The Power of Choice

How does one choice impact the trajectory of our lives?

The compound effect of our choices often takes time to be revealed, the influences so seemingly small.

And then some choices are more pivotal, singular, instantly decisive.

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Nineteen year-old Loc Le paced the dark beach late one night, eyes straining to see anything in the watery abyss. The plan was already going wrong.

He walked up and down the shoreline, quietly convincing himself he was there at the right time, on the right day. This was his second attempt to catch the boat, and to avoid detection he had to go alone.

He found the house where the escape was coordinated. But when he spotted police hiding nearby, he knew not to approach.  “They waited to catch people who contact the person in the house.”

A small boat was supposed to pick him up and take him to a bigger boat. But where was it?

He waited. And waited.

“I cannot go to that house, so I don’t know where to go. I just think, ‘What can I do now? No one I can contact with.’”

Somewhere in the night, he hoped his father, step-mother and half brother had reached the big boat, and that they would be re-united soon.

They were all running. Away from Vietnam and communism. Into the unknown. Toward freedom.

It was 1979, and a few years had passed since the North defeated the South. When he turned 18, Loc was awakened in the middle of the night and forced to join the army. He wrapped up a few clothes and was put in a police car to report for military duty. He could feel his freedom slipping away.

Not long after, he escaped from the army for the first time. When he was caught, he was put in solitary confinement for one month. Months later, he was assigned to guard duty at the Vietnam-Cambodia border. His family didn’t know where he’d been sent. But his father searched through jungles, asking after his son, and eventually found him.

“I don’t know how he found me,” said Loc. “Only love can do that.”

Loc and his father told his superiors a story that Loc’s mother was ill, and he needed to go home.

Was that true, I asked?

“No! It’s not true at all. To survive under the communists, you cannot tell the truth.”

And his family fought to survive. His father had been a captain in the army for the South. Loc’s older brother, also a soldier, had been killed by soldiers from the North when Loc was just 12 years old. Loc’s paternal grandfather had also been killed, simply because he was working for French people and learning to speak French.

“You’re looking for the boat, right?” The voice came from a fisherman on the shore.

Loc said yes.

The fisherman said he would point him in the direction of the boat, but only for money. Loc had no money. None.

So he unclasped his necklace and gave it to the fisherman.  “I said, ‘Tell me, where is the boat?’”

The fisherman pointed to a faint light far in the distance, a boat floating in the darkness on the South China Sea.

“That’s the boat that’s going to leave tonight,” he told Loc.

But how would he get there?

He walked back and forth until 2:00am, searching for a solution, searching for the small boat.

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“Then I heard the dogs start barking.” It was the police patrol, and they were moving toward the shore.

“At that time, I have to make decision.  If they catch me, they going to put me in jail because I escaped from the army. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.

“Now, the season is life or death. So I say, if I still have some life, I have to take it!

“So I start to swim.”

His emotions surface and the gravity of the situation is written on Loc’s face as he recounts the story.

“And I am not a good swimmer. But I swim. I swim. I swim. I swim I don’t know how long. And I reached the big boat. They pulled me up, and I passed out.”

The Big Boat

The big boat was just 12 feet long and three feet wide. When Loc finally regained consciousness, he was told he could go above deck to get some fresh air.  It was then he discovered he was one of 38 people aboard that small wooden boat.

“And I see my father there! Oh, what joyful! I see my step-mom. I see my half brother.  Oh, I am so happy.”

No sooner, news came that the boat had no food supply. The supply boat never came. “But they had to leave. So we have no food. We just have three gallons of water containers. For 38 people.”

A plan was quickly set to ration the water, using the small caps of the containers as serving sizes.

“We have three water caps. So, one at 10 o’clock, one at 12 o’clock, and one at 3 o’clock. Each people have three caps of water per day. No food.”

They went three days like that, in an overcrowded boat on the open sea, with only three caps of water per person per day.

