The legions of hard-working immigrants that enable our livelihood go mostly unnoticed. Get out to the jobsites and listen to their stories—their journeys of what they left behind
What I had optimistically called a travel schedule more aptly resembled a train wreck. Detroit to Los Angeles on Saturday for a client meeting, then Sunday to Tucson, Ariz., to deliver a keynote, back to L.A. on Monday for a conference, then Wednesday to Phoenix to run a workshop, then on to ... Well, you get the picture. On Sunday evening, I was about to hail a cab when the doorman at the Westin suggested that for $5 more, I could take the big Caddy. If you know L.A. cabs, that's not a deal, that's a steal. The driver was a well-dressed, articulate man around 50, with an exotic accent that I guessed was from somewhere in Africa. I spent the entire trip on the mobile while my driver expertly managed the L.A. freeway jungle.
At the LAX curb, the driver jumped out and had my bags waiting before I emerged from the car. As I paid him, he asked if I would be returning soon. Seizing an opportunity to simplify my life, I gave him my flight and arrival time. He offered a very slight bow, thanked me for placing my trust in him and handed me his card with his cell number in case my plans should change. Once settled in on the plane, I glanced at the card and noted that his name was "Tesfaye." Rather musical, I thought, and briefly wondered what the name meant.
The trip to Tucson had its own complications, but when I walked out to the curb the next afternoon at LAX, there sat the white Caddy. Tesfaye met me with a big smile and a sense of relief on his face, as if I were a long, lost friend that he was not certain he would ever see again. "Mr. Sedam, so good to see you!" I nodded, amazed that he both knew my name and pronounced it correctly. I handed him my bags and climbed into the car. It had been a crazy 24 hours, I was tired and now about to jump into the fray with another client whose meeting was in progress. A quick check of voice mail revealed that I had a minimum of three calls to make and at least two might be lengthy. I didn't have much time.
I was about to make the first call when Tesfaye asked where was I from. When I said, "Michigan," his eyes lit up, and he proclaimed, "Yes! Michigan! Beautiful state! I especially love what you call your Up North." I was a bit surprised that this African immigrant was so familiar with my home state and so asked, "You have been there?" Tesfaye smiled, "Oh, yes sir, I have been nearly everywhere." Then with a laugh he added, "but I still have a long way to go!"
His comment intrigued me, but I was anxious to make my phone calls. One client, one associate and one family member all wanted to hear from me. But my curiosity got the best of me, and I asked Tesfaye, "and just where does one begin a trip to everywhere?" With that opening, he spent the next 45 minutes describing what was truly an "incredible journey." Tesfaye was born in Ethiopia and lived a comfortable life as a child. His father was a pilot, and his mother's family had property. He and his siblings attended Catholic schools and learned English. The future looked bright. His older sister received a sponsorship to finish school in Washington. Tesfaye was working toward the same when disaster struck. During the Israeli-Egyptian Six-Day War in 1967, his father's plane was mistakenly shot down while flying cargo into Israel. Meanwhile, political upheaval in Ethiopia threatened his mother's family. They lost their home. Food was scarce. Forced to leave school and live in another part of the country, Tesfaye made a decision that would have been bold for an adult. For a 15-year-old, it was astonishing. In the middle of the night, with no food, no money and one change of clothes, he literally walked out of Ethiopia into Kenya. His only goal? To get to America.
Tesfaye lived by his wits, finding jobs and making friends, lying about his age and identity. Alone, he made his way from Kenya to Israel, then to Greece where he began the long process of applying for UN political asylum. He was laughed at and told he was wasting his time. Finally, his weekly trip to the UN Counsel's office in Athens paid off when an incredulous bureaucrat informed him that against all odds and reason, he had been granted asylum. At age 17, Tesfaye was bound for America.
There is much more to his story, but Tesfaye eventually found his sister and completed school. He then embarked on his "discover America tour," which turned into 30 years of traveling the country and working countless jobs. I asked if he had an ultimate plan. "Of course," Tesfaye said, "like all men, I have goals. But when you have been through what I have, it is enough just to live and work in this wonderful country and be able to send money back to Ethiopia to support my family."
I wanted to know more, such as what became of his mother and his other siblings, but we had arrived at the hotel, and I was already late for the meeting. I wanted to say something meaningful to Tesfaye, but all I could manage was a handshake, a big tip and a thanks for sharing his story with me. During the activities and events of that evening and the next day, my thoughts kept drifting back to the image of a starving 15-year-old, walking out of Ethiopia and into America, having nothing whatsoever but his dreams.
The next day, my client group visited a job site. We listened to a presentation by the project manager and another by the framing company. I tried to concentrate, but what I kept noticing were the many workers traversing the site, nearly all of whom looked different than me and most of people I was with. They had darker complexions, different clothes. I heard Spanish, Filipino, Chinese and one language I never did figure out. I thought of other crews I had encountered recently in other cities. The Serbian painters in Detroit. Portuguese masons in Toronto. A Vietnamese drywall team in D.C. A Russian cleaning crew in Baltimore.
For a moment, I wondered how many had a story like Tesfaye's, but the answer came quickly. They all did. Not always as dramatic, for sure. Yet, whether they had made their way to America from Moscow or Monterrey, from Kosovo or Quy Nhon, from Lisbon or from Guadalajara, they all had a tale to tell. A story of struggle and perseverance. An escape from poverty, oppression or simply a goal to attain a better life. And the fact is, the home building industry would be hard-pressed to function without them.
Although nearly all of us descended from immigrants, most of us cannot fathom what these people have gone through to get to America. And because of that - and because of our busy lives, our self-absorption and an unwillingness to turn off the cell phone - the legions of hard-working people who enable our livelihood go mostly unnoticed. Yet, behind each set of eyes is a history, memories of a homeland far away and no doubt a measure of heartache for people and places left behind. Get out to the job sites. Look around you. These men, and more than a few women, are everywhere - yet, without them - we are nowhere.
I have no great proclamation to sum this all up, other than to state that we, as an industry, owe these folks a lot. And we should not let the irony escape us, nor should we allow them to feel unappreciated. I think perhaps that just a look in the eyes, a smile, a friendly face, would suffice. But even better would be to ask - and to listen.
Listen to their stories - their journeys of what they left behind, how they got here and what they are hoping to find. I did that, quite by accident, and in 45 minutes, I learned more about the human spirit and the determination of one courageous boy than I could ever imagine.
When I returned home, I ran the search on my computer, looking for the meaning of Tesfaye. In Ethiopia, it means, "my hope."