Grit, Gratitude, and God: The Life of CJ Jatabarry


When asked about advice he has for Lakesiders, Mr. Jatabarry (a member of the facilities team often referred to as simply “CJ”) takes a minute to consider the question before, with an abrupt flare of inspiration in his eye, raising his finger and proclaiming: “I have three pieces of advice: To succeed is to look down, not up; to be rich is to live without; and be kind.” Mr. Jatabarry is certain that this combined doctrine has acted as one of the primary keys to his happiness and success on a journey that saw him navigate the winding paths from his village to school, the sprawling marketplaces of Banjul, the comparatively violent subways of New York, the enigmatic streets of Seattle, and the verdant expanses of Lakeside’s quad. 

It begins with running. Born in The Gambia, Jatabarry’s life on his mother’s farm was vastly different from the life of many Lakesiders. He had to run miles every day simply to receive an Islamic education at the nearest school. After running, he would arrive at school hungry and was frequently bullied by other children for his rumbling stomach. Having noticed his adversity, Jatabarry’s teacher recommended he use his time running to learn the Quran, and Jatabarry experienced a eureka moment: “Soon, I found myself becoming more and more comfortable with the Quran, and my runs…had a new purpose. After a while, I became one of the best in my class in terms of my knowledge of the Quran, and the bullying decreased.”

Throughout our interview, he would cite myriad similar instances in which religion afforded him comfort and guidance in life. Even when discussing his relationship with religion today, he places great emphasis on his maintenance of Salat (the recitation of prayer to Allah five times a day) and how his conversations with God have called him to action, advised him to be patient, and allowed him to persevere. In the fabric of his life and story, though, religion is but one crucial aspect; the second is family. 

In 1983 and ’84, Jatabarry’s life changed dramatically: considerable portions of Africa, including The Gambia, were facing famine as a result of droughts, disease, and political instability. Food became extraordinarily scarce, and Jatabarry’s family was forced to cook and eat at night to avoid having to suffer the pain of refusing beggars at their door. Further to this already exceptional internal conflict, Jatabarry continued to discuss how his mother had even sacrificed her meals so that her children would have more food to consume; at times water was her only means of obtaining sustenance days at a time. 

These experiences act as the basis for his first lesson: “To succeed is to look down, not up.” Jatabarry asserts that if he had spent the famine lamenting about what he lacked, his sense of hope would’ve been crushed. Instead, he spent the dark nights where he ate with his family reflecting on all he had relative to the greater populace of The Gambia — food on the table and an incredibly supportive family — and he was reassured and grateful for all that life and God had bestowed upon him. “If you look up, if you are always comparing yourself to those who may have more, then you will never be happy. It’s true! But when you think about all that you do have (for example, Lakeside students have this wonderful school) then you realize how beautiful life is and how blessed you truly are.” 

Upon reaching adolescence, Jatabarry began to carry groceries in the capital of Banjul during the summers to earn money for his family. One day, he observed a wealthier and older woman being exploited by those she was paying to carry her goods home: “She lived one or two blocks from the market, but every day, the men she was paying would choose the longest route they could.” Reminding himself of the importance of honesty and integrity in the Quran, Jatabarry offered to carry her groceries for an appropriate cost. She was quite grateful, and soon, he became not only her only carrier but a friend as well. Through this friendship, he would eventually meet people who would offer him the invaluable opportunity to go to the US.

His elation at being offered the chance to emigrate was irrepressible, but the barrier of money remained. Unsure of what to do, his mother pulled him to the side one day and stated plainly that she was going to sell their cows so he could go. “This was a big moment,” he reminisces, “We had relied on those cows almost all our life to ensure we had food to eat and money. I told my mom no because I didn’t want her to have to do this for me. But that’s when she smiled and reminded me of something she’d said to me earlier: ‘A person who is rich can survive without it.’ My mother sacrificed so that I could have a better life, and for that her own life is rich.” Having sold the cows, he bought a ticket and moved to the US. 

He flew into New York City and entered a wholly different reality. There, trying to pass through customs, he spoke no English, and he remembers how odd and humiliating it was to have been taken into a room, stripped, and searched because of his inability to describe why he was in the US in English. He found greater comfort, though, after moving to the Bronx and finding the small Gambian community there, who assisted him with completing his papers and got him a job as a dishwasher at a local restaurant. He was enthused to have been offered such a position, and he chuckles as he remembers, “How amazed I was