Add to that, there were no experienced seamen on board. “No compass. No map. The captain, well, we call captain, of that boat: only thing he knows is that the sun rise and sun set.”

On the third day, they found a small damaged boat floating on the sea, and when Loc and other men climbed aboard, they discovered another container of water. Rusty water. “But who cares! I know I can survive a few more days with that much water in my body. So I drink and give to them and they drink it!”

The Philippines was the nearest destination, said Loc, but still they saw no land.

Day 4.

Day 5.

Day 6.

“We’re all exhausted, so we say ok, now we need to pray,” he said. “We need to pray something miracle happen.

“The next morning, around 8 o’clock, we see the cloud coming toward our boat. Maybe some rain!

“We get the tarp. Maybe some rain! Maybe some rain!

“And raindrops! The miracle thing. The raindrop! Oh, raindrops. We tried to lick the water on our hands. We tried to hold it in the tarp. Only for one minute, and that’s it. Then it stopped.”

And he stopped. He grew quiet and wiped his eyes. Finally he spoke.

“We survived on that rain.”

On the eighth day, they met a cargo ship from Holland, and while the crew couldn’t take them on, they gave everyone food and water. They also said they were close to the Philippines.

At around 6pm, they saw land. “Thank God that we see the land! Then the Philippine people, they get out, and they carry us to the land!”

He was free.

“As long as I feel free, that’s all I need. I didn’t feel fear of unknown. I can adapt. As long as I have freedom, it’s up to me!”

 Living Free, One Day at a Time

I asked Loc if that was the hardest thing he’s encountered in his life.

Through quiet tears, he answered, “Yes. Everything after that easier, yes.”

To describe his journey from the Philippines to America and to making a life here as easy would be a gross misstatement. It was hard too. But his family, freedom, faith and self-reliance were strength enough for the journey.

“Until you lose it, you don’t know how precious your freedom is. Nothing better than freedom. Nothing.

“If you have freedom, and if you have your will, then you will make it.”

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And he has made it.  Now 54 years old, if you were to visit his southern California business for dry cleaning, or alterations, or shoe repairs, the treatment you’d receive would feel less commercial and more familial. For 24 years, Loc “Peter” Le has had Knott’s Cleaners. He greets people warmly, asking about their families, their lives.

Peter’s own family consists of his wife Sunny and their teenage daughter Angelle. His father, Vien Le, is now 87 years old.

More than 30 years since their escape from Vietnam, his father still talks about that journey. “He just reminded me,” said Peter, of the day their prayers for rain were answered. “Last Monday, I took him to see the doctor. He just remind me again, that a miracle happened to us.”

Peter continues to live his life with an intense appreciation for freedom and the opportunities it allows.

“The man dignity does not matter what kind of work you do, but how you do the work. Do it with pride.”

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The Giving Side

After young Jireh’s uncle vanished, everything changed.

The danger was too close.

“We’re leaving tonight,” said Jireh’s father.  “Take whatever you can.”

Jireh (JEE-ray) Mabamba was just seven years old at the time, the fifth of six children — the sons and daughters of preachers.

It was 2001, and Jireh’s parents opposed the child soldier movement in their home country of Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

And their opposition made them targets.

Jireh is still unclear about who exactly was after them… and about who exactly found his uncle instead.

All he knows is they had to leave.

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Now a 19 year-old college freshman at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD), Jireh sits inside a warm home. Outside, it’s a frigid midwestern morning.

“It was a nice house like this,” he says of his boyhood home in DRC, his eyes scanning the room.

His manner is calm and reflective right now, but he is charismatic and fun-loving too. Tall and fit, Jireh has the posture of an athlete and speaks English with eloquence. It might not be perfect, but it’s very good. In his delivery, you hear a mixture of accents and word selections acquired from the places he’s lived. It’s a melding of French, Swahili and Lingala influences from DRC, the mellifluous lilt of South African English and some American slag he’s picked up since coming to the United States.

