Monday 22 June 2009

The day Isaam came to live with us

I was talking to a young taxi driver last night. He told me how he and his family had been forced to leave their African country and how they had roamed from one country to another before he and his brother came to Australia as refugees. He doesn't know what became of his parents or his sisters.

His story made me think of all the refugees around the world who become displaced through no fault of their own. It also made me think about the homeless who have nowhere to go because of situations outside of their control.

But most of all, it made me think of Isaam and how he came to be part of our family.

I mentioned him in a previous post and some readers wanted to know more about him.

My daughter  brought Issam home many years ago.

She met him at a school bus stop. He was a teenager and had nowhere to live.

Helping people like this wasn’t such an unusual thing for my then teenage daughter. She is a born advocate. Her second grade teacher told me she would either become a union activist or a lawyer because she was always defending children when they got into trouble in class. It was therefore no surprise to me when she decided to pursue a career in law.

Isaam (or Ian as he later wanted to be called as he and the rest of the world struggled with his Muslim heritage), was born in Amman in Jordan. His mother died when he was five and his elderly father sent him away to boarding school. He was repeatedly assaulted by two teachers. He was only 11 when his father died. He had no family in Jordan who wanted to take him. Finally, an uncle whom he had never met, agreed to take him to live with him in Sydney.

One would have hoped for 'a happy ever after ending' for Isaam at that point, but it was not to be. His uncle didn't enrol him in school but made him work for him in his cleaning business. He apparently then beat him if his cleaning efforts did not meet his standards. He once again slipped through the net. Imagine, even in the lucky country.

Eventually he ran away and lived between children’s homes and on the streets.

The first time I met him he called me ‘Mum’. At the time I was taken aback, undecided as to whether he was being manipulative or crying out for help. I think it was a little of both.

His big brown eyes were hard to ignore. My heart melted. And that was even before I had heard 'his story' from a social worker.

After a great deal of persuasion from my daughter, Isaam moved in with us. It wasn't easy for any of us and I am sure each of us wondered in those first few weeks whether we had made the right decision.

Here was a young man who had grown up in the most difficult of circumstances and was traumatised in many ways as a result. He was hiding some dark secrets and I felt I was ill equipped to deal with a teenager in such need particularly as I had a busy job.

And yet, looking back, the more difficult times were outweighed by the more poignant and positive ones.

Isaam was in a special education class as Arabic was his first language. He was reading first grade readers. One day I asked him to read one to me. He struggled with three letter words. I tried to help him as anyone would. When we finished he said, “Do you know Mum, that’s the first time anyone has ever helped me with homework”. He was so exited. I cried. Something so simple.

He would clean his room and then ask me to come and inspect it. Old habits die hard. He was overjoyed when I told him it was perfect. And perfect it was. I have never seen anyone who could clean like he can.

He was desperate to stay with us. However, he was also used to living life without any 'rules' and had no real sense of family life. In many ways he was very independent. I recall one day I had to speak with him about one of his violent outbursts and he got down on his knees, sobbing and begged me not to send him away.

On one hand he was this super cocky street boy yet on the other, he was a little boy lost who had missed out on the one thing every child has a right to expect. To never be abandoned.

We persevered.

Isaam eventually finished school, moved into his own flat and got a job. He became a salesman. And a wonderful salesman he has made too. He could sell snow to eskimos. I am sure those big brown eyes have ‘clinched the deal’ many times over. And anyone looking at him with that confident smile, hearty bravado and smart suit and tie, would never guess at his horrific past. And that's just how we would want it to be.

I know that some things will not always come easy for him but he is a survivor who is loved by many. When he came to live with us it made me realise that it’s often those with the most cocky and outgoing personalities who are hiding in the darkest shadows. We should never make assumptions about who we think people are or where they have come from until we really know them and understand 'their stories'. And we all have stories. Often with many complex and overlapping layers. Jordan and Isaam taught me that and I'm extremely grateful to them both.

Have you ever met anyone who has had a significant impact on the way you view the world?

Note: Estimates are that there are 150 million street kids across the world. It doesn’t really matter how many there are. Even one child abandoned on the streets to his or her fate in Sydney, New York, Cairo or Bucharest is one child too many. We need to keep our eyes and hearts open and do much more so that children have a voice, a choice and are protected from abuse and neglect.


