To a 16-year-old boy who had spent nine years in a refugee camp in Kenya, life in the United States must have sounded like paradise. But when Habib Hussein arrived in Los Angeles, in 2005, it was more like swapping one prison environment for another.
He was used to hostility. His family had fled political persecution in their native Ethiopia, and he had even been shot at in the refugee camp. But now whizzing bullets were replaced with biting insults and pointed accusations. It was 2005, the Iraq War was raging, and Habib, who spoke almost no English, was taunted mercilessly for his last name, Hussein.
He got into fights, the police made repeated visits to his home, and his parents resented all the attention their youngest child was bringing to them.
“Everything was new to me and I couldn’t fit in, even with my family,” Habib says. “I did a lot of things wrong, but my parents couldn’t understand that I was just a kid.”
Eventually he ran away from home, only to be picked up by the police and returned. Then came another fight, and this time he was brought up on criminal charges. His family gave up on him and, just a year after he arrived, as a freshman in high school, he became a dependent of the L.A. County Children’s Court.
It looked like his American dream had ended before it began.
So it might seem an unlikely outcome that just a few weeks ago, in late May, Habib celebrated one of those very American achievements when he donned his cap and gown and accepted his college diploma, from the University of San Diego.
Looking back on everything, he says it was only because he had been detained by the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and had had a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), Sam Herod, appointed to him that he finally got the support, and understanding, he needed.
“Sam wasn’t just a CASA worker, he was everything for me,” Habib says. “He was a father figure. He was speaking for me, presenting me in a good way. He brought out my potential. I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to disappoint this guy. He’s fighting for me. I will make him proud of what he has done.’”
Sam has helped dozens of CASA youth over the years, but bringing out Habib’s potential required some novel approaches.
“In Africa, they have different customs, like you don’t look adults in the eye when you’re a youth,” Sam explains. “But you know how we are in this country. If you’re talking to someone, you expect that person to look you in the eye. So people in positions of authority were always asking him, ‘Why aren’t you listening to me? You look at me when I talk to you.’ So we had to go over some American 101.”
Habib also had pressing human needs, like daily meals. The group homes he lived in could do little to accommodate his Muslim diet, so Sam found him a job at a restaurant where he could get his daily fill. When Habib needed transportation between his job and school, Sam made a call to CASA’s Senior Program Coordinator Carolyn McGee, who secured a bike donation. He even found Habib a social worker at DCFS who was from Africa, understood his culture, and spoke his language.
With his immediate needs met, Habib started thinking about college. And when the Masons of California offered him a shot at a college scholarship, Sam went on a letter-writing campaign for references, and eventually Habib was one of the lucky winners—at $26,000 a year for eight years.
But there was also something Sam didn’t help him do.
“I wanted to change my name,” Habib says. “I was thinking, ‘I’m not ready to face the challenge of my name because I have so many challenges in my life already.’ But Sam was telling me to just be myself.”
And then came November 6, 2008.
“Barack Obama’s election was a turning point for me,” Habib says. “I was feeling very good. I called Sam and told him I didn’t want to change my name anymore because even my president had the name Hussein! So it may sound funny and people may relate it to different experiences, but I liked it then. I realized if I work hard, everything is achievable.”
Now 24, Habib isn’t finished working hard. He has been accepted to the USC School of Social Work and he plans to eventually earn his doctorate. And he still has four years left on the scholarship he received from the Masons of California to help him pay for it.
Even though Habib was emancipated from the child welfare system more than six years ago, he and Sam are as close as ever. At his graduation ceremony, his mother approached Sam and said, “He’s your son now.”
“I stay in contact with a lot of my kids,” Sam says. “They can call me any time. It’s nothing for me to pick up the phone and call one of my people and say, ‘Hey, my kid needs a job, he needs clothes, he needs a place to live.’ I can do all that. That’s what CASAs do.”