“I was very young, so I do not remember what I took with me. However, I do remember us leaving a coat. It was green in color, and all my siblings including myself, had worn that coat. The family was very attached to it, but we had to leave it behind.”

Jireh’s memories of those initial months after fleeing DRC are vague, but stories have been passed down about the family’s existence as refugees.

“We drove, we walked, we drove, we walked, we took a boat.

“I think we went through Congo to Zambia, Zambia to Malawi, Malawi to Mozambique, Mozambique to South Africa.”

The small boy making his way through these refugee camps would have a very big dream one day. He just didn’t know it yet. But he does now, and it’s a dream that will lead him right back to where this story began. And he may just write a new chapter in his country’s history.

South Africa

“We were illegal,” says Jireh. “When we arrived in South Africa, we didn’t have documents.  We went to the home affairs, and we told them why we were there, and how we got there. We said we ran.”

Jireh’s parents and their children were registered as refugees.  But the documents they received did not come with food or shelter.

“We spent a couple of days outside on the street. And then later moved to a church,” he says. “Then the church couldn’t do that the whole time, so we moved to a shelter.”

Jireh’s sister started selling oranges to try to earn some money for the family. Jireh’s father, a French-speaking preacher in DRC, struggled to find work and communicate in a new language. He took a job as a car guard — a position that earns no pay if not for the occasional tip.

By now Jireh was nine and beginning fourth grade.

“We moved to a primary school. A lot of naughty kids would go. Kids that had been kicked out from other schools.”

But Jireh and his siblings immersed themselves in academics. “We’d go to school, stay after school, speak to teachers, ‘show me this, show me that’. We were very committed.”

In middle school, he passed all his classes and played “every single sport” but was particularly passionate about basketball.

Soon, he set his sights on a prestigious all-boys high school — Durban High School — and decided to apply. Coats, ties, polish. It was not the place refugee kids typically aspired to attend high school.

Jireh remembers kids around him saying ‘forget it, you’re not going to make it. Nobody’s going to accept you.’

“And they were right,” he says. “Even though I had a dream of somebody handing me the uniform when I applied. I applied, and they said, ‘Nope, we’re full.’”

But one month later, there was an opportunity for a second chance. “That same school sent an email to all schools saying they were having a scholarship available for basketball,” he says. Seven players could represent each school. “I was like, oh, I’m going!

“Every day, every night, I’d be at that basketball court working, training.”

And when the day of the try-outs arrived, Jireh was ready. “I was the first person at the courts. It was part of my plan. I knew coaches would usually arrive there early and organize things, and I thought, if I go early and start practicing they will see me, notice me.”

He was warming up. He was shooting. He was scoring.

Then came time for the scrimmage.

“We played five on five, and I didn’t score a basket! I was stopping kids from scoring, and I was passing the ball. But my position is a shooter, so I’m meant to score. But on that day,” he laughs, “nothing worked!”

When the day was done, the boys were told, “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.”

Again, he waited.

“A month later, the principal of my middle school came, and he’s like, ‘Jireh, congratulations. You are the first child in this school to EVER get a scholarship to that school. You make us proud.’”

Leadership

Jireh Mabamba, a refugee from DRC, would attend Durban High School, the school where South African elite send their children.

“I was an average student. My first year, I was just following the rules: play basketball, do academics, play basketball.

“The following year, I decided to join leadership stuff. Oh, there’s a Toastmasters International course going on? I can join that.  And there is student government? I can join that. I started getting involved in leadership stuff at school. And slowly, while playing basketball still, I started getting involved into school life and building myself up.”

Forgiveness

Jireh made the most of his high school environment from grade eight through 12, but despite his optimism, it wasn’t always easy. The class differences were highlighted by some of the other students.

“The kids were like, Jireh, what do your parents do?”  Sometimes he would answer ‘car guard’. Sometimes he would answer ‘pastor’.

“Some of those kids were very mean. They would have things going on, but they wouldn’t invite me,” he says. “They just never consider me.”