  1. My husband. And people in everyday life have no idea what he went through. And he doesn't let anyone know except his closest's not talked about otherwise.

    And he's incredibly strong because of it. I will be forever grateful to several people who stepped in to his life and helped never know what reaching out to someone, even for a brief few weeks or months can do to change a person's life.

    I don't usually post anonymously, but tonight I must.

  2. Lilly,

    The story of your daughter bringing Isaam home, happened because you gave her the freedom and the values to think that way. There cannot be any greater good done in the world, than to give a homeless child a home, whether it is brick and mortar, or a place to call as home . You changed a life, I think. Which is such a stupendous thing.

    One learns many things from one's parents. Some values stay with us. And the best of all are the values that say, that religion is humanity. I wish some folks across the world would listen....

  3. This is a lovely story of how love is introduced to a person to whom the world has thrown away as another 'mouth to feed' or less.
    This story causes me to pause and reflect on a story that I cannot tell here, and how thankful I am for Love shown to those who have been shown they aren't worth another's time or Love. Thank you for what you gave this wonderful young man.

  4. I don't have to say another thing after reading Ugich Konitari's says it all....

  5. Those of us who were brought up in a protective, decent, loving family have a hard time comprehending the horror people like Isaam have suffered.

    I agree with Ugich Konitari that your daughter's compassion clearly is the result of her upbringing and your influence.

    At the risk of being a bit "gooey" and somewhat more serious than I'm normally comfortable with, I feel obliged to say that I know very well that to cope with dealing with a young person who has been through that sort of experience, you had to be rather special. To succeed with him and help him on his way into a better life, you had to be very special.

  6. What incredible love you have...thank you for posting this. I often read Blogspot postings and then the morning newspaper before going to work. I could probably do without the newspaper which focuses on the failures instead of the successes of the human spirit.

  7. What a wonderful post and a most selfless and generous gesture!

    I have had some experience of abandoned kids.. but this will have to remain a private subject.

    You are a beautiful person.

  8. What a wonderful story.

    We should never make assumptions about who we think people are or where they have come from until we really know them and understand 'their stories'. Jordan and Isaam taught me that.

    This is so true! I always tell my colleagues that when a child asks you for money or bread, don't just dismiss the child. Just take two seconds of your day and ask the child, in a non-judgmental way, about his/her parents, where they are from,..

    I am working in a small town and we have hundreds of young children on the street. Some of them are on the streets begging because they lost their parents to HIV/Aids and have to depend on their grandparents who are not being able to care for them properly, some are on the streets because of pure neglect,.. It is heartbreaking.

    So,have I ever met anyone who has had a significant impact on the way I am viewing the world?

    Yes. And I still do. Working with children, who many regard as problematic, changed me in so many ways. I have learned never to judge a person in a second, I would rather take the time and get to know the person first.

  9. What a great story Lilly. I'm one of those children, foster care is what helped me out. I always say though children who were raised like us, walk with a limp. While you can overcome some and most abuse,,there is just some you cant. I know why Islam will always struggle as I'm sure many readers who went thru similar things--will understand to.

    Its so great he had you, the little bit of love one can show--can make a huge impact on a life. For me, having that taste of what life should have been for me as a child was a good enough taste for me to give better to my children.

  10. What an amazing story Lilly!! But your generosity doesn't surprise me. Nor does your daughter's strength of character. It's genetic.

    BTW, I started a new blog.

  11. Beautiful story, Lilly. My son was asking me yesterday what I think "God" is. I said, I don't think it's a physical thing like Jesus or Buddha, and that it doesn't really matter what or who God is. What matters is how we take care of ourselves and each other - how we listen to our spirit and do our best to manifest our greatness and the greatness of others in the world. This story is a perfect example. It's no accident that Ian's path crossed yours and your family's, and I'm sure you're all better off for it. Hugs to you and your daughter, and thanks for sharing this story.;-)

  12. The person for me would be my hubby. He was molested and abandoned by his mom. He grew up a non believer even when his grandma and aunt had him in church three times a week. He held so much in until we met. He said after getting to know me he felt safe and he let everything out.

