African friend ready to take on U.S. legal system

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

A little more than a month ago I wrote in this space about my friend Mohammed from East Africa, who was accepted to attend Law School at Saint Louis University.

Well, since then, fate and the Department of Homeland Security have smiled on him. He finally arrived in St. Louis last week.

It was a difficult process and immigration officials seemed intent to shield his entrance at every turn. The bureaucratic roadblocks came in the shape of endless forms and sworn affidavits.

On a couple of occasions, it was all I could do to remind myself the government folks were just doing their job. They guard the door in a world where one slip-up could be a catastrophe. A little waiting seemed fair enough.

Eventually Mohammed got his visa, and lady liberty opened her arms.

And to him it didn't matter that he missed all of orientation and his first two days of classes. It didn't even matter that the first stack of books he bought put him into the financial red.

He had made it to the United States and wasn't going to be bummed out by anything.

Just watching him soak in the sights, sounds and tastes of his first week in America was cool.

It was a weekend of firsts. There was a first ride on an escalator, a first Cardinals-Cubs game on TV and a first home-cooked brownie.

Other changes were harder to observe. Until this weekend I had only ever known him in his home country where we worked together for almost a year. But something about his demeanor here was different.

Now he spoke freely about the political situation in his homeland, he joked around with my family and friends without reserve, he declared he wanted to get his own Cadillac Escalade.

Who was this guy?

The co-worker I had known in his African homeland was often timid, never spoke about politics and thought Cadillac was an after-dinner drink.

But coming to the United States he seemed looser, like he was dipping into a reservoir of strength and confidence I didn't know he had.

Imagine: right now he is taking classes in a language that isn't his native one. He's reading dense books about a legal system he's only seen in movies. And, oh yeah, he's being thrown into an education system that's faster, more aggressive and more challenging than anything he's ever known.

Not to mention that everywhere Mohammed goes on SLU's campus, the skinny, angular kid from across the globe sticks out like a sore thumb.

I don't know about you, but I'd be sweating.

But somehow he's excelling. It reminds me of a question posed best by Eminem in one of his songs: "If you had one shot, or one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted -- one moment -- would you capture it? Or just let it slip?"

When Mohammed told me his professor asked him to give the class a presentation on the legal system in his homeland, he gave me and Eminem a good answer.

Responding to my question of whether or not he'd be nervous, he looked at me and almost laughed. "No. Why should I be? I'll be prepared."

Right. With that kind of attitude, the U.S. legal system better watch out.

TJ Greaney is a staff reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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