South Africa -- He had come in the week before asking for a CD of the English lesson to take home. He complained that although he had been here two months, he didn’t understand anything. My explanation that I didn’t have the right to copy the CDs and give them out did not suffice. He insisted for a good half hour, explaining his predicament, arguing that the English classes we offered him were useless without it. This was all in French. Occasionally he looked at the volunteer who’d brought him in for confirmation. The volunteer met his gaze and shrugged helplessly at me. He didn’t understand French. After I explained the problem to him, he proposed an alternative solution: he could come in and tutor Mr. N. for two hours before his regular English class the next day. In fact, this volunteer was just subbing the class for another volunteer while she was away for the week, which was already an additional responsibility to his time at the Employment Help Desk. This latest offer of help meant he’d be busy almost nonstop from 9am until 4:30pm. I was blown away by his generosity. I translated the offer to Mr. N. whose frown finally lifted. He thanked me sincerely a few times and left, promising to return on Tuesday.
Tuesday arrived and the volunteer came to my desk.
“He’s not here,” he said. I called the cell number Mr. N. had left, but only got a voice saying the customer was unavailable at the moment.
“Let’s wait and see,” I said, “Maybe he’s late.” Knowing that refugee clients were not always able to pay for transport, the situation wasn’t completely unexpected. Still, after his lengthy rant in my office, I wasn’t impressed.
The following day, I saw a familiar face across the office talking to one of our welfare consultants. I waved at him. He came over to me.
“You didn’t come yesterday?” I asked.
“Yes.” He explained with great earnestness that he had no job and no money and was relying on the charity of the man he was staying with to access transportation. He could ride with him on the train on the days he worked, but not otherwise. Yesterday it had been impossible. He explained he’d come today to get the food parcel we gave out for the Welcoming Programme on Wednesdays so he could eat. The only time he could guarantee coming was on Wednesdays for food. I told him to see if the welfare department could help him with the cost of the train ticket to attend his English classes, but he returned with a negative. We sat in silence for a moment. He then asked if someone could come and tutor him on a Wednesday. I looked at his face, the desperation etched deeply into his skin.
“I’ll see what I can do,” I told him. “Come and see me next Wednesday.” I sighed. “Sorry I can’t do more.”
“Desoleé. Tu ne dis pas desolée.” He responded that I must not say sorry. He explained that for someone like him, it was the last word. He said it meant there was truly nothing to follow, no hope. That was it. I was surprised to learn how the word I’d used because I felt bad about not being able to do more would be the one that made him feel the worst. I asked what I could say instead if I wanted to express my wish to do more.
“Essaie on voit,” he said. I repeated it.
“Okay, see you on Wednesday,“ I told him. “Essaie on voit.” I translated it as: “through trying, we will see.
“God bless you,” he said and left, vowing that if he had to walk all the way to Scalabrini on Wednesday, he would.