Being a refugee was the best thing that ever happened to me. Of course our view of history is 20/20, but when I think back to the things I learned during that sad time, it’s clear they’re the reasons I’m the man I am today.
Marge, a missionary from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who came to Kenya to work with youth populations, took me in and literally babysat me while my mother took on a new job as a kindergarten teacher. The little money she made helped us get us small things like shoes as well as keep her dignity intact. She was so sad during this time; you could see the loss in her eyes — the loss of her home, business, and dignity. Yet during this time she transitioned into making sure that we, the kids, were well taken care of. By handing me over to Marge she wanted to make sure that my appetite for panache and style was still being met through this rather charming, elegant American woman.
Marge played a big role quenching my thirst for all things American. I wanted to act, sing and dance, but I also loved to play sports, specifically soccer. She gave me all of that and more. The key dramas we acted each year were the Christmas and the Easter stories. I was the first one to sign up for her Sunday school rehearsal acting plays. She was a great critic of my developing craft and always had me memorize my lines without fail. She set my trident and supercilious tendencies straight and taught me how to present myself to the world with a dose of humble pie as she called it. She said, “Derreck you can use your arrogance for good. You can use it to demand excellence out of yourself and others without making them feel beneath you and unwanted.” And she would mummer on the side, “your are refugee for crying out loud…” My constant answer was always “yes mum,” but I would quickly revert to showmanship when I scored a goal during soccer games. (I was convinced that my arrogance would win me the heart of one or two beautiful girls.) And I added Table Tennis (yes not “ping pong” as Marge referred to it — it’s a serious game for pits sake) to my skills set and that became another reason for my profound relationship to Marge.
But perhaps the biggest gift that Marge helped me discover was that of public speaking. She one day announced in our Sunday school class that she was looking for four kids to be the preachers at one of the Sunday services which she had dubbed Youth Sunday. After the announcement, she immediately turned her eyes to me and in a very loving but intimidating way winked at me and said Derreck I think you should be one of the speakers! I immediately went into a cold shock experience with my tummy churning. Why? Because I had never spoken before a large audience and for all my charm and over confidence I was so scared I could hardly hold still if you know what I mean. Marge then asked as to please find a subject matter that we thought we wanted to speak about and that she would help us build it up. The length of the speech was to be fifteen minutes each and she expected us to sound and look the part!
Long story short, I spoke about the role of youth in the future of the church and I did so well one of the congregants happened to be a journalist of one of the key news papers called “The Nation” and he covered the sermon with glowing accolades in the Sunday section. After that speech, in tandem with the acting, Marge had managed to build a confident young man in me with an acute gift of public speaking and presentation skills that have helped me in my careers up to now.
Something is wrong with Marge: Marge like most missionaries would stay in the field for long stretches of time without the benefit of the great American health care if there were such a thing these days! One year, while I was in high school, Marge came back home to the USA for fallow, which is like a missionary break where they are supposed to do some fundraising for their upkeep as well as reconnect with their families, and that’s when she discovered that she had signs of cancer both were terminal ovarian and bone cancer. When I learned this new development in Marge’s life I was devastated. (On a side note, I have since learned that “approximately 21,880 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year in the U.S (http://www.sharecare.com/question/how-women-die-ovarian-cancer) and 13,850 die from the disease. Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer death among U.S. women and equals approximately the number of deaths from all other gynecologic malignancies combined. The majority of women are diagnosed when the disease has reached an advanced stage; however, if detected early, the survival rate is more than 90%.”
Because she had spent her time taking care of us as refugees and ministering to us through church, she never got the topnotch medical care for cancer screening you need to avert the deadly diagnosis. Marge came back home (to Pittsburgh) to die and soon she passed thereafter, which left me hollow. I never forgot her indelible imprint on my life. She taught me to be confident, elegant, articulate, American and most cardinal of all, how to appreciate the love of God.
After going to undergrad in Nairobi Kenya in my early twenties, I had started to come into my own. I was very aware of the opportunities that life had a head of me and I was really ready to take on the challenge of being a grown man. My mum and Marge had finally prepared me for life. I got chance to come to the USA for the first time, which was the most important break in my entire life. I landed in Philadelphia where I checked into a hotel and there in my room were three bars of soap: facial soap, hand soap, and body soap. And this didn’t even include the shampoos! I was shocked by the abundance and decided I would put those two bars away in my luggage for another day since I didn’t have any with me.
I was shocked when I returned to the room that evening and saw that the staff had replaced everything. This happened for three days in a row. Something was wrong with this picture, I thought. I didn’t want to be charged for all this soap, so I went to talk to the concierge about returning everything I had taken. When I explained my story to him he cracked up. Laughing, he said: “Hey brother, you see all ‘em white folk over here? They steal soap too, so you are good brother, don’t front!” We laughed for a minute and then I asked him what happened to the partially used bars of soap that are not completely used when a customer gets ready to leave and go home? He reckoned the hotel threw them out. I asked him how many hotels there were in the country and he didn’t know.
Well, I went back to my room and lost it. I shade a tear, as I have been known to do every now and then. (I must have picked up this art from Marge, who often shed a tear with me every now and then. She taught me that real men do cry. She also taught me about the right balance between male logic and female emotion. Both these emotions she said were critical in ones success) I sat back for a minute and all of a sudden I got an epiphany. I found out online that the U.S. hotel industrial complex discards 800 million bars of soap every year into the land fields. That’s 2.6 million bars of soap every day! In juxtaposition, 2 million kids die every year due to diarrhea related diseases. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) [http://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/] says you could mitigate these deaths by 40-47% if you put a bar of soap in the hands of each of these kids. This intervention with soap only costs 0.15 cents compared to treating the disease after it’s fully blown, which could easily cost upwards of $7. For the “bottom billion” that live on a dollar or two a day, chances are they aren’t going to pay any of their hard earned dollars towards luxuries like soap before they’ve eaten.
I realized the power that resided in recycling this partially used soap once I connected the following dots: my father’s business of soap making, the horrible refugee status I faced in Kenya, and a country where they had so much soap they threw it away! I decided right there and then that I would build a Non-for-Profit that would recycle this soap and take it to refugee camps and other vulnerable populations around the world, i.e. orphans, battered women, and so on. Thus,
the Global Soap Project was born. www.globalsoap.org.
My lesson here was that it’s important for us as sojourners through life to understand the power of our environment. When life deals us what we perceive as a bad card/hand, we can turn that into something valuable. Like I said before, my life was bleak after becoming a refugee in Kenya, but I never gave up hope. I took this time of my life to learn from an American woman that life doesn’t end because of bad situations. Rather therein the bad situation lays our life’s calling. Miracles happen during this time and if we are present enough in the moment with positive energy we can actually find our calling in life. In the next blog you will see how I built a whole organization moving my life from a black and white color orientation to a colored one with clear 3D visuals that helped me capitalize on my past to build my future. Riches to Rugs to Riches…R2R2R!!! watch out for the next blog…
Here is a Quote that inspires me today :
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meaness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whomever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Jalal ad-Din Rumi