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In 2010, D.C. resident Reed Sandridge was unemployed, and in the midst of a personal, philanthropic endeavor. During his "Year of Giving," he gave $10 to a different stranger every day. And on Sept. 12 -- Day #258 -- he came across David Ger, a homeless man selling Street Sense at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and Q Street, NW. And that encounter would change Ger's life forever.
Ger came to the U.S. from Kenya in 1997, with dreams of becoming a doctor. "I'd done a few coursework at Montgomery College," he says, "And interned at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, and I was on my way!"
But he says he ran into problems since he wasn't a U.S. citizen, and eventually found himself homeless.
"I never knew there was homelessness at all in America," Ger says with a laugh. "I was totally clueless as to what's going on. Then someone directed me to CCNV shelter, and I've been there ever since."
Ger's time at the Community for Creative Non-Violence shelter was just about up when he met Sandridge. But that isn't the main reason Ger's so happy they crossed paths. On the Year of Giving website, you can click on "Lend a Hand:" it's basically a call for various things Sandridge's $10-recipients said they needed, be it new shoes, legal assistance, or, in Ger's case, "helping me find my family." More specifically, he was looking for his cousin.
"We kind of grew up together as little kids," Ger says. "He used to travel back and forth as a student studying engineering up in Poland. He used to bring us Polish sausages, apples, and '82 was the last time we spoke. I've been trying to get a hold of him through the Polish Embassy, and through my own Kenyan Embassy, and it's been very difficult."
When Sandridge heard Ger's story, he thought it would be easy to find the cousin on Google, "but it didn't quite happen like that. I looked for him. I couldn't find him," he says.
So he posted the cousin's name on the "Lend a Hand" site with the instructions, "if anyone finds him, contact me."
Reconnecting long-lost relatives
Six months later, Sandridge received an email from someone saying, "Guess what? I think I can help David!" Sandridge asked the person to call him, and when he did, the person on the phone said he was Ger's cousin: Ben Bella Jaoko.
"It was the most amazing phone call," Sandridge says, primarily because of the way Jaoko found him. Jaoko is the hiring manager at a company in Poland, and one day he was interviewing a candidate for a job.
Reed recalls how "at the end of the interview the candidate says, 'By the way, you know, I don't wanna sound like a stalker. But I googled you beforehand, and then I noticed that there's a guy looking for you in the United States, but I'm sure you know that.' And he says, 'No, I had no idea!'"
That's when Jaoko got in touch with Sandridge, who notified Ger, who was then able to reconnect with his beloved, long-lost relative.
"I was very, very excited," Ger says. "In fact, the world became much smaller to me, and much warmer."
A new beginning
And things got even warmer from there. Ben immediately began raising funds for an airline ticket, and Ger and Sandridge began gearing up for Ger's big flight back to Kenya. The first person Ger hopes to see when he gets home is his grandmother. "She's like the pillar to our family," he says. And apparently she's an excellent cook, too; Ger fondly recalls "the fish from the Lake Victoria! That's the best fish you'll ever have! Heals your soul!"
But he has some other big plans for when he returns to his home country.
"I can go back home, try to get myself together," he says. "Study a course, maybe engineering if I'm too old to study medicine. I'll take time. Go out and visit the homeless people in Nairobi now that I know how it is. But it's a whole new ballgame. I won't disappoint you. Check back on me five years later; I'll be your doctor or engineer!"
No matter what happens, though, he owes it all to that incidental encounter, on that serendipitous September day. If he hadn't met Sandridge, he says, right now he'd be "sleeping on the streets, 'cause, my time is up at the shelter ... I would probably be addicted to some drugs. I would be worse off than I ever started."
And that, says Sandridge, is what's so incredible about this whole experience. "You never know what situations people are in when you stop and talk to someone and learn, and maybe you're able to help somebody out," he says. "What seems like a small thing might end up being kind of a big deal to go back to your country!"
To go back to your country, and head down a whole new road, no less.
[Music: "Homeward Bound" by Folkswingers from Raga Rock]
Photos: Serendipitous Encounter Transforms an African Immigrant's Life