Isata Jalloh, who was fired from her airport job for allegedly asking for a tip,is now back at work. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Happy endings sometimes look like this: a woman clocking in for her shift.

On Monday afternoon, just before 2, Isata Jalloh walked down a ramp at Dulles International Airport, pumping a fist in the air.

“I’m back!” she shouted. “I’m back!”

For the next eight hours, she would guide people through the airport in wheelchairs. Then, when her shift was done, she would change clothes and start her maintenance job, cleaning the transportation hub through the night. And for the chance to spend 16 hours working at Dulles, the 54-year-old described herself feeling a way she hadn’t for months.

“I’m happy,” she said. “God bless America. God bless the people.”

Jalloh, who came from Sierra Leone in 1996, had held both airport jobs for 14 years when she was fired from the wheelchair position in May for supposedly asking for a tip. She denied doing so, but said it didn’t matter because her supervisors didn’t let her explain.


Isata Jalloh dabs away tears as she returns to work at Dulles International Airport. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

When I first met Jalloh two weeks ago, she sat on her couch in an apartment she shares with three other people in Herndon, Va., and cried. Without the two jobs, she said, she no longer had enough money to send to the four children she left in her native country, with the hopes of one day bringing them to the U.S. to live with her. They were 14, 12, 10 and 9 when she left, and although they are now adults, she said, they depend on the money she sends them because they can’t find jobs in their country.

“I don’t feel good,” she told me then. “I am not used to sitting here. I’m used to working.”

On Monday, as she waited in the baggage area before returning to work, Jalloh beamed in her uniform. She said she felt like a “warrior.” She credited strangers, hundreds of them, who read about her in a column I wrote, with helping her find a new strength and get her job back.

“I’m very grateful to them,” Jalloh said. “They make me feel big. I now have family here. Now, I have people by me.”


Isata Jalloh hugs Asnakech Birhanu, who was also fired from her job pushing wheelchairs at Dulles International Airport. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

After the column ran, people from the Washington area and as far as Japan reached out to offer donations. As of Monday, a GoFundMe for her had raised more than $46,000 and included one donation for $15,787.

Other people sent her letters, some filled with money, to my mailbox at The Washington Post.

“Dear Mrs. Jalloh,” read one letter. “I know right now in America, especially, many people are saying hateful things about immigrants, but I think people like you make this country better. I’m glad you are here, and I hope things improve for you, and for your family.”

And still others called and wrote the Texas-based company, Huntleigh USA, that employs the wheelchair agents at Dulles and Reagan National Airport.

Jalloh was one of several immigrant women who have been fired in recent months, according to her and union organizers with 32BJ SEIU who have been working with the airport employees. The union, clergy members and elected officials held a rally in late July for Jalloh and two other fired women.

Huntleigh has not responded to several calls for comment.

Jalloh said after the column ran, a supervisor called her and arranged to meet with her last week. At that meeting, Jalloh said she was given an apology and offered her job back. Before accepting the offer, she pointed out that she was not the only worker to lose her job.

“What about the other two?” she asked. “They said, ‘Each case is different.’ ”

One of the women, along with union members, stood with Jalloh at the airport before her shift started on Monday to offer support.

Asnakech Birhanu, who is from Ethiopia, said she worked for the company for nine months when she was told there was a complaint against her and that she was fired. The complaint, she said, stemmed from an encounter in which she asked an older passenger why her daughter seemed angry. The passenger explained her daughter was upset about an occurrence at work, but because she asked, Birhanu said, the daughter filed a complaint. Three weeks later, she said she lost her job.

“I never came in late,” she said through a translator. “I never complained. I never took time off.”

She held a sign as she waited with Jalloh. It read: “Huntleigh Don’t Leave Me Behind.”

Jalloh hugged her tight. She promised to keep fighting for her, even demonstrating if needed.

“Be strong,” Jalloh told her.

Jalloh said she believes conditions will improve for all the employees because now the company knows they are not afraid to speak up.

The company also now knows, she said, that the public is listening.