a bit uncomfortable that I didn’t know. “You didn’t know? He was shot and died this past Saturday night.” She went on to explain that he had been out on the streets late at night, standing with a couple of guys, and had been caught in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting. The drivers of the car had apparently shouted to him that he should get out of the way, but he didn’t understand what they were saying.
I was in shock. Just a few days ago my husband had seen Ilias at a neighbor’s house. But in the course of our several years here, we haven’t ever gotten to know him well. If he had any description, it would have been “the town drunk.” He never found work in America, but most likely, it’s because he never looked, but instead spent his time drinking and getting to know the employees of the liquor store around our corner.
Michael and I wondered out loud later if there was anything we could have or should have done. Ilias was one of those guys that you wished you could know how to help, but even to his own family, he seemed so lost.
And yet now, on the day following his death, I think of the truth that at one point in his life, he was a little boy like Eli, with a mom, a family, a hope for a future. I don’t know if there’s anything we could have done to help him, but I feel bad for looking at him and only seeing his drunkenness while he was alive, and that it took his death to remind me that he was a person just like anyone else.