Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012
Writing in the Atlantic last week, Jeffrey Goldberg points to some recent news stories that “will leave even the most committed cynic slack-jawed in wonder at America’s promise.” The first story is about a new Coast Guard graduate who was rescued at sea as a boy:
Orlando Morel was 6 years old when he and his mother left Haiti on a crowded small wooden boat destined for America. Now 24, Morel remembers the blue of the ocean everywhere. And the hunger.
When a piece of bread fell into the water, Morel quickly scooped it up. “I will never forget that taste,” he said, recalling the salty, soggy bread.
Nor will he forget when the Coast Guard showed up in a white boat and rescued him, his mother and other passengers.
Eternally grateful, the rescue led Morel to join the Coast Guard, and on Wednesday he will graduate from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut. He will serve on a cutter out of Florida whose mission will include migrant interdiction in the very waters where Morel was rescued nearly two decades ago.
“I can put myself in their shoes,” said Morel, who can still speak Creole.
He says he would probably be dead had the Coast Guard not found him and his fellow migrants, who were lost and out of food. So, he’s excited at the prospect of saving lives, just as his was saved.
“I don’t think that anything I can do will be enough as payback,” Morel said. [...]
After the rescue, Morel wound up being sent to Cuba. His mother was taken to a hospital in the United States because she had cancer and burns on her hands.
“I was confused, I was scared,” Morel said. “Not being with my mom made me even more scared.”
Morel was reunited with his mother at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. He visited her several times before she died shortly after his birthday.
“I wanted to cry, but I remember I just couldn’t cry,” Morel said. “I think it was like shock. We’ve been through a lot.”
His mother told him that her translator, a Haitian woman serving in the U.S. Navy, would take care of him. That woman, a single mother named Louise Jackson, wound up adopting him.
“She’s just a remarkable lady,” Morel said. “She knew it was going to be hard and she went ahead and did it. I pretty much owe her my life.”
For years, Gac Filipaj mopped floors, cleaned toilets and took out the trash at Columbia University.
A refugee from war-torn Yugoslavia, he eked out a living at the Ivy League school. But Sunday was payback time: The 52-year-old janitor donned a cap and gown to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in classics.
As a Columbia employee, his classes were free. His favorite subject was the Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca, he said during a break from his work at Lerner Hall, the student union building he cleans.
“I love Seneca’s letters because they’re written in the spirit in which I was educated in my family: not to look for fame and fortune, but to have a simple, honest, honorable life,” he said.
His graduation with honors capped a dozen years of study, including readings in ancient Latin and Greek.
“This is a man with great pride, whether he’s doing custodial work or academics,” said Peter Awn, dean of Columbia’s School of General Studies and professor of Islamic studies. “He is immensely humble and grateful, but he’s one individual who makes his own future.”
Filipaj, now an American citizen, was accepted at Columbia after learning English. His mother tongue is Albanian.
An ethnic Albanian and Roman Catholic, he fled Montenegro in 1992 as a brutal civil war loomed. He was about to be drafted into the Yugoslav army led by Serbs, many of whom considered Albanians their enemy. He had nearly finished law school in Belgrade.
He earned the Columbia degree after years of studying late into the night in his Bronx apartment, where he would open his books after a 2:30-to-11 p.m. shift as a “heavy cleaner,” his job title. Before exam time or to finish a paper, he would pull all-nighters.