Mawulidi Diodone Majaliwa was 18 when he fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the endless civil war there. His family did not survive the conflict, only he and his older brother, who saved him and shielded him and guided him to seek refuge in Tanzania.
His brother led him to safety and died soon after they arrived in the United Nations refugee camp, where Mawulidi was to spend the next 20 years:
half of his life.
He is 42 now.
The only thing of value he could take with him on his flight were some old wooden carving tools his grandfather, who was a carver, had given him. Muwalidi was a carver also, he told me, his grandfather had taught him how to make beautiful wooden sculptures.
Even as a teenager, Mawulidi was often hired to carve his sculptures out of trees – he took a yellowed picture of a sculpture he did of a shepherd and showed it to me. It was beautiful, taller than him. He hoped to be a carver of wood.
Mawulidi was chosen last November by the United Nations to come to the United States, perhaps because he had children and was married.
He was stunned.
"Never once," he said, did he ever think he would get to the United States. That miracle, he thought, was for wealthy and educated people.
As he boarded the plane with his wife and children, the U.N. officials told him his tools were too heavy, and might not be allowed on the plane or into the United States. One of his tools was an ancient axe.
Mawulide left them on the ground, and carries a picture of them everywhere he goes on his cellphone. He looks at them all the time.
He showed them to me, and I saw they were wood carving tools, some large and some small. Mawulidi explained to me that trees in the United States are "good" and hard, unlike trees in the Congo, and so they require strong tools.
He said he would love to carve wood again, perhaps even one day as his regular work. He has a job now in Albany, he works in a bakery making bread.
Brother Francis brought in a dove that Mawulidi had carved earlier this year as a gift to him. He said he would love to make more and perhaps sell doves and other carvings, even some larger ones, like the five-foot tall shepherd he made in the Congo just before the civil war there.
Mawulidi was a quiet man, shy, his eyes lit up only when he talked about wood carving. From his story, he seemed especially brave and sensitive. I don't feel I can repeat here all of the atrocities and horrors people like him experienced.
Like the other refugees I had met – our meeting was at RISSE, the refugee and Immigrant center in Albany, arranged by Brother Francis Sengabo, the operations director there – he didn't want to talk much about his life or traumas in Africa, and he was unable to ask for any kind of help. He was a shy man, and he looked away when I asked him how we could help him.
Francis and my friend Ali (Ahmad Abdullah Mohammed) were in the meeting room with me, and they both told me that the African refugees cannot ever ask for money, they consider it rude and shameful. "You just have to give him what you want to give him," Brother Francis told me. "He will never tell you what he needs."
I took my Iphone and went online and found a 16 piece basic beginner's wood carving kit on Amazon for $42.99 and I showed it to Mawulidi, and he got excited, I could see it.
I told him I knew it was a beginner's kit, and looking at the tools he had left behind in Tanzania, it was clear that some were similar and some were larger. They would be fine for small carvings, but he also did large and polished sculptures.
I suggested this: What if I bought this Sculptworks Kit and brought it to him next week, and he and Brother Francis or Ali could take him to Home Depot – there was one nearby. Then he could go to the Home Depot and he could price out the larger tools he needed to carve wood from the "good" and hardy American trees.
I went online tonight and saw the tools he needs, some were the same as his grandfather's.
Brother Francis translated this to Mawulidi, whose English was sometimes halting.
His eyes widened, and he nodded. Brother Francis said he would be happy to take him to Home Depot this week, look at their tools, get a price for what he needed and I would meet with him in a week, give him the Sculpworks kit, and also give him enough money to buy the other tools he needed so he could get to work carving again, a dream he never stopped thinking about, but had given up hope of every achieving.
I ordered the kit right there in the meeting room, it will be delivered on Saturday, and I'll meet with him again next Thursday. I told him if he wished to set up an artist's blog and sell his works online, I would help him to do it. He didn't quite grasp what I was saying, but Brother Francis did, and he will explain it to him later.
Like Devota and the other refugees I have spoken with, Mawulidi showed no emotion of any kind during our talk, even when he talked of awful suffering and loss. He smiled only when he looked at his dove. I was much affected by him, I wanted more than anything else for him to have his wood carving tools again. Almost all of his entire known world was gone, his family, his village, his country, his work.
But this, he could get back.
I cannot really describe or explain the connection we had, or the almost mystical feeling i had looking across a table at this man, who was quite often looking steadily at me. He must have been wondering what I was and where I came from. I felt we were both meant to meet, we were both where we were supposed to be in that room. I can't explain it further.
I told Mawulidi that I was not the benefactor, just the messenger. Many people had sent money so that I could to this work, there were many angels out there. I asked Francis to tell him about the Army Of Good – people with hearts and souls who wished to welcome him to America – he only arrived last November – and help him get his tools back. I told him that what I did was look for people with a passion and help them to pursue it.
That, I said, is what I did. I wanted to above the eternal argument and tell the true stories of this very real people, our brothers and sisters on the earth, and in our country.
I asked Francis to ask him how he felt about all this, I wanted to make sure he was comfortable. Mawulidi held up his dove and said something to Francis.
What did he say?, I asked.
He said, "I thank the God that brought you to me."
That silenced me for a moment. I asked Francis to tell him: "thank you, Mawulidi, you are nothing but a gift to me. You can't possibly know how happy it will make me and many others when you are carving wood again.
Francis said Mawulidi often read from the Bible and knew it well. He told Francis he thought of the Jews who fled Egypt and slavery and were starving and then manna (unleavened bread) fell from God in heaven to save them. We were bringing manna from heaven, he said, that's what it felt like.
I want to say that I have enough money to buy this kit, and the tools Muwalidi will need, I think that will come to about $300. Last week, after I first wrote about Mawulidi, a woman in Illinois, a blog reader and a member of the Army Of Good, e-mailed me and said this: "Good morning, Jon, i would like to purchase a set of wood carving tools for this gentleman…please, let me know the next step for that to happen!"
I let her know tonight, and the next step is under way: this is the way it goes now, this remarkable turn, these angels out there who I do not know, have never met and may never meet, are touching lives like magic fairies with powerful wands. Good and righteous deeds. I felt a light within me when I saw this man's face when he realized he could carve again, he is so clearly an artist.
This is what I have been seeking to do, I told Brother Francis, find vulnerable people of all ages, male and female, with passions that need encouragement and holes in their lives that need filling. Small acts of kindness. I met with Devota again also today, I will write about her tomorrow. I didn't want to take anything away from Mawulidi's story. If you wish to contribute to this refugee and immigrant project, you can send a donation to Jon Katz, P.O. Box 205, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816. or contribute via Paypal, ID [email protected]
You may also contribute directly to RISSE if you choose, they are doing heroic work and have little money, all contributions to them are tax-deductible.