From Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul 2

Mother of Three Thousand Sons

Who gives to me teaches me to give.

Ancient Proverb

Thirty years ago, when I was a journalist in Philadelphia, I founded a small magazine called Umoja (Swahili for unity), which dealt with the issues confronting African-Americans.

Because of the many letters the magazine received about the gang problem in our city, I asked my husband, Dave, to do some research. He began walking the streets, asking questions, talking to people and observing the problem firsthand.

My interest in the subject was purely professional— until the day Dave returned from a fact-finding mission and reported that our second son, Robin, was a member of a gang. Even worse, Robin was the gang’s favorite, called the “heart of the corner.” The heart is the favorite target if gang wars occur. I was shocked and frightened. How could this be happening in my home, in my family? But it was true. My son was a walking bull’s-eye.

We had six sons, ranging in age from eleven to eighteen. I looked carefully at sixteen-year-old Robin that evening when he came home. I hadn’t noticed it before, but Robin was different. He wore his clothing differently, and his manner was tougher. I confronted him, and he didn’t lie. Yes, he was a gang member—and nothing I said or did was going to change that.

It was as if the bottom dropped out of my world. I stopped eating; I couldn’t sleep. In an effort to save my son, I talked to social service agencies and the police, but no one seemed to have an answer. No one seemed able to do anything.

But everyone agreed that the breakdown of the family was the main source of the gang problem. I thought our family was strong, but for Robin, obviously something was missing.

Then an idea came to me. If family was the problem, could family also be the solution? Why not invite Robin’s gang to live in our home? We could show them how real families work.

“Are you out of your mind?” Dave said when I told him my idea.

But I was on fire with my idea and wouldn’t give up. Eventually he agreed to give it a try. Our other sons were more or less open—they knew Robin’s life was on the line. Robin was thrilled with the idea—his boys and his family all under one roof.

Robin’s gang leader, in serious trouble on the street, needed a place to hide out. He jumped at the chance to live with us, and the rest of the gang followed his lead. I called every parent I could reach to inform them of our plan, and they all agreed to let their sons come to us.

Our house was a small one, hardly large enough for our original family. When fifteen more boys moved in, it felt as crowded as a sardine can. But we made it work. All the boys slept in sleeping bags on the living room floor, and at mealtime the sleeping bags were rolled and stowed and folding tables and chairs were set up.

The first few weeks were difficult. Many times I wondered if Dave had been right about me being out of my mind. The boys chafed at doing chores, wouldn’t participate in our family meetings and didn’t want to get the part-time jobs I insisted on. But I was determined. I looked at the situation as if it were a puzzle and knew we’d have to find the right pieces if we were going to save the lives of these kids.

Finally we asked the boys to devise rules we could all live by. We were a little nervous about this because if we didn’t like their rules, it would be difficult to enforce our own. But I breathed a sigh of relief when they read out their four rules: 1) No fighting in the house, 2) No drugs or drinking, 3) No girls in their rooms, and 4) No gang warring.

Maybe, just maybe, this will work, I thought. We found that since the boys had made up the rules, they were very good about keeping them.

The biggest and most pressing challenge was getting enough food. Our small savings were soon exhausted, but I had the idea to sell back issues of the magazine, Umoja, that were stored in our basement. The boys took stacks and peddled them all over Philadelphia, bringing home money to buy food.

We also approached a local church and told them we needed food. They were very supportive and sent notices to affluent parishes asking for food donations. The response was overwhelming. Soon we were inundated. Trucks loaded with food began coming down our block, headed for “The House of Umoja.”

Now we had more food than we could use. We decided to give some away to people in the area who could use it. The boys were excited about distributing food. For most of them, it was the first time they had ever found themselves in the position of benefactors—giving something to help others.

After that, things began to fall into place. The boys got jobs and began contributing money to cover our household expenses. This new “gang” organized yard sales, sold candy door-to-door, and escorted elderly people to the bank.

We faced our largest hurdle the day George, one of the old gang’s bitterest rivals, showed up asking to join our family. He realized he needed to take this drastic step, or he would end up in jail or dead. The boys were silent, wrestling with their hatred for their former enemy. But something new had entered their hearts—commitment to family, compassion, kindness—squeezing out their old “turf mentality.” The tension broke as the boys accepted George into our new family.

As the weeks went by, I found myself falling in love with the boys; they became like my own children. Some of them even started calling me Mom. When the gang had first arrived, they’d all had street names like Killer, Snake Eyes, Bird, Crow and Peewee. I began to give them African names with special meanings. These were names that acknowledged their bravery or discipline or strength. Although it was never stated, the boys knew they had to earn those names.

Stories about our family spread all over the city. More and more boys came wanting to live with us. Finally, the state of Pennsylvania offered us a contract to officially care for these boys under the banner of foster care. We became “House of Umoja–Boystown,” and with our new funds, we were able to expand, buying more houses on our street and hiring staff. The flow of boys kept coming . . . and we just kept opening our arms to gather them in.

It wasn’t always easy living with these street kids. Most people had given up on them, and for good reason. Everyone else told these boys what to do, but I decided to listen to them instead. I tried always to see them through a mother’s eyes, focusing on the good in them. It didn’t always work, but enough of the time, it did.

It didn’t work with one boy named Spike. From the first moment he arrived he was a troublemaker—picking fights, refusing to work, disrupting meetings. When he left, I shook my head in despair. I had tried so hard to show him what it felt like to be a member of a loving family. I hated to lose any of the boys.

Some years later, a man came bursting into my office with a baby in his arms. It was Spike! “Mom,” he said, placing his tiny daughter in my arms, “I want you to give her a name.”

I was speechless with surprise, but as I looked at the beautiful child in my arms, her name came to me: “Fatima,” I said softly, “it means ‘Shining One.’”

Spike took Fatima from me and said, “I want to raise her like you showed me. I want her to be part of our family.” Spike had heard me after all.

There have been other boys, too, who have surprised me by the depth of their dedication and commitment to our family. Two years after we started our experiment, we decided to have a gang conference. We asked the kids who lived with us, as well as the young men who had gone on to careers and their own homes, to go back to their old gangs and ask the new leaders to come to the conference to discuss ending gang deaths citywide. When one boy approached his old gang, they beat him up so badly he ended up in the hospital for a few days. But the minute he was released, that boy went straight back and again asked the gang leader if he would come to our house for the conference. Out of respect for his bravery, the gang leader attended.

Those were the first boys. In the thirty years since, over three thousand have followed. They are all my sons. Though some are now middle-aged men, they still come back to the house for advice or just to visit, play basketball and talk to the current group of young men who make up the family at the House of Umoja. They often bring their wives and children to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries.

I began with only the intention to save my son’s life, but that simple act of motherly love grew, blossoming into a full-time service that has saved thousands of lives. While no one person can do everything, anyone can start something.

Unity, love, family—these are the things that saved my sons and will save many more sons to come. There is no limit to this love. My own name, Falaka, means “new day.” Every day for me is another opportunity to be a mother to these boys who, more than anything, simply need love.

Falaka Fattah

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