    Your daughter is a hero to me. :)

  13. I take my hat off to you. Acting rather than standing by and doing nothing is the hardest thing in the world to do. You have so many layers, Lilly. Amazing.

  14. that is beautiful and awesome, in every sense of the word. i can't imagine such an undertaking. i am sure your life has been blessed as much if not more than his for being his "mum".

  15. Oh I know you mentioned him a couple of times. That was a big decision to make but in the end the decision becomes easier given the alternatives I am sure. I am glad he is doing well because thats a big past to lug around with him isnt it? What a girl you have there too. Kept you on your toes from a young age it seems. Gosh wouldnt the world be a better place with more kindness in it.

    As for a person that has made me see the world with a difrent view I would have to say my sister. She has been in a wheel chair since she was in a car accident 12 years ago. Wonderful attitude and just inspirational.

    We all should walk a mile in someone elses shoes and the world would be a better place. Those stats about children are horrific. Many of these are in Mexico City arent they? Its so hard to imagine. The sad thing is that if these children survive they can end up being totally screwed up adults. We so have to focus our attention on children.

    And everyone of these comments is wonderful. There are some great people in the world. White Sock Girl is a treasure with the work she does. Now that must be tough.

  16. What beautiful hearts both you and your daughter have :) I loved reading this story! That was such a huge leap for you to take him in. Bravo to having the courage to DO something. Your daughter certainly had a lot of confidence in your parenting to know you could handle the situation.

    Many kids had an impact on me when I worked in Psych. I was always trying to find a way to adopt them and bring them home :) I will have to share more of those stories one day. Thanks for the inspiration!

  17. I am crying as I type this message to you so please forgive me if I have typos! Lilly you are a wonderful and compassionate person and I am sure there are a million Isaams out there that wish there was a Lilly for them. Bless you for being so kind.
    Will you be my new mommy? :o) xoxo

  18. This post is so pertinent in my life. I work in social services, and work with a lot of refugee at-risk youth.

    We just has a situation where a Sudanese mom gave her son to the State, on Friday, at the urging of another social services agency, which I discovered is a 3rd degree felony. I think that this is egregious that this mom is giving up on her son after some very minor behaviors. But she doesn't know any better.

  19. Bless you Lilly for spending your time to give this child a positive influence.

    I just recently became more aware of attachment disorder. Did Ian get some therapy too (other than your own which was very important) ?

    We would all be better off to think about the upcoming generations since they are the ones who will ultimately lead in positive or negative way.

    I hope you broke one bad cycle from starting again.

  20. Giving spirits renew all of us. Thank you for raising your daughter to put others before herself and to reach out to kid that are less fortunate than she is. I admire the both of you.

  21. This is one of the most beautiful and inspiring stories I have read in the world of blog. Thank-you for the inspiration.

  22. Be assured that you and your daughter have done very well. For it is only when someone is willing to become personally involved in the life of another to the extent that they are allowed and enabled to be that they can truly be of help to them, and this is something that you and your daughter was willing to do for him.

  23. I loved this story. I worked in the welfare system here for years before retiring and saw so many homeless, abused, and unloved children. It is people like you that give these lost children love and hope in their lives. You and your family will always be the ones that were there for him when he so desperately needed you. You are very special people.

  24. Your story moved me to tears! What a wonderful thing for you and Jordan to do for Issam! And, yes, how we can all learn from each other and how wonderful it is to share with others the love we hold inside. What a difference that can make, particularly in a young life. I saw this many times when I was still teaching; saw so many changes in children just because I gave them special attention of some kind, because I recognized a need that others hadn't/couldn't/wouldn't see. Thanks so much for sharing this. Great way to start the week!

  25. Oh, your crown in heaven awaits you and your daughter... to give so unselfishly... you are a true blessing to mankind.

    I want to take in every child I see that could benefit from having a different way of life than the one they are experiencing...

    Thanks for sharing.

