Real Refugees of America: A Minivan Is Worth A Goat

You’re listening to Stories by Vanessa Jencks. Visit my blog for more information about global life and languages. Keep in mind that all names have been changed to protect the privacy of the refugees and others involved.

A Minivan is Worth A Goat


If you’ve never lived overseas, you might expect someone who comes to our country to immediately understand how to live life. The truth is, each country and culture has different laws and different expectations. For example, in many Asian countries, you need to pay for a full year of rent and three months worth of rent as a deposit before you move into an apartment. Many first time expat Americans wouldn’t be able to make that initial payment without Asian landlords making an exception to the rules! Keep this in mind as you listen to the story about Zamua and Mohammed.

I don’t remember how Mohammed got his van, but I know they were thankful to have a vehicle. In the city where we lived, Fort Worth, Texas, traveling on the public buses with three young daughters and a pregnant wife was a hot mess. As with most Sunbelt cities, the air was hot and thick, and air conditioning never seemed to be cold enough. The hardest part about traveling the bus system was actually waiting for the bus, though.

Not all bus stops have seating and shade, which is now honestly unthinkable to me considering the three weeks in summer that always hit in the 110’s. Like most normal children, Zamua’s children would complain, ask for water, get tired and cry in the heat. Waiting for a bus to show up, sometimes as long as twenty minutes in between each arrival and departure.

One day from the coolness of my apartment, I watched them pile out of the side door. First, big-bellied Zamua wobbled from out of the darkness. She turned around to hold Thana’s hand as she toppled out. Thana was the cute and pudgy-faced current baby of the family. Next jumped out their eldest, Narah, with her hair pulled into a bushy puff at the back of her head. Finally, skinny Samiya – she was hard to tell apart from Narah if they didn’t wear different hairstyles. Mohammed closed all of the doors and made sure it was locked.

Their mini-van had a sliding door, deep dark windows and a sparkly tan paint job. The make and model dated around the early 2000’s; at least that’s my guess based on the tire rim style, the sloping front hood and rounded, side-placed headlights with foggy plexi-glass.

Not long after I admired the delightful troupe from my window, Bobby told me awful news.

“Mohammed was in a wreck,” he abruptly announced one day as he removed his shoes and put down his workbag.

“Oh no! Was he driving with his kids?” I gasped.

“No, he was driving to the north to go to work. Thankfully, he was by himself.”

“What happened?” I was still shocked.

“He was driving on I20 and got scared by how fast he was going when he was making the change from I20 and I35. He drove off of the ramp, through the two interstate roads, down into the valley and hit the embankment. He had to bust through a window to get out.”

“Wow! Is he ok?”

“Yes, Jake is going to take him to sell the leftover vehicle at a junkyard.”

Now, before you begin to judge Mohammed for his apparently bad driving skills, I myself had been so frightened by the commute from my tiny quarter in south Fort Worth to Bedford that I dropped a community college class the first semester we lived there. The change from I20 to I35 then to I820 combined with the airport traffic was frightening after living in charming Greenville, South Carolina where the traffic on the worst days now bores me. My transition from small city driving to the monstrous metroplex traffic made me never want to drive again.

Can you imagine the tension Mohammed felt, alone in his van, as he experienced rush traffic on lurid, looming interstate loops, unable to understand the signs he hadn’t written down before the drive? Even though he knew how to drive in Sudan, his driving experience was on slow roads, some not even paved, and with most of the other drivers keeping plenty of distance between one another.

Jake soon took Mohammed to sell his car. I want to pause here and ask: What would you do if you had a lump of money?

Have you come up with an answer?

You probably answered, buy another car. Maybe some of you would have said, buy a car and better insurance, or buy a car and save a portion. Bobby came home a few days latter to share with me how Mohammed had used his new found wealth.

“Mohammed bought a goat!” He laughed.

Confused, I replied, “Uh… what?”

“Jake took him to sell off his van to a scrapyard. The first thing Mohammed did was buy a goat! But that’s not the best part. He went to one of the courtyards here at the Palms and skinned and killed the goat.”

“No way!” My mouth stayed open in a half smile and half jaw drop.

“Yes! Could you imagine? One of his neighbors, whether they were black, Hispanic or a refugee, all of the sudden hearing bleating outside of their apartment. They think, Hey! What’s that? They look out of their windows to see large and dark Mohammed in his linen pants and shirt, standing in the courtyard with a goat tied to a tree. Mohammed raises his enormous machete to kill it and then the goat screams. It’s too hilarious to think of his neighbors’ reactions.” He was crying from laughing at this point.

“Yeah. That’s hysterical! What the…. Or I am never going to mess with that guy. At least his family will be safe from now on. I’m sure word will spread, That big African man has a hook blade!

“After Mohammed killed the goat, he skinned it and cut it to pieces, too,” Bobby calmed down from his mirth.

“Why did Mohammed buy a goat?” I asked.

“Mohammed told Jake that in Sudanese culture, if a man has a large sum of recent money, any of his friends and relatives could demand that he share his money. In his culture, you can’t tell them no. So, most people in that culture will store their wealth in profitable goods rather than in cash. To protect his wealth, he thought, Hey, I’ll buy a goat! Maybe he didn’t intend to kill it at first, but actually tried to keep it here for its produce. I bet someone complained and management told him. Absolutely not. You cannot keep a goat here. Then out came the machete.

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