I was born lucky.
My parents moved here from Egypt. They’re Coptic Orthodox Christians. Back then, and even more so now, life’s tough for the Coptics. “Tough” used to mean a lack of social mobility. Today it means being the primary target of terror. Terrorism has many Coptic Egyptians leaving their homes for the safety of their families, so it’s hard for me to forget just how lucky I am to have been born into a middle class family here in the United States.
I once shared with my dad how I wanted to go back to Egypt to help the Christians. He applauded that I wanted to help people, but he told me that I was thinking about it wrong. We are called to help anybody that needs our help, be they Christian, Muslim, or any other background. We don’t just help those we identify with. I believe my exact words back to him were, “Damn…that’s deep.”
Growing up, I was given opportunities. I’ve been so lucky that I’ve passed up opportunities and took many of them for granted. Whenever I’d fall short of a goal, or missed the mark, my family loved me and believed in me. They never lost faith in me and encouraged me to become all that I could.
My parents would constantly tell me that I could achieve whatever I wanted, “With hard work, and faith in God, anything is possible.” They encouraged me to dream big. They were always excellent examples of being good stewards of their blessings as well. Even in the face of many set backs, they never quit helping those that came behind them, and helping families less fortunate whenever they could.
I’ve been told many times growing up here in America that I am a “minority.” What I’ve found to be just as unique as my Egyptian heritage is that I have parents who are still married. They worked incredibly hard and made sacrifices to give my sisters and I a better life than they had and made it their conviction to watch us succeed. This privilege, this blessing—whatever you want to call it—is something I did not earn. I was just lucky to be born into it, and I’m so grateful for that.
What breaks my heart, is that not everybody is given this type of permission to dream. In fact, right here in our community there are children in the foster system who aren’t given this type of support. This is not to diminish the hard work of countless, wonderful foster parents out there, but we all know that it “takes a village” to set these kids up for success. Because of fatigue, their foster parents accidentally send messages that come across as “dumb down your dreams,” “set the bar lower,” “be happy with your fate of a life barely getting by.” Although they don’t mean this, their message can confuse some youth in their formative years. Luckily, our society has pooled our resources, energy, and efforts to care for and encourage these youth. Living an independent life of dignity is not out of reach. They just need some guidance in education, housing, and employment. Even better, our community to rise up to become the “Village” for them.
I’m not alone, many of us here today get excited about being part of this village. We try to encourage and believe in those who don’t yet believe in themselves. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen youth transform in just a few short years when given opportunity and support. What I can tell you is that I’ve watched 16 to 21 year olds, no longer having a connection to the foster program, change the rules. They have worked to make it easier to visit their siblings and get their driver’s licenses. I’ve seen them lobby our state government and witnessed our state vote into law Extended Foster Care, allowing youth to stay in care until they are 21 as long as they work or go to school full time. These youth were fighting for those who would come after them, to gain just a few more years of guidance as they figure out independent living for themselves. I’m almost 33, and I’m still learning lessons on how to be an “adult.” It is mind blowing to watch these brave kids enter the “real world” at age 21, let alone 18.
Finally, I would be lying if I told you that spending time with these youth is purely altruistic and selfless. Quite the contrary. I enjoy hanging out with them. Beyond that, I believe that helping my neighbor is helping myself. Helping others gain employment makes me feel safer about our community. Giving someone a second chance is me reflecting the many second chances that I’ve been given. By doing good for others, I know good things happen to me. It is a selfish selflessness. But I don’t worry about it. I don’t think it really matters what brings you out into the village. What matters is that we show up.