Women’s Empowerment celebrates working women of color by Tenley Garrett

Hard work deserves recognition. But more than that, it deserves celebration. This year’s Women’s Empowerment VIP breakfast held at the Raleigh Renaissance Hotel on Saturday, April 14, provided the perfect platform for such festivities.

CNN political commentator, CEO of IMPACT Strategies and NPR political analyst Angela Rye took center stage as the special guest of this year’s Women’s Empowerment breakfast. (Staff photo by Tenley Garrett)

CNN political commentator, CEO of IMPACT Strategies and NPR political analyst Angela Rye took center stage as the special guest of this year’s Women’s Empowerment breakfast. (Staff photo by Tenley Garrett)

Meet Wanda Boone, Durham’s social justice and resilience warrior by Tenley Garrett

When Wanda Boone moved to Durham 47 years ago from a small town in New Jersey, she faced a social landscape painted by stark inequity and racial dissonance. Coming from Teaneck, New Jersey, where her social circle embodied ethnic and racial diversity, and discrimination was nearly non-existent in her immediate vicinity, Boone landed in Durham with somewhat of a jolt.

Wanda Boone sits outside of Refectory Cafe on Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard on Friday, Feb. 23. As a long-standing member of the Durham community, Wanda's is a familiar face to many. At Refectory Cafe, she's well-known by both the staff and a number of the clientele. (Staff photo by Tenley Garrett)

Wanda Boone sits outside of Refectory Cafe on Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard on Friday, Feb. 23. As a long-standing member of the Durham community, Wanda's is a familiar face to many. At Refectory Cafe, she's well-known by both the staff and a number of the clientele. (Staff photo by Tenley Garrett)

Meet Abdullah by Tenley Garrett

He lay on the hospital bed and fidgeted with his hands quietly as I sat beside him. He had suffered a stroke the day before and was unsure when he would return home. Beneath us, three floors down, his 7-month-old son waited in the emergency room as nurses hurried to lessen the pain of a bad fever. A fever of 103 degrees.

Working a 40-hour week is something that Abdullah does with gratitude in his heart and a smile on his face. But getting a job at a Japanese steakhouse just down the road from his home was anything but easy. Before that, numerous employers had rejected him based on reasons he will never understand.

A father of three and happily married, Abdullah saw America as a place where his family could flourish. He knew his children could go to school, that he could one day enter higher education and climb a steep economic ladder propped up by progressive American ideology and capitalist overtones.

Fnu Abdullah came to America on September 1st, 2015. None of us can probably trace our own history back to that day five months ago with enough clarity to recall any of its significance.

But for him, that day marked an end to a long, trying era of endless immigrant paperwork and visa applications. It was a monumental day. But it was also the day that divided him between his American future and everything he had left behind in Afghanistan.

For one, Fnu Abdullah is not Fnu Abdullah. He was given the name “Fnu” upon arrival in the United States as a way to render his title so that it contains both a first and last name. It stands for “First Name Unknown.” This is a generic and common procedure that applies to countless other immigrants.

When Abdullah told me this, I laughed, hardly believing his words. He then said that many immigrants who are processed here in the States are given the birthday January 1st if their actual birth date has not been formally recorded. That’s a lot of people to share a birthday with.

He tells his story with upward inflections that carry his voice toward hopeful endings. But his story carries so much weight that it seems impossible that he’s not moved by his own words. Being one of seven children, five of them girls, Abdullah grew up in a household dominated by estrogen and bound by family togetherness.

His father, a high school teacher, was his closest friend growing up:

“A very good man... He was like a friend, not a father. He was a very good man,” Abdullah said of the man he so admired and respected since childhood.

His father died just a month before he and his family left Afghanistan. His mother now lives alone with his younger sister in the country’s capital, Kabul. Abdullah’s immigration, like so many others, did not happen under peaceful circumstances.

Anyone who claims refugee status has been through screening processes and thorough background checks that include medical examinations and interviews with representatives of both the UN and the U.S. federal government. Kaylee Law of World Relief, a refugee resettlement organization in Durham, says screening is only a minute part of a lengthy process:

"The screening process can take a minimum of 18 months, but we’ve seen people who have waited years to be able to actually come to one of the countries that they’re placed in,” she said.

Clearing all of the checks is no simple task either, as only 1-3% of people seeking refugee status actually get it.

“If at least one has not been passed, they are not granted refugee status,” Law said.

Technically, the textbook definition for someone like Abdullah is not “refugee.” He worked with a program that granted SIV’s (Special Immigrant Visa) to qualified Afghan interpreters who served as allies to American troops overseas.

Abdullah was fortunate enough to come to America not by government force or discrimination, but by choice. But the journey for him wasn’t any less trying.

So what was he escaping if not persecution, war violence, homicide, or government corruption?

“The situation was very bad,” Abdullah said of Afghanistan during the years leading up to his departure. “The Talib, Al Qaeda...,” his voice tapered off as he reminisced on what I could only imagine were unpleasant memories.

