There comes a time in all of our lives when we grow weary— reach the point where we simply throw our hands up and say “I can’t do it anymore.” The moments that our knees get weak and force us to take refuge in some place, some thought, some belief, or someone. Reaching the point of desperation isn’t a place of giving up, or admitting defeat— perhaps it is just the humble admission that we can no longer do it all on our own. In all of our journeys of life, there are people, moments, and experiences that help us along the way— hands of all forms that reach down and help us to our feet again and again after we’ve fallen. Sometimes this can be an encouraging word, and sometimes it’s a literal hand pulling you up from the ground— for me, this rescuing hand came in the form of a story. The story of one man’s journey from the war torn city of Darfur, Sudan to the streets of Cape Town. The story where one man risked his life in the pursuit of living free and fully, rather than succumbing to the oppressive and violent environment he’d only ever known.
All throughout my life, my dad has always spoken of “The One.” The idea of “The One” brings all of the attention we have, and all of our disappointment and moments of let down, to one person— when we ask ourselves the question, “if all of this was enough to change the life of One person, would it be enough?” No matter what you do in life, if helping others is part of your passion, there will come many times when you feel that your attempts, work, heart and mind that you pour into something is all for naught. When you experience defeat and apathy and stagnation over and over again, regardless of what or how much you invest. When you look out into a sea of faces and know they’re staring right through you, and everything seems meaningless— that is when you search for “The One.” “The One” is what makes all that we do worth it. In the sea of blank stares, metaphorically or realistically, we must never forget The One— One who cares, one who needs, one who’s listening. One whose heart is open. No matter how great we are, or how passionate we may be, there is never a moment when everyone cares, or an instant when all ears are listening and all hearts know their neediness. Perhaps the greatest fight of the impassioned is the fight against apathy, this war of Love, because the ones who refuse apathy, who openly need others— those are the ones who make all of our efforts worth it. “The One” for me, in my time here, came in the form of a refugee named Matthew Benjamin. His story, and the glitter in his eyes and width of his smile when he told it, was just like a great big, callused hand reaching down to pull me back onto my feet again. His story dusted me off, and breathed new life into me again— pointed me back in the right direction.
You see, not everyone wants help. Not everyone needs openly. This is perhaps my greatest disappointment I’ve faced in my work here. There are many who just take, and know of nothing else— these people make my heart reluctant to give; but the ones in need, and who do so openly— those are the ones I wish to give everything to. I’ve worked with many refugees in my time here. So many of them come into our office seeking letters of asylum, and documentation to prove to everyone that they will not be forced to return to their home country for some time— a statement proving that they belong. People from all parts of Africa come in seeking this documentation. I’ve worked with people from Malawi, Rwanda, DR Congo, Sudan, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Burundi, Cameroon, and various other nations. The small bits that I’ve heard from some of these people, and what some of them endured back home, and the atrocities that drove them to forsake everything familiar and journey to a place far away with nothing— only but for the hope of some semblance of safety. Just a feeble glimpse at their world is enough to change you forever. There is no way to know, and no way to experience the world of someone else without climbing into their boots and taking a walkabout; yet, sometimes only a portion of someone’s story is all the walking you can handle. Some of these people have lost entire families to wars and regimes that seem to want nothing more than to simply destroy. This evil is real. Although we’re unknowingly shielded from it in America, that does nothing to change the horrific reality for so many in other places of the world. If you are reading this from a free nation, thank God for your country— so many are so much less fortunate.
On a normal Tuesday morning, I saw an unusually cheerful man knocked on the door of our office. As no one was at the front desk to let him in, I walked up to the door and opened it for him. He wore green canvas pants, a green Absa Springbok jersey, and a black hat with the KFC logo on it in red. This man was beaming. “Ah, Hi Hi,” he said as he bowed his head and stuck out his hand to greet me. “I am Matthew Benjamin, as I have changed my name from Alrasheed Mustafa.” I couldn’t help but smile at the joy that radiated from this man. “I’m William. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Mustafa.” He began to laugh and said “Oh, no problem” in a thick Sudanese dialect. I lost words for a moment. For just this brief moment in time, I just smiled and stared at this man. How earnest was everything about his presence— his demeanor, his smile. I remembered what I was doing after a moment. “What can we help you with today?” I asked him. His smile never broke, “Yes, please. Thank you, Mr. William. I am hoping for a letter of recommendation to reapply to be refugee.” He drew me in with the way he looked at me— I knew I’d do everything I could to help him. His presence seemed such a silent power.