  26. Lilly thanks for sharing your lovely story with us, it was a brave and caring thing to do.

  27. You are such wonderful people! This post just leaves me speechless. It WAS a brave and caring thing to do

  28. That made me cry! What a wonderful leap of faith you took when you brought Ian into your home. You and your daughter have a special gift with people. Your hearts are full. xo

  29. Thanks everyone for your lovely comments. Yes I think believing in and letting other people into our lives is a risk. However, sometimes you have to. And there are as many good stories as bad, particularly when you are open to these things. I salute so many of you who are involved in social work - and there are a few of you just in these comments. Now that is a job which gets nowhere near the thanks it should. How about we stop giving all this attention to celebrities and devote more attention to people who work day in and day out with children in need. They are the heroes. We just did something very minor for one child. And as it happens he did more for us. You guys are working day in and day out with many people walking red tape while you are at it. Bravo to you.

  30. You and your daughter and family were wonderful to accept the opportunity to extend love to another and I'm sure he will "pay it for it." We are blessed that there are people who will extend themselves and hold on through the rough spots with children (and adults) who have been unloved and damaged.
    Thanks for sharing.

  31. Oh I like this post a lot. It doesn't take too much to open up our hearts in some way or other and help someone who needs it - particularly children. To lose your trust in people when you are a child must be horrific.

    My boss has had a big impact on my life - not in a positive way though lol!

  32. When I began meeting homeless folks on our church misson trips to the inner city in a major Texas city, it made me see how privileged and blessed we are with not only a home but so many other things as well. Put everything into perspective very quickly...

  33. Lovely story. All the best to Isaam for the rest of his life. he deserves a happy one.

  34. Wow Lilly, that's an amazing story. You must have a very special (and generous) family to take on such a responsibility. You guys essentially changed the course of his life for the better. That's so awesome.

    I recently saw the ABC series "Choir of Hard Knocks" on DVD. It's about a choir that was set up for homeless people by a world famous conductor. Very inspirational and moving.

  35. Lilly, you have outdone yourself with this post!

    My clients impact me every day, in many ways, by telling me their stories. Listening to their experiences, I am continuously amazed by the strength of the human spirit.

    Thanks for sharing Isaam's story with us.

  36. Has anyone else noticed how many social workers or people that work with those in need there are in these comments. Impressive people.

  37. We took in a young boy, in much the same way, when our daughter brought him home, to stop him sleeping at the railway station. "My Mum will give you a bed" she said. I did. He was a 14 year old boy, whose wasp parents did the wrong thing by him all his life. He had lived in 15 different homes, & was supposed to be living with foster parents. We offered to take him, but did not tell him, preferring to let his case worker decide what was best for him. She explained to us, that children who have upset lives like that, rarely settle down, & find it very hard to have stable, long lasting relationships. He continued to be a part of our lives at weekends & in times of stress until he was about 17.

  38. Gosh! Lilly you are an amazing person and so too is your daughter. How many lives have you changed by your selfless act of caring for this troubled soul? Not just Ian's life - there's the ripple effect too. Many, many lives have been enriched by your goodness.

  39. Wow! What an incredible post, Lilly. You are truly an amazing lady to take a child into your home with such a troubled past. Not many would be as wonderfully kind as you have been. You've also raised a daughter to have that same terrific spirit of caring. I wish we had more people in this world like you two!

  40. Lily, this was such a moving post, I enjoyed reading it.I am sure raising a child with a troubled past, not to mention another culture was sometimes very difficult for you. God bless you my dear and have a great week.

  41. Wow Lilly, thank you for sharing that. You've confirmed my belief that we can, and are willing to improve life for others. The effects of what you have done will be ongoing in Ian's life, and those he relates to and one day possibly his children's lives. Sharing your story will also effect its readers, leaving this one humbled and inspired. Thank you.

  42. Whoa. I am sooo moved by this post and am so encouraged to read it. how very glad I'm sure most of us are that you took the time to post this.

    What a story of how love overcomes the worse upbringings. your family was literally a physical manifestation of grace upon him. I'm sure too it was very difficult at times, even with those big brown eyes peering up at you, melting you into compassion.

    I love how you conclude this moving tribute with:
    "When he came to live with us it made me realise that it’s often those with the most cocky and outgoing personalities who are hiding in the darkest shadows."
    --How true indeed.

  43. I too agree with Ugich Konitari .
    Lilly you never cease to amaze,humble and inspire me.
    I am encouraged to try harder to reach out to my own 'teenager'.You are one very special lady in a million.


Thanks for your comments.