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This year, I started volunteering with a national non-profit. This organization mostly worked with people caught in world crises, like in Haiti when the earthquakes hit, Syria in a civil war, and at the border where families are separated.

They also work domestically, with immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Financial coaching is one of their new programs and I signed up to volunteer earlier this year.

I was to meet a client once a week for 8 weeks and coach them on whatever they needed, even if it was help identifying U.S. currency.

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While we’re on the topic of currency ID, wouldn’t it be easier if US bills were also different colors, like every other currency?

The client assigned to me was an asylum seeker. Single mother. Early 30’s. Her parents both passed and she had arrived from Africa two years ago.

I didn’t even know what an asylum seeker was, and how that was different from a refugee. Here are official definitions:

  • Asylum seeker: a person who has fled persecution in his/her home country and is seeking safe haven in a different country, but has not yet received any legal recognition or status.
  • Asylee : a person who came to the U.S. without official refugee status (previously an asylum seeker), who has since been granted legal status by the U.S. government.
  • Refugee: in the U.S., a person who had been given legal status by the U.S. government due to persecution before arriving in the U.S., and then brought over to reside permanently.

She had just been granted some kind of permission to work, and before that had relied on under-the-table and sub-minimum wage jobs. She was also planning on going back to school for a GED and then hopefully a nursing degree afterwards.

In the FI community, we talk a lot about minimizing spending. There are always opportunities for cutting, be it shoes or eating out or long commutes. However, in her case, there wasn’t much. She had an income problem.

But what happens if the road to more income is an incredibly long game, and required many years of schooling and hustling before your situation could even slightly change? And you had just bought a car with an insanely high interest rate because you didn’t know that 16% was ludicrous and the dealer pressured you to sign? You need a car for your new job as a home health aide, so you could traverse across the region working with various clients for minimum wage.

To ensure she could make the $550/mo payments,  she planned to drive Uber/Lyft on the side, where she’d hopefully turn the car into Robert Kiyosaki’s definition of an asset. But how could you balance working for minimum wage, working as a contract taxi driver, going to school, and taking care of a 5 year old without family around?

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According to Mr. Kiyosaki, your car and primary residence are NOT assets – even if they look like this. An asset puts money in your pocket, and a car and home for personal enjoyment only costs you in maintenance, insurance and taxes.

She was a fighter and I instantly related to her. In fact, in another life, I could’ve been her.

We are about the same age, level-headed and working to better our lives. My family just happened to move to the U.S. sooner, escaping poverty before I born. As a result, my childhood was boring. I have no idea what it’s like to fall asleep to missiles and grenades, and my path of K-12 + college was predetermined for me.

As I sat across from her in our coaching sessions, I couldn’t help but feel helpless. I hadn’t been in her shoes and could only offer financial education. I convinced her to try direct deposit, explained how the credit system worked, and helped her make a plan to ensure that income > expenses every month. But I couldn’t get her a job with a living wage, never mind one that could get her ahead. I couldn’t hurry her asylum application, which would let her kid stay in the U.S. with her. And I certainly couldn’t reassure her that though things are hard right now, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel if she keeps going and doesn’t quit.

Which brings me back to privilege. I’m not sure what I would’ve done if I were her. I don’t know if I’d have the courage to leave my home country, the skill to learn a foreign language, the faith to believe that my struggles are temporary, or the strength to keep fighting.

And luckily for me, I don’t have to. But here’s what I do have to do. My best to support my fellow human beings who weren’t given the privileges that I was. Because they could have easily been us.