I led him into our head attorney’s office, and the three of us sat down and discussed his refugee status. Mr. Benjamin explained his situation briefly, and after just a taste of his story, I knew this man came from near hell. His joy was almost piercing— in a way almost frightening. How could someone from such a place, with such pain also be so happy? The joy of his presence was one I couldn’t run from, I couldn’t dismiss. It was a joy that forced me to look inside myself and confront my own apathy. I felt a strong urge welling up inside of me— emotions needing some form of release, but I didn’t know where or how. The joy of this man was almost enough to drive me from the room because of its strength— I almost feared his composure. His story, I think, would have ruined me had it been my own; but he was here, he was strong, and he was moving forward. He’d survived and fought for freedom when so many of us would’ve simply lain down, me included. Perhaps that’s what was so powerful to me— the fact that he’d made it, that the horrors of his past had never beaten him. He’d never given up. He’d won.
There’s a country music song called “Love is War,” with the lines, “Lovers in a picture frame, ever notice how there ain’t no rain? Nobody hangs hard times on the wall.” The words remind me of a photograph my parents hung in the hallway leading to their bedroom. In the picture, a family is in black and white. No one smiles— a mother and father, and three sons. The mother sits in an armchair and the father and their three boys stand behind her. Each son is dressed in a three-piece suit, and wears a hard, worn expression. My grandfather is the youngest boy in the photo— he was 14 at the time the picture was taken. He once told my father it’s the saddest photo he’s ever seen. Just looking back into the history of his life, his family, his childhood, brings heavy sadness to his heart. My parents hung the photo up to remember family, but the thought of family isn’t a fond memory for those in the black and white photograph. Like the song says, “Nobody hangs hard times on the wall,” because no one wants to dwell on hard times, hard moments, or painful journeys. I always loved looking at the photo growing up, I was so taken by it, because three of the people in the photo died before I ever got a chance to meet them. Those who came after the ones in the photo are intrigued by it, because it arouses curiosity. I want to know about the family— about the family my grandfather grew up in. The story is powerful to me. The story in the photo that interests me does not dismiss the pain in the photograph, but allows me to know about my grandfather, and about my family. The more we are able to know of someone’s story, the deeper and better our love for them can be, for we know where they came from.
An old photo may seem insignificant in this context, but there is a point to my words. My point is that the story behind someone’s journey, no matter how painful or heartbreaking it may be, is one that invites us in. We all wish to take part in this human experience, and the stories of those who have experienced other worlds and other times than we have tell us of places we will never see. While so many run from the pain of their past, it seemed that Matthew Benjamin confronted it— he never forgot because he never tried to. He always wanted to remember. He had the courage to tell his story to others, time and time again. If there was such a photo to encompass all of Mr. Benjamin’s history, every painful, horrifying, joyful, and memorable experience he’s ever had, if there was one image big and strong enough to hold the weight of all of his life, no matter the pain, I believe Mr. Benjamin would hang it boldly on the wall. Not really to remember the pain, but to remember the past. To remember where he came from, and rest peacefully knowing where he is now. South Africa is certainly not a perfect place, but place has so much to do with past, experience, and history. The world’s we know from our past determine so much of how we view the ones of our future.
I am not going to share the story of Mr. Benjamin, for that would require more words than this blog should take; however, I am just going to post this picture so that you can celebrate Mr. Benjamin with me— the hand that reached down and lifted me back onto my feet. We have since helped Mr. Benjamin achieve permanent settlement, and we were there to celebrate with him his recent graduation.
Sometimes someone’s story is all we need to remember our own, and where we want to go with all of this. No matter where you are, what you are doing, no matter how meaningless some moments may seem, never forget “The One.” Thank you Matthew Benjamin for reminding me how to live— I aspire to be more like you.