Common ground with an uncommon friend

Every day I read another report about the persistent unemployment in the United States, and each day my heart and bank account drop a little more. According to the most recent figures, I am one of the carefully counted 9 million Americans, 6.1 percent of the population, still looking for full-time employment. I have packed my days with meaningful but not financially rewarding internships and volunteer jobs, and my nights serving sushi at a local restaurant in Boston.

In pockets of spare time, I surf job-seeker websites and write cover letters. I look at the sparse selection of unappealing job listings and it feels as if all the odds are stacked against me. After all, what's a poetry major to do in today's economy?

In an attempt to add some value to my days, I decided to volunteer with the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit that helps refugees settle in the United States. Instead of tutoring someone with their English, they asked me to take on a bigger project. I was assigned to mentor, tutor, befriend, and support Gabriel.

Gabriel is one of the Sudanese "Lost Boys" who fled civil war in Sudan as a child and lived as a refugee in Ethiopia and Kenya for 15 years. He came to the US two years ago with hundreds of other Lost Boys, most of whom were placed in foster homes throughout the country. Because he was over18, he did not qualify for foster care or a free high school education. He is on his own.

As it turns out, Gabriel and I are about the same age, somewhere between Generation X and Y, the famous 20-something years. I grew up with a string of parties and cake to mark the years, but Gabriel can't be so sure. For now his birthday, like those of the approximately 3,600 other Lost Boys who've come to the US since November 2000, is Jan. 1.

After a long stint working as a dishwasher at a busy restaurant, Gabriel, like me, is looking for a job that will allow him to grow and learn. In the meantime, we have plenty of time to spend together. As the months go by, he and I grow closer.

He has taken on my affinity for ice cream. Almost every time we meet now, he suggests going to get ice cream. He slowly works his way through the scoop - a new flavor each time - and all the while he talks about Sudan.

It is not always easy for me to understand the lilting British accent he picked up from one year of high school in a refugee camp in Kenya, or the lisp from his gap of missing teeth - removed in a traditional ceremony when he was a boy. But it is easy to pick up on his deep passion for his mother land and his rapt attention to the 20-year civil war that still rages there.

It is usually cows that really get us talking. The Dinka, Gabriel's tribe, live by, with, and for cattle. His tribal name is Marial, which describes the markings of a rare black and white cow his family acquired when he was born. The fact that I grew up on a cattle ranch in rural Texas gives us acres of common ground. I can relate to his bovine bond: When I was a kid my mom named a cow after me and each member of my family.

As Gabriel has remarked, however, cows are a different matter in America. In Africa, cattle mean far more than milk and hamburgers. They provide the framework for human relationships. Gabriel's father paid a bride price of 100 cows to marry, which, at about US$100 per cow, is no small investment. However, no one ever pays alone. Parents, uncles, and friends contribute cows as wedding presents to create a respectable herd.

I am not sure Gabriel would understand our norm of giving salad spinners, napkin rings, and dessert spoons. It's been hard enough to explain how an American wedding is supposed to work, since half of my married female friends have done the proposing, kept their maiden names, or paid for their wedding themselves.

Traditions are changing, but I've been able to share some of the statistics. The average American woman doesn't marry until age 25, and the average wedding costs upwards of $20,000. I can see him desperately dividing the figure by units of cow and coming up short.

Gabriel, however, has more to do than find a herd of cows to collect a bride. The Lost Boys of Sudan, while not all boys, are short on brides. Only a couple thousand girls fled their villages to live as refugees in Ethiopia and Kenya, and only a handful of those girls came to the US.

As more of the "Lost Boys" approach marrying age, it is becoming clear that, despite the opportunity to create a new future in America, they are missing the opportunity to marry and build a family within their own culture, language, and identity. Gabriel probably has a better chance of landing a downtown corner office than finding an eligible Sudanese bride in Boston.

Gabriel is learning how to use a computer, and we get together every week so that I can help him craft online résumés and navigate the sea of job banks and employer websites. There's not a lot out there for one who's not a native speaker of English and has yet to graduate from high school.

As we sit side by side at the same computer, I consider the radical differences in our backgrounds. No matter how daunted I feel in my own quest for the right job, I have to be thankful for the benefit of my education and the support of family and friends. I couldn't imagine facing this alone and in a foreign land - except that I see Gabriel do it every day.

Some days we forgo job applications to chew the cud, as it were, about Sudan, marriage, dream jobs, cows. Sometimes I worry about how long it will be before either one of us finds a job.

But when I start feeling frustrated in my own quest for meaningful, rewarding work it helps to remember that, in a small way, I have found it already. It means the world to me that Gabriel calls when he has a question about a confusing word on a help-wanted sign or needs a hand with a cover letter. Someone who has worked as hard to survive and overcome as Gabriel can surely survive a few rocky months on the unemployment boat. And if he can do it, then I can, too.

When we do find ourselves with perfect jobs, however, I will be sorry to give up this unusual bond of mutual unemployment. Gabriel and I will still meet every week, but we won't have quite as much time to linger and chat. Who would have thought that two of the 9 million jobless in America would figure out the best jobless benefit available: A true friend from across the globe?

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