Wednesday, December 7, 2011

This Place is Like a Prison

Today was huge. 

When I first started interning back in April of 2010, one of the first clients I helped out with was a great Ethiopian guy that we'll call Ben. He was coming from a refugee camp in Kenya and became eligible for emergency resettlement after having a stroke. Through spending time with Ben going to the bank, going to Social Security offices, and translating for him on a few occasions, we became pretty good friends. Even after my job changed I was able to keep working with Ben, which was great.

A few months after arriving in the states, Ben had another stroke and it pretty seriously impacted his ability to get around on his own. For the past year and a half, Ben has had to live in an assisted living rehab facility instead of with his family. We've been struggling to get him on disability insurance so that he can pay for the medicine he needs and live at home with his siblings. It's been one of the more frustrating experiences I've ever had and I can't even imagine how it must feel for Ben. What must it be like to flee your country, discover you have serious medical issues, be flown to yet another new place, then be told that you have to stay in a center where you are surrounded by older people who don't speak your language and are in varying stages of illness, and not have the choice to go live with your family? So overwhelming. Ben said recently that the rehab facility was starting to feel like a prison.

Finally, today we had a meeting before a judge who was to decide if Ben was eligible for disability insurance. Before Ben went before the judge, his stern-faced lawyer, Ann, warned us that this typically was another process. The judge would review the case, ask questions to make sure Ben answered them consistently, and discuss with an employment specialist to see if there were any jobs that Ben could feasibly do. The problems were many: the court certified translator wasn't there, Ben was missing medical documents from Kenya, and the lawyer was intimidating the crap out of us, so everyone was nervous. 

The lawyer went to present her case before the judge first, buying us more time before in case the translator did decide to show up (never happened), leaving Ben, his case manager, a person from the rehab center, and I to wait. When she came back 20 minutes later, she said - with a completely expressionless face and flat voice- that the judge had decided, based on the evidence, to grant Ben disability and award him with 16 months of reimbursements for the previous months when he should have been receiving assistance. He didn't even have to talk to Ben. It didn't matter that the translator wasn't there. We didn't have to come back another day. Ben just needed to sign a paper and it was done. None of us understood. We all just sat. Silent, staring at her. It wasn't until Ben poked me and asked me what she said that it completely sunk in. I jumped up and started shaking Ben by the shoulders (probably not good), telling him that he had gotten the assistance, that he was free. Tears were flowing, shouts of joy rang throughout the land. I've never had stress just evaporate like that so suddenly. For sure, Ben still has some challenges ahead of him, but at least now we aren't wondering how he is going to pay for his medicine and he'll have the support he needs to live at home. 

I don't think our stern-faced friend realized until that moment how much of a struggle this had been and how much it meant. Ben gave her a huge hug... let's be honest... we were all hugging her. She didn't have a choice. She took it well and left us with a, "well, next time make sure you have all your paperwork." 

Seriously, such an incredible day knowing that Ben can go home soon and get the more focused assistance that he needs. I haven't been able to stop smiling all day... which didn't go over well when I got to campus and ran into people groaning under the weight of finals. But you know... it really just doesn't matter. Ben is free.


Ryan Hamilton said...

Such an awesome story, Straw! Thanks for sharing!

Jamie said...

:) agreed.