A worldview from a watchman

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Sarah Johnson
  • 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs

When we first met, he wouldn’t look at me.


I was a bright-eyed second-grader who had grown up in a loving family and had easy access to the American dream - food on the table, an education and a future full of possibilities. He was a middle-aged man from India, his lined face making him appear much older than he was; his life from birth defined by the caste system in which he was raised and the poverty he now lived in. Unaware of any cultural constraints, I saw him as a potential new friend. He saw me as someone he was unworthy to associate with.


It was the fall of 2001. Along with my mother and older sister, I had just made the 24-hour trek from Virginia to the small Middle Eastern kingdom of Bahrain to be reunited with my father, a U.S. Navy officer who had gotten unaccompanied orders here a few months before. We had all gone through the long and hard goodbye of a year apart, only to get a call three weeks later that the Navy had just begun allowing dependents to join their family members stationed in Bahrain. We hurriedly moved overseas two weeks later, arriving one week before 9/11, when, once again, dependents were again not allowed to enter the country. We were fortunate to stay together, but our two-year tour in Bahrain would be defined by this back-and-forth; by the turmoil and intensity of our country beginning its longest war.


As I settled into our new life I watched this man - the watchman and maintainer for our small compound of four villas. I scootered up and down our brick courtyard and drew chalk masterpieces on the sidewalk, playing all the games a second grader plays. Each time he passed, I’d offer a smile or a wave, only to have his gaze quickly drop to the dusty bricks below. Confused or maybe just stubborn, I kept it up. Weeks later, his eyes would cautiously, briefly, meet mine. More weeks passed and his apprehensive stare relaxed into a small smile. Victory. And just like that began an unlikely friendship my family will never forget.


His name was Isaiah. He was one of hundreds of foreign workers the locals called “third country nationals,” or TCNs, living in Bahrain and other Middle Eastern countries. Typically from India or Pakistan, they came here in search of work so they could send money back to their families. They were employed as laborers, some watchmen like Isaiah, others street sweepers or trash collectors, others looking for daily odd jobs to make ends meet. “Employed” is a loose term; more accurately they were enslaved. Isaiah’s passport was taken by his employer when he started the job, preventing him from leaving the job or the country of his own free will. While this shocks those of us raised on the American dream, in Isaiah’s world, life was about as good as it could get. He had a roof over his head and just enough money for a bag of rice and some bottled water every few weeks. I’d watch him enter his tiny hut to make dinner after a 14-hour day of working in 100-degree heat, my second-grader heart struggling to understand the vast differences between his life and my own.


Like many relationships, ours was a friendship that grew over food. My family had a tradition of pizza for dinner Wednesdays (the end of the work week in Bahrain), and my father began bringing out a slice or two to Isaiah each time we’d order it. The gesture went a long way. Isaiah was a proud man and would never dream of begging or accepting handouts, but after several weeks of this routine he would always just happen to be sitting outside on his stoop on Wednesday evenings. Just a coincidence, of course. We learned from one of his friends once that Isaiah had not been paid by his employer for weeks. Fruit, salad, nuts and sometimes M&Ms (my contribution) quickly accompanied the pizza on the plate.


His trust in us grew as we learned more about each other. This was a slow process without the convenience of language, but human connection is bigger than any language. My sister and I took the bus to school each day, and when we went outside to wait for the bus in the mornings we would always take our scooters with us. We formed a game of seeing who could keep the scooter rolling the longest from one push; out onto the sidewalk, around the manhole cover and back, without touching the ground. Isaiah became a quiet but consistent spectator of this game each morning, watching our antics with a hint of a laugh in his dark eyes. We once offered the scooter to him for a try; he quickly refused with a nervous laugh. But as the weeks turned into months, as my sister and I boarded our bus we would turn around to look out the back window and see his wave. He was always there.


Throughout our two years we witnessed Isaiah’s struggle. He knocked on our door one afternoon; his hands trembling, his eyes frantic. “I go. I go,” he repeated, communicating in as much English as he could. My mother pieced together that his employer had deemed he wasn’t doing a good enough job as our watchmen and had instructed him to pack his things. Despite my parents’ best efforts to negotiate, the employer arrived in his Land Rover that evening, briskly instructed Isaiah and his small bag of belongings inside and drove off. It wasn’t until we ran into him and one of his friends on the street months later that we learned Isaiah had been quite literally dropped off on the side of the road - no money, no place to sleep, nothing.


Work was hard to come by after that. Our family moved across town into a furnished house, shipping back our belongings in anticipation of the war with Iraq and the need for a quick exit. We looked for Isaiah everywhere, wondering always if he was alright. None of us said it, but we had all heard the stories of maltreatment and violence towards the TCNs. We were overjoyed to learn one night that my father had found him on the street on his way home from work, appearing alright but carrying an old rag and a bucket - a sign he was out of a steady job. My father brought him back to our new house and offered him money, which he adamantly refused. He began washing our car or our windows or doing whatever odd jobs we could dream up every day after that, not accepting a sip of water - let alone any payment - until he had finished his work.


Too soon, our time in Bahrain was up. As we prepared to move, my parents did their best to communicate to Isaiah and ask friends nearby to keep an eye out for him. He arrived early to our house on the day we told him we had to go back to America, his expression a sign he had understood the words. I looked from my parent’s faces, taught with emotion, to Isaiah’s. The sadness in his eyes still breaks my heart. He waved for the last time at our disappearing school bus, this time with both hands.


I am indebted to the military for many things, but one of the greatest started for me all those years ago as a Navy kid, waving out the school bus window at Isaiah for the last time. We meet incredible people within our service, yes. But perhaps even more unique is the fact that through our service we are connected to people all over the world, night-and-day different from us, who change our lives as a result. We are confronted with the world at its ugliest and most beautiful and given a chance to make it better. What will we do?

My life was undoubtedly changed more by Isaiah’s than his by mine. He was a big reason I chose to serve my own career in the Air Force (sorry, Dad) - to help make lives like his a little bit better, to advocate for and represent the ideals people like him deserve and yet still live without. We can’t unsee poverty or inequality once we see it. Instead, it spurs us to action - and I hope we never stop.