Abdullah was not here with me to share a sob story, or to procure excessive sympathy. This was no pity-party. This was one man, having faced immense hardship of every kind, who has come to terms with his present reality and strained from it every ounce of optimism and possibility.

He told his story wearing a thin fabric tunic that seemed rough and rigid against his gentle complexion. He lay on his back, staring up at the ceiling between him and the infinite sky above us. The hospital bed seemed comfortable enough, there were little nobs that could be adjusted to correct his posture or allow relaxation of the muscles that tensed.

But his muscles weren’t tense. He lifted the corners of his mouth and radiated delight. The conversation was dense and heavy, but his laughter was weightless and unrestrained.

When comparing his life in Afghanistan to the life he’s known for the past five months, he spoke with his eyebrows slanted forward as though he didn’t know where to begin.

After a pause, he said: “Life is busier here. Busy but also, good, not bad.”

This is Abdullah. I cannot say with any amount of confidence that he has ever spoken a negative or unhappy sentiment. His expression and voice work together in a sort of rhythm that is anything but melancholy. I’m not sure that he’s ever said a bad thing about America, either, although so much of his experience in the States is accented by adversity and misunderstanding.

An immigrant; a foreigner; a sea-traverser; a father; a husband; a friend. People are so much more than the one word we may use to define them. Abdullah is more than the weight that prevents him from earning a stable income and supporting his mother and sister back home. He is a shining, self-sacrificing soul in a restless, limited body. But this is not where his story ends. 

originally published March 3, 2016

his own path by Tenley Garrett

For that which makes us tremble, makes us fumble,
Is the same that we must face, with eyes lifted,
For each must trod his own path, though crumbled,
While he stands and sees the others slip away, sifted
Through the hands of an unequal fate.

Just as the birds escape the flood, unscathed
So our enemies are elated by a blessed course
And granted passage onto simpler roads, paved
With gold, and embellished with crimson rose.

As we steady our hearts and calm our minds
We shall grasp our burdens, many and hidden,
And in our contempt, loosen our binds;
Never are we forsaken or from goodness forbidden.

May your eyes see the clouds and your heart see the sun,
May you tremble and fumble but never be lost,
For with fear lost and hope gained you eventually won,
So now measure the wonders and count not the cost.

humble beginnings by Tenley Garrett

4:30 struck as the dewey sun crawled slowly across the remote mountain ridges.

Little Margaret awoke with a violent stumble, fumbling for her rain boots and trousers blindly while the faint crackling howl of the rooster could be heard off in the distance. After clumsily jumping out of her nightgown and into her tired, oversized flannel, whose buttons were all either loose or missing, Margaret shot a quick glance out the window toward the large expanse of land and focused her eyes gently on the towering maroon structure a couple miles from her doorstep.

Gazing up and down at the never-ending stream of fencing winding along the hillside, she brought her attention to the newly grown squash and cabbage heads that quietly took refuge beneath her window. She let out a low, grumbling yawn and swooped up her tattered woven basket in both hands.

Glancing again out the window and bringing her eyes to the soil bursting with life, she knew that this was the beginning, that just as these roots sprung to life from dark places, so she would crawl out of the covers of her bed and tend to the countless tasks the day brought; this was her humble life on the farm.

critter. by Tenley Garrett

this critter will not leave me be

I find it kind of strange

that all at once— so small, so free

he chose to stop and stay with me. 


he dances down my hand, and then

pausing, leaps to meet my denim dress.

when this moment comes to pass?

for many moments— I hope it lasts. 


scuttling by, a crawling thing

interrupts our somber scene

hasn’t got a clue or thought

about the human being. 


I press gently to his dainty legs

a feeble twig to touch his toes

he bends about and, upright, begs

then takes hold and up he goes.


I pause to take in all I see

but know that I cannot see all

the secrets, life’s mystery

will never be mine to call.


I thank the Artist of all things

the One who gave me eyes to see

nature's Author, all-knowing—

that I should live and happy be. 

heart words by Tenley Garrett

Her feet stayed planted, but her heart took two steps forward,

Were her mouth to speak the words she felt, would she feel anything at all?

This is the dilemma, to speak or to be voiceless.

But is to be speechless to be voiceless? For surely her heart’s pounding was an audible utterance to the world.

It spoke in rhythm, its beats sputtering forth sporadically like a worn-down automobile making its final stretch through a winding mountain pass.

If the pounding stopped, then too would her heart, abandoned on the road-side, awaiting rescue that would not come.

And so that electric organ pumped, choked and ached as it shattered the silence, spilling its words forth into an empty world, unrestrained and honest.

And suddenly her heart began to walk and her feet beat upon the ground, finding gladness in the broken silence.

So I say, speak the words of your heart, the violent thumps, bumps, and skips, and let them guide you from silence down a path of vibrant, spontaneous noise.