Monday, December 17, 2007

The Colombian

He didn’t want to talk about the specifics. All the Colombian would say--and that through implication-- is that his experience with rebel soldiers in his home country was traumatic enough to make him want to leave and never look back. A civil engineer by trade who sometimes worked with the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, the Colombian stopped in one day to ask America for political asylum. Just nine days later, he was dropped in Georgia.

Without any English skills, he wasn’t able to find an engineering job, so he settled for the next best thing for a refugee—using a local connection to land a job as a menial laborer, scrubbing dumpsters at an apartment complex near Atlanta. The work was hard but nothing to get upset about. This was just an obstacle, and he could endure a few setbacks if by them he could escape his past.

He began studying English, and after a few years the owner of the apartment complex recognized his work ethic and asked if he’d like to become a painter. It wallowing in trash all day, so he jumped at the chance, even though he had little-to-no experience with a brush and roller. A few more years gone and his English much improved, the same boss asked if the Colombian would like to sell apartments to Spanish-speaking families.

Two years removed from that promotion, the Colombian now sells apartments to everyday clientele. His Hispanic accent is evident but winsome, and he’s extremely courteous without coming off as fake. He vigorously holds onto this job, which he says has its pros and cons. Just the other day, he had to tell a rowdy tenant to turn his movie down so a pregnant woman could get some sleep, and he’s been refereeing a group of unruly students who treat the complex like it’s the dorm for the college they cross the street to attend.

The Colombian represents an odd twist on the American dream, having come here by an odd confluence of desire and necessity. After eight years in America, he loves his new life, and he says he never even thinks about returning to civil engineering. He could care less that “sales manager” doesn’t have particularly prestigious connotations. To be honest, he’s just too busy reading about Colombian politics or helping customers retrieve their packages that were too big to fit in their tiny mailboxes.

When I ask him what he thinks about Americans who were born here but continually complain about the government even as they rely on it for sustenance, he replies with a pointed but non-judgmental response: “I think that we have so much here and we are accustomed to so much, that if one thing gets taken away, we complain about it.” The flipside is implied in his polite and grateful tone: If you’ve gone from nothing to something, you’ll appreciate all opportunities and the turns of fate and time that afforded them to you.

Photo: The jungle of Panama, the closest I've ever been to Colombia. Copyright 2006, Trevor Williams

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