Making invisible people visible
Petula Dvorak writes in the Washington Post:
Every night, they had the same routine.
The Georgetown University business student would settle in for his cram session — soda, chips, books lined up.
And the janitor would come in to start his night shift — polishing each of the windows in the study room, moving amid all those books and chips and sodas. Invisible.
There was this space, like ice separating us,” said Oneil Batchelor, an immigrant from Jamaica. The janitor worked around the students — many of them in their 20s like him, many with entrepreneurial ambitions like him — for nearly a decade before one of them finally broke that ice last year.
A nod one night. A hello the next.
And within weeks, Batchelor and the student, Febin Bellamy, were having long talks about being immigrants, about wanting to be entrepreneurs, about politics and history and music. Bellamy even went to Batchelor’s church and met his 6-year-old daughter.
After he formed that bond with the once-invisible worker, Bellamy couldn’t stop noticing the others.
“Once you see it, you can’t unsee it,” the 22-year-old said.
The minimum-wage cafeteria workers dishing up food, the locker-room attendant scrubbing the stinkiest places, the maintenance man doing backbreaking work in the garden while students maneuver around him, heads bowed to their phones.
It’s not just affluence, age and pedigree that create this yawning gap at a school where tuition and room and board run more than $65,000 a year.
“Everybody’s in their own world,” Bellamy said. “A lot of students have good hearts and were raised right, it’s just not always easy for them to get to know people around them.”
Each of those workers has a story. Many of them are immigrants, and their collective histories of war and flight and families left behind offer a master class in geopolitics. No tuition needed.
Bellamy understands because these are his people. His family immigrated to the United States from India when he was 5 years old. When they got to New York, his mother worked as a nursing assistant and his father as a customer service rep while they were going to college at night and raising a family in the few hours left over.
Bellamy started at a community college, then transferred to Georgetown as a junior. He knows the scrap and fight the folks fixing pipes and cleaning bathrooms have inside them.
So he had a brainstorm. What if he found a way to introduce the workers to the students? And that idea went from a class project in April to a fundraiser making real change today.
He did it in the language his peers understand: a Facebook page. He calls it “Unsung Heroes” and he began posting little profiles of workers around campus.
Students learned that the guy who cleans the business school windows, Batchelor, left a place of little opportunity in Jamaica 20 years ago, and dreams of opening his own jerk-chicken joint someday.
They learned that one of the cooks at the Leo O’Donovan Dining Hall, José Manzanares, saw family members killed in El Salvador’s bloody civil war and escaped when he was a teenager.
They realized that every time Memuna Tackie, the woman vacuuming the carpet at the stately Riggs Library, asked a question about an English word, they were helping the immigrant from Ghana study for her citizenship test.
The guy who runs the cash register at the dining hall? Umberto “Suru” Ripai hasn’t seen his family in South Sudan for 45 years.
And that crossing guard who smiles at all the students, even when they don’t smile back? Anthony “Tracey” Smith’s dad was killed in a crosswalk. Smith decided he wanted to protect pedestrians, and that’s why he took the job at Georgetown.
The stories got shared. And liked. And loved.
“I walk through campus now, and people are waving at me, saying hi all the time,” Batchelor said.
It gets even better. . .
There’s a video at the link.