Isata Jalloh lost her job pushing wheelchairs at Dulles International Airport and was told it was because she asked for a tip. Hundreds of people have now reached out to help her. (Theresa Vargas/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Isata Jalloh first had to learn what a “GoFundMe” was.

Then, once she understood the purpose of the crowdfunding site, she had to wrap her mind around why strangers, people she had done nothing for, wanted to send her money.

When she finally understood they wanted to help her because they knew she had lost her job pushing wheelchairs at Dulles International Airport and could no longer send money home to her children in Sierra Leone, she cried.

“God bless them,” the 54-year-old said Thursday. “I really appreciate all that has been done. God Bless them.”

Tears come easily to Jalloh but have especially flowed in recent months and days.

In May, she was fired from the wheelchair job that she held for 14 years at the airport and she said she was told it was because she had asked for a tip, which she denies doing. Then on Thursday, after a column about her situation ran in The Washington Post, Jalloh learned that so many people wanted to help her that a crowdfunding page needed to be created.


Isata Jalloh breaks into tears as she hugs the children who arrived from Sierra Leone in 2000. (Carol Guzy/The Washington Post)

For many people, creating that page would have been a simple task that might have taken minutes to complete.

The difficulty and time it took for Jalloh to get her GoFundMe page in place speaks to how disconnected her life is from the wired world many of us take for granted.

“Not everyone has a smartphone yet,” said Beverly Duran, who showed up at Jalloh’s apartment in Herndon on Thursday morning, with her own laptop, ready to help her set up the page.

By then, nearly 20 hours had passed since the first two emails from readers, asking where they could send donations, hit my inbox. Because there were only two at first, and because I knew her situation, I responded by saying they could send something by mail to the newspaper, addressed to me, and I would get it to her.

But then two emails turned into 12, and 12 turned into 100 — and they kept coming. The generosity was overwhelming, not only because of the volume of people who wanted to help her, but also because of their reasons for wanting to do so.

“I know how it feels,” one person wrote.

“I do not have much,” several people wrote.

One woman described living in Liberia, which borders Sierra Leone, decades ago for a few years and being treated with “kindness and generosity.”

“It occurred to me then how unlikely it would be for a West African immigrant in my own country to receive such a welcome — to be able to walk into a town without a place to stay or much money, and be welcomed and cared for like family,” she wrote.

Several people, noticing no online donation site existed, emailed offers to set up a page for Jalloh. It was a thoughtful gesture, especially since giving one’s time is sometimes harder than giving money. But it would have required connecting her to someone she didn’t know. So I spoke to people she trusted and it was decided that the best way to ensure the funds reached her was to have the page connect directly to her.

Duran, an organizer for the union that has worked with the airport workers, went to Jalloh’s apartment to explain the outpouring and help her set up that page.

“It seems like a very short process to someone who is already connected to Facebook and other social media platforms,” Duran said. But Jalloh didn’t have a Facebook account or a computer or a stash of digital photos she could easily upload. “Starting fresh, it definitely took a lot longer.”

On the page, which is in Jalloh’s name, she shares in her own words how she ended up working at the airport 20 years ago and how, until May, she spent 14 years working two jobs there, cleaning at night and pushing wheelchairs there during the day.

“I came from Sierra Leone in 1996 for a better future,” the page reads. “I started work in Dulles Airport in 1998. I have worked there for 20 years. I started 2 full time jobs in 2004 because I needed to get money for myself and to send to my kids. I used to work 16 hours almost every day to afford rent for my apartment. I still have to share my apartment with three people.”

In May, she writes, her situation changed when her boss accused her of asking for a tip.

“Since I have started working there I have never asked for any tips or had any issues at work,” she writes.

Jalloh is one of several immigrant women who have been fired in recent months by the same Texas-based company, Huntleigh USA, that employs workers at Dulles and Reagan National, according to union organizers with 32BJ SEIU. The airport workers are not represented by the union but have worked with organizers to increase wages. Recently, union members, elected officials and clergy members held a demonstration at Dulles on behalf of the fired women. At least one other woman said she was also fired after being accused of asking for tips.

A call to Huntleigh on Tuesday had not been returned by Thursday. The company had also not responded to a letter by the clergy members and elected officials that described the firings as “arbitrary and unfair” and called on the company to “do the right thing and give these women their jobs back.”

By 7 p.m. Thursday, the GoFundMe page for Jalloh had surpassed its goal of $5,000. And by Friday morning, nearly $7,000 had been donated.

Other people had emailed to say they had mailed checks. And still others wrote with potential job opportunities.

“I just want to say thank you to them,” Jalloh said when I spoke to her about the generosity. “I appreciate them trying to help me. I didn’t expect this. I used to work very hard to take care of myself, to take care of my family.”

Then she suddenly stopped talking. She had started crying again.