Design Your Life

“I’m an entrepreneur. In a way, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing. It’s a certain kind of creativity and determination and just a not-giving-up. It’s creating something out of nothing.”

Edit Keshishyan is 38 years old, and she moved to the US from Armenia when she was just ten. She is passionate about her work and life and has let her passion and intuition guide her every step. As a child, she watched her parents closely — they were models of the self-made, the creative.

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“When I was little in Armenia, my mom was a dress maker and my dad was a cobbler, a shoe maker.  I would help him in his little workroom. Cut leather. The smell of leather is very sentimental for me now,” she says, remembering her late father. “My mom…I would watch her make dresses, and I kind of tried to make little dresses for my dolls.”

Like many childhood recollections, those early memories made an impact on young Edit and would become ingrained in her character. Design and fashion would be Edit’s calling, and hard work, self-reliance and optimism would be her method.

As a college student in southern California, Edit was studying sciences with a dream of becoming a pediatrician. Despite her commitment, other dreams were visiting Edit at night. They not only woke her from her sleep, they were also a wakeup call.

When I was in college studying biology, I would have these very vivid colorful dreams. I would wake up in the middle of the night and sketch it really fast and then go back to sleep.” She was sketching her dreams of dress designs and fashion.

Edit paid attention to the messages of her subconscious and a new life path opened like a runway. Fashion was her new Medicine.

“Right when I changed my major, there was no question. That’s what I wanted to do! I immersed myself completely.  I looked at all the magazines, read a lot of books, I tried to become just as good as I could become at making patterns, making dresses, draping. I would sew until midnight. I loved it.

Edit’s tireless commitment to learning and growing took her from the place of imagination to manufacturing warehouses in downtown Los Angeles to high end boutiques in LA, New York and Paris and finally to fashion’s esteemed runway shows. She was in it. She was doing it.

“Overall, it was very fun. It was very fast paced. I’d be up at 5:30am, then 100%, until I’d go to bed.”

In the Details

During that time, Edit met the man who would become her husband, Alberto. He lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and had been heavily influenced by time he spent living in Brazil. When he came back to the US, his love for the martial art Brazilian jiujitsu became a way of life and he opened jiujitsu gyms. One feature of many jiujitsu tournaments, Edit told me, was a Brazilian “superfood” called acai.

At that time, Edit was an avid student of health, reading about superfoods before most of us had heard the term.  And sometimes it’s the most curious of life details and circumstances that influence our life’s path. Love leads to connections that lead to new life directions.

Edit and Alberto married and started a family in southern California.

“I really wanted to focus on the family and not be on this stressful planet of the fashion world. I decided to give fashion a break.”

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Superfoods and Emotional Intelligence

“For the past 10 years I’ve been helping Alberto with the gym. It’s been our project aside from having three kids.

“We both really love acai. And I’ve been making acai bowls even since Santa Fe. We decided to have acai at the gym as a little fruit cart.  I put bamboo around it and had a freezer with acai in it. I had it running like a little business of its own, and I took it very seriously.”

They rolled the cart into the street and people would drive 30 minutes just for a cup of acai. When the space next door to the jiujitsu gym opened, it was originally going to be a gym expansion. Instead it turned into the ACAI JUNGLE CAFE in Burbank, CA. And Edit has been running this health food spot that plays world music and serves up well-being ever since.

“I was very nervous about opening the cafe. Honestly even today a year later, every person that comes… I am genuinely happy to see them. I don’t ever want to take it for granted.

“What I learned from fashion and from jiujitsu, having a gym, is to never sacrifice quality. So same thing with the menu here. Make three perfect sandwiches. Make three perfect salads. Make three perfect smoothies. Every single item on the menu is so well thought out that you don’t really want another variation of it. And that’s why we have such a high percentage of returning customers.  It’s just really important that everyone leaves here happy.