Sometimes they called him names. Sometimes they talked about his parents.

I asked him if that hurt.

“It did. It did hurt.

“My mom would always say, ‘It’s ok. You know what you have to do for that scholarship, right?’ I said, “Yah, I just have to pass, mom.”

Jireh would tell his father, “‘They called me this, and they called me that. And they called you guys this.’

“My dad would say, ‘Are you what they said?’ I’m like, no. ‘Am I what they said?’ I’m like, no. ‘Is your mom and I so and so?’ I’m like, no. ‘Then why you worried about it? It’s not true. If it’s not true, then you don’t worry about it. And if it’s true, change it.’”

Jireh draws much of his ability to forgive from his parents as well as South African leader Nelson Mandela’s example.

“He spent 27 years in jail and got out and forgave those people who put him there. When I got to South Africa, we faced a lot of insults and a lot of hate from people.

“A normal person reacts to it and calls them back names. But because of my beliefs and because of Nelson Mandela’s ability to forgive people that hated him for 27 years…” His thought trails off. “Mine was just a small period of time. So if he can do that for 27 years, I will just be myself and be good.”

Public Speaking

By the time Jireh was in the 11th grade, he was heavily involved in Toastmasters and was giving speeches and winning contests. One day at school, an assembly was called for all the boys in the student body to attend. Jireh Mabamba was giving a speech called You Too Can Have the Last Laugh.

The speech was startling at first. “Hey you, you’re a fat kid. You can’t play basketball. Hey you, you’re so skinny. What makes you think you’re going to be a rugby player?” He got everyone’s attention. The message in earnest was summed up by Jireh later. “People will talk about you. People will criticize you. People will call you names. But if you keep doing what you’re meant to do, you will have the last laugh.”

The speech was transformative for Jireh.

“I was nervous. Even though I was making that speech straight from the heart, I memorized it. After that speech was a whole life-changing experience. In the school, people gave me respect. I never felt like that before. It was a great feeling.

“The Toastmasters coarse itself helped me a lot because I’m a shy guy. People don’t believe me, but I am. Every time I talk I get SUPER nervous. My legs shake. That was scary stuff, but I did it anyway.”

Why?

“I wanted people to hear me. I wanted people to understand how I feel. That’s the motivation I got from my parents.  ‘Hey, keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t worry about them. God will be with you. My parents are very Christian. God will guide you. Keep doing what you’re doing.”

Service Above Self

Jireh’s high school guidance counsellor was very active in Rotary International.

“He asked me what I was going to do after high school. I said ‘I don’t know. My parents can’t afford for me to go to college.’”

“‘Well’,” said the counsellor. “‘There is this Rotary International scholarship that you can apply for, and I think you’re really qualified.’”

Rotary was familiar territory for Jireh. He had begun a life of  ‘Service above Self’, the Rotary motto, by often being a host friend to new Rotary scholars visiting Durban High School. Now it was his turn to be the visiting student.

With the help of Rotary International, he would become part of the Rotary Exchange program and a member of the senior class of Duluth East High School in northern Minnesota, USA. Latitude Durban: 29+ degrees South. Latitude Duluth: 46+ degrees North.

“I came here, and my first snowfall was while I was doing my math test. I’d never seen snow before falling from the sky. I was super distracted.”

He was staring out the window.

Suddenly he heard the voice that had been trying to wake him a few times already. “My teacher was saying, ‘Jireh, are you ok?’

“I said ‘no’, and everybody started laughing.” Jireh asked if he could go outside and take a photo of the falling snow.

“The teacher said, ‘Well, who wants to go outside to take a picture with Jireh?’  And the whole class put their hands up! And he’s like, ‘Let’s go!’”

As the math class snapshot shows, Jireh has been welcomed like family here — in school, in host families, in life. During his first year in Duluth, he brought his magnetic personality to Rotary meetings, and now in his second year, he continues to do so while on scholarship at UMD studying business.

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“The Rotary means a lot to me. They believed in me enough to go out of their way to help get me back here for college. I would not have done it if it was not for the help of Rotary Club 25. I owe them all a huge debt of gratitude. I hope that one day I will be successful enough so that I could make a difference in some student’s life like the Rotary did to me. They gave me hope and an opportunity to make change in this world.”

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Political future?

That young boy from the refugee camp has something in mind as to how he can make change in this world.

“I want to go to the Congo and set things straight. I want to become the president.”

Jireh explains how DRC is rich in minerals and how they have become a curse.

“People are fighting over them. The government is corrupt. They need somebody that can actually CARE not only about the minerals, but about the people themselves.

“Most people like that get killed,” he says.

I let that sink in.

Are you not afraid of that?

“I am. But my parents support me for it.  They know it’s the right thing to do.

“I want to go back, but before that I want to study here, and have a family just in case anything happens.

“I want to have a family, have a house for my parents, have them stable. And if I do go, and if I don’t come back, I’ll know they’re fine.

“I’m on the receiving end of the coin, every time. I’d like to be on the other side. The giving side.”

To many, Jireh is already there.

How We Met — Disco Taco

Many of you asked how I met each person I have interviewed for Another Door Opens, so this How We Met series is an answer to how I met the first 10 generous Another Door Opens people. Thank you for reading. Here is today’s short story. 

DISCO TACO

One gray weekend, I decided to stop thinking about it and do it.

The idea for this Another Door Opens project had been in my mind for a long time, and finally something needed to change.

If you never do, you’ll never know.

The worst that could happen is you don’t try.

The second worst that could happen is no one will talk with you.

So what if you’re not the best writer on the planet.

So what if you’re not the best photographer on the planet.

So what if you’re not the best storyteller on the planet.

Imperfections and vulnerability don’t make your efforts less worthwhile.

Do it.

It would be an experiment as short or as long as I chose to make it.

But I believed and still do in the core reason for doing this. Everyone has a story. Everyone wants to be heard. And we benefit by sharing our stories.

With new resolve, I immediately started looking for opportunities.

I stopped for lunch at a little spot called Disco Taco, and although I didn’t know it at the time, I walked through my first door without any bright lights or flashing signs.

I think it was Agnes de Mille who said, “No trumpets sound when the important decisions of our life are made.”

As I talked with David Medina at the restaurant, and as I watched him interact with other customers, a voice inside said, ask him… start here.

The busy restaurant cleared out quickly, and before I’d finished my lunch, the place was empty.

“Can I run something by you?” I asked.

“Sure!” he said enthusiastically.

It was my first time to say what I was doing.

I explained the project in very short form, then asked David if he’d be willing to have me come back the next day to do an interview and take a few pictures.

“Yes! Why not?”

The first door opened!

Thank you, David. Thank you.

How We Met — Soul of a Cowboy

Many of you asked how I met each person I have interviewed for Another Door Opens, so this How We Met series is an answer to how I met the first 10 generous Another Door Opens people. Thank you for reading. Here is today’s short story.

SOUL OF A COWBOY

Greg Hathcock’s cowboy boots led him straight to my table and into my life at a Ruidoso, New Mexico, coffee shop.

Sixty-eight years old then, and 69 now, he stood to my right — his eyes as earnest and inquisitive as his questions. “I needed to come over here and tell you to have a good day,” he began.

Where are you from? Why are you here? What do you do? What are you working on? Are you married? Do you have children? Why? Why? Why?

Some days later, he arrived at the coffee shop with something he wanted me to read. A manuscript for a movie. I read the first chapter. And I loved it.

Energetic and quick-witted, he told animated stories like there was no tomorrow. Some about bull riding, others about his high school days and before I could speak, he hopped up and out the door to retrieve proof. Riding shotgun in his car was a large tattered album filled with memorabilia. He came back inside holding something that he clearly cherished.

Though worn, it was amazingly detailed. Medals, ribbons, newspaper clippings. All of his stories were there in print — accolades listed, records broken, awards won. Although he tempered mention of his accomplishments with some humility, it was clear to see how proud he was and rightly so.

That day I told him about Another Door Opens, and asked if I could interview him. He said he would do whatever he could to help me. “Just tell me what to do!”

We had to decide on a door, so we chose to do the interview at his restaurant, the Grazing Bull, in nearby Capitan.

I pulled into the gravel lot on the edge of town. Amber hillsides and open spaces reminded me I was in the land of Billy the Kid.

The austere exterior of the Grazing Bull gave little hint of the gem inside. And before I was through the door, I could hear the easy vocals and guitar of musician Mark Remington.

You already know the rest. We sat down at a pine table. Life lessons shared. And new friendship found.

Thank you, Greg.

How We Met — Old Roads and Fresh Starts

Many of you asked how I met each person I have interviewed for Another Door Opens, so this How We Met series is an answer to how I met the first 10 generous Another Door Opens people. Thank you for reading. Here is today’s short story.

OLD ROADS AND FRESH STARTS

At the time, I didn’t think anything of parking my car in the lot at the drive-thru coffee window.

I realize now, that might have seemed odd.

I was just curious to know who was working in such a tiny box. It was delightfully inviting from the road, so I thought I’d try my luck at finding my door for the day.

About as bizarre as a pedestrian going through a McDonald’s drive-thru, I walked up to the window, said good morning, and ordered an iced coffee.

Kate Broeren, who was working there, didn’t blink an eye and was pleasant and easy-going. I told her why I was walking up rather than driving up, briefly mentioning the Another Door Opens project.  I told her I believe everybody has a story. And would she be willing to talk with me as part of the project?

A car drove up, so I stepped aside to let Kate work and to let them order.

Across the road, I glimpsed BNSF trains rumbling by behind a thin wall of pine.

I went back to the window, and Kate kindly agreed to talk with me. And so we began. Between thoughts and questions, cars would come up, we’d break, and I’d step aside.

Route 66 was getting busier.

After each car left, we resumed.

The last thing Kate said to me, about some of the discomfort she was feeling in her life at that time, was ‘this too shall pass.’ And she’s right.

Thank you, Kate.

How We Met — Hey Hey Paula

Many of you asked how I met each person I have interviewed for Another Door Opens, so this How We Met series is an answer to how I met the first 10 generous Another Door Opens people. Thank you for reading. Here is today’s short story.

HEY HEY PAULA

The decision was made early that morning. I would approach the day with a sense of curiosity and fearlessness.

Some days that comes more naturally than others. Perhaps on this morning, I felt the need to bolster my confidence some. I had to muster the guts to find another door.

The door part is easy. It’s the people part that can be challenging. As a gesture to this commitment, I made sure my camera and recorder batteries were charged and that my notebook and pen were easily accessible. If an opportunity arose, I wanted to be ready.

As I approached Cottonwood, it was around lunchtime and I planned to look for a restaurant there.

Just before I reached the historic old town section of Cottonwood, a thrift shop on the left caught my eye. Immediately, I felt compelled to stop. That was the next door.

But I kept driving, maybe out of fear of approaching unknown people at random for a project that had been in existence for all of about two weeks. No sooner had I talked myself out of stopping, and forgotten about eating, I was quickly back onto a desert road.

“Turn around. Just go back there,” I said to myself.

And so I did.

I did a U-turn and drove back to Paula’s Attic, parked the car and went inside with my camera, recorder, notebook, pen, all of it. That was kind of presumptuous.

I walked in the door and Paula came out from the back. We said hello and she told me a little about the store and asked where I was from. When she asked what I was doing, I told her about Another Door Opens. Then, was there any chance she’d like to talk with me as part of the project, I asked.

She thought about it, then said “why not.” We sat in two high chairs near the glass counter in front, and began the interview.

Feeling mutually blessed to have met, we hugged goodbye and wished each other well. Thank you, Paula.