“If I’m not going to eat it, I’m not going to have it here.  I try to keep a really healthy, clean diet. But it has to be delicious.

“I came across an article about emotional intelligence recently. It talked about all the different ways you self-talk and what you want to feel like every day, how to handle stressful situations, how to stay calm. And I thought I really have to bring this to the meeting we are going to have with the cafe group.

“When I was little, my mom always used to say that people like to be around happy people. I think I’m a happy person overall. Unless something really happens that’s bad, nothing kind of throws me off.

“I think my energy affects everyone else that works here. And their energy affects every single person that comes in here. And I want everybody that works here to be really happy.  Like, ‘we’re gonna have an amazing day. Let’s do good things’ and you always feel good.

“I try to inspire them to constantly push their own limits. It might build some confidence. I want them, if they do leave here, to say ‘I got something from that.’

“I think another fulfilling part about having this business is the way it affects my kids, my daughters especially.  They don’t see anything holding me back. They don’t see me saying, ‘Oh, I can’t.’

“I don’t ever want them to feel held back because they’re women, that they can’t do something because they’re women. It’s always been a very important thing for me.

“They see that even as a female, as a woman, they can do whatever they want to do. They can be whatever they want to be.”

Know the Why

Melony Matthews.

Her name conjures up the word m-e-l-o-d-y. There is music in it. Maybe it’s the spelling. Or maybe it’s because I first heard Melony. Then I saw her.

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Long dress swaying as she stood alone on the paved street, her arms were outstretched, hair in a tight bun, chin up. Her operatic soprano voice was rising gently into the early morning air of the Hollywood Farmers’ Market, and the expression on her face was angelic.

Today, this is her stage. And her home away from home. Where new doors may open.

The road she took to get here is a winding one. An artistic, creative, bold, beautiful one.

When she is performing, her name is spelled Meloni Mathius. “I changed the spelling, but not the sound. I wanted it to have a pretty look when people write it down,” she smiles.

There are many instruments of music in Melony… musical instruments, vocal instruments, physical instruments…she plays, she sings, she dances, she acts, she writes, she makes short films. She performs.

“My first exposure to music was my babysitter, Vivian.” Melony’s eyes light up as she tells me she and her little brother loved Vivian. “She had a piano and she would never let us touch it. At the time, pianos were a status symbol. You were cultured if you had a piano in the living room. Vivian played it, but we couldn’t touch it.

“We lived in the projects in Anderson, South Carolina. At the time, that was the only place that you could move if you were from out of town. Both my parents were from out of town. They got jobs in Anderson at the school district, and so they went there and the only place to stay was the projects. So, you had a plethora of people living there — doctors, lawyers who just moved there, teachers, all kinds of families.

“When I was 6, 7, 8 something like that, my mom said, ‘I can get you one birthday present. And it can be a big present. And it can be the present for the rest of your life. And I will never get you another birthday present. Or, I can give you lots of little presents throughout your birthdays.’

She made this offer to me and my brother.

“Now I was smart. I said, ‘that presents-throughout-the-years is going to fizzle out. So I better take my chances and get one big present this time. My brother was younger than me so, of course, he chose lots of little presents.

I said, ‘I want one big present’.

She said, ‘What do you want?’

I said, ‘I want a piano.’

“And she got me the piano. And I was on that piano. I would practice until my fingers were raw. She gave me lessons. I would practice so much that I would fall asleep on the piano.”

Melony’s father, now 80 years old, was a band teacher in South Carolina for 35 years and also played saxophone in the National Guard Army band. He started Melony on the flute as early as she can remember. Melony’s mother’s musical gift was singing.

“My family would sing all the time. We would be in the living room harmonizing. My mom or my aunt would always designate what we would sing, what pitch. She’d say, Melony, you do high harmony. That was my designation.

I’m not the singer in the family. I can’t hoot and holler. I’ve got that soft voice.

“When I was growing up, at church, when they needed quiet meditation time, they would ask me to sing. And I would sing. My song was….”

For the next 22 seconds, Melony sang the song Sweet Hour of Prayer, lending the coffee shop where we met to do this interview an ethereal soundtrack. Just as she finished, a man appeared right next to our table looking in awe at Melony. Eyes wide, he said, “I had to tell you, you have a lovely singing voice.”

“Oh! Thank you!” Melony beamed.

When he left she turned back to me, “So, that was my song. When they wanted quiet meditation at church, they’d say, ‘Oh, Mrs. Matthews, get Melony to sing that quiet song, and that was the only time I was requested.” She breaks into laughter.

Piano. Flute. Singing. Ballet lessons at the local recreation center in Anderson, SC,  too. Eventually, Melony graduated high school, then earned a degree in Drama from Spelman  College in Atlanta, Georgia. There, a teacher observed Melony’s dance talents and encouraged her to audition for the famed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City. Melony took her first airplane ride, heading for the big apple.

“When I got there, there were so many people who were at such professional levels. There were splits all kinds of ways, and I’m like, ‘What the hell am I doing here? I don’t have this kind of training.  I’m just a little country girl from South Carolina.’ I spent junior high school years with Miss Brenda at Anderson Recreation Center in a little ballet school at the rec. That was it.

“Let me tell you what I did. I said, ‘Melony, you can’t compete with these people. They’re all bony skinny and you’re country thick. What do you have to offer?’

“I told myself, I don’t care what you’re doing, you’re going to keep your smile on like it’s painted on there. Glue it there! And when my time came up my strategy was just keep smiling — and that’s what I did!”

Her dance skills and her spirit were enough to earn her a certificate from Alvin Ailey.

“I was in the New York area for about 10 years.”  Melony was with a dance company and she also sang in a choir. One day, the Dance Theatre of Harlem had an open house.

“I went to the open house, and I sang. That was my first performance as an opera singer. It was probably horrible, but I hit that high note and they were applauding and they stood up ‘diva! diva!’ and I said, ‘Yeah, this is what I’m doing. I like this.’

“That’s when I decided to continue to be a professional opera singer. My life has been miserable ever since!” she laughs.

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“Just because you decide to do something that you’re supposed to do doesn’t mean it’s going to be easier to do it.  Just because it’s something that you’re purposed to do, doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy to do.

“You still have to face a challenge. So you might as well do what you like, because it’s going to be a challenge anyway.

“Have you ever crossed a creek? How do you cross a creek? You look for the stones. You look for the stone that you can step on that will support you. And you hop on that stone. Everything is hopping on a stone to get across the river to the other side. I celebrate each stone. Each stone motivates me.

“Each stone you step on is an accomplishment and you have to take it.

“You will get across the river if you remember what you’re doing it for. You’ve gotta really love it. You’ve gotta know the why.  The why has to be: you love it!

“Opera is not a solo act. You’re combining the words, the feelings, the technique, the sound, the emotions, working with the music. And trying to find a sense of accomplishment in small increments. Each song I sing now is trying to accomplish that. Sometimes I don’t. We are human.

“But when you hit it, it’s so fulfilling. It’s life fulfilling. And that’s why people are in the arts. Because it is life fulfilling.”

The Record Parlour

“We buy stuff off the street. Used records. That’s where all these things come from. You get a bunch of people. And sometimes it’s a great interaction, and sometimes it’s not, you know?”

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Standing against the exposed brick of his vinyl record store, 41-year old Chadwick Hemus knows music has always been his true north. Co-owner of The Record Parlour in Hollywood, California, Chadwick remembers how records had an immediate allure for him, and working in worlds where records spin marked an early beginning to an enduring rhythm of life.

On his hand, there is a small tattoo of a faded cat sitting on a crescent moon.

“It’s off of a Ventures record cover. I don’t know. It just struck me.”

Music is like that for him, too.

His first record was a ’70’s Mickey Mouse Club record. “With Lisa Whelchel from Facts of Life, an ensemble cast,” he smiles.

Since that first vinyl, Chadwick can talk to you about Chick Corea while flipping an Otis Redding record.  The store is self-described as ‘a mecca of pre-digital entertainment and home to over 15,000 records, rare jukeboxes, restored vintage audio gear, music memorabilia and much more.’ Chandeliers and naked light bulbs glimmer in the sepia space rich with vinyl and other nostalgic things. Chadwick and his business partner Chris Honetschlaeger have been in business here for three years now.

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“This is the first time I’ve had my own store. But that’s all I’ve ever done since high school,” says Chadwick. “That’s how I’ve made a living.

“I grew up in San Diego, and I happened to be in a neighborhood where, at the time, there were  four or five music stores of varying size. There was a Tower and Warehouse. And then some very important independent stores in the area too. One of which ended up being the first place I worked.

“I just fell into that and had a knack for … kind of the way my brain works… you know, I’m pretty good at memorizing things. It lent itself to pricing,” he says. “It wasn’t something I thought consciously, ‘oh this is something I’m going to do with myself.’ I loved records.

“In the ’90’s, there was very much a trend for this snobbishness in music stores. That’s faded quite a bit. I think that overall the sort of humbling of maybe the music industry and the fact that the money’s not like it used to be …  there’s not really a lot of room for that.”

As much as his work in the record store is a labor of love, he admits there is definitely labor involved.

“It’s a lot of hours and there’s always a lot of other things to deal with besides just the good parts,” he says. “There’s a lot of street interactions. And when you run a business like this … you have a lot of other aspects to deal with that are not always pleasant.

“Sometimes you’re just a therapist. Just a bartender type helping somebody kind of move on. Sometimes you’re dealing with somebody who is very very desperate and very upset that we’re not able to help them.

“It’s not always just the stuff off the street that can be crazy. I mean, the sourcing… the places you have to go to get stuff can be really pretty creepy.

“There’s a lot of hoarders that have a lot of records. Records kind of lend themselves to that.  And a lot of times, by the time their collections are available, the person has either passed or may be in a really bad part of their life. And you’re dealing with a lot of what comes with hoarders: the dirt and filth and bugs. So there’s a lot of that when you’re sourcing this kind of stuff.”

The Flip Side

“One of the mysteries of music… is the sort of power of it and the longevity of it.

“And one of the reasons I think we have been very successful in a short amount of time is there’s a lot of interaction with people. I want to find out what they want and what they want to be turned on to, and it really doesn’t matter if that’s what you’re into or not.  It’s more about getting someone streamlined into what they want. All of those interactions are what make a good day.

“Small businesses like this are always about relationships.  That’s why people come in. When people are selling records, especially when it’s their own records, they really want acknowledgement over them. That the stuff is good stuff. That they took care of it. Or maybe they didn’t because they loved them. But there’s definitely that exchange. It’s so often not about how much money. It’s so much about acknowledging the importance they’ve given these objects, and they really want you to give that.

“I’m sure this is part of what my over-arching dream would be for an existence. I don’t know what that is.  Right now, I’m more about survival and realigning. It’s a very strange time period. So the idea of sort of a dream or a bigger picture — ugh — it’s not where I’m at.

“My favorite mantra has always been ‘don’t look down.’

“That’s the key to hanging in there. ‘Cuz it’s pretty scary.”

Maybe music helps us look up. And make sense of things. Especially in tough times. In the moment. And well beyond. In the words of musician and artist David Byrne from his book How Music Works:

“A slew of musical associations bounce around in our heads, linking to recurring memories and feelings, which, after a while, facilitate the creation and reinforcement of specific neural pathways. These pathways help us make sense of those experiences. They make us who we are.

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 that night, eyes straining to see anything in the watery abyss. The plan was 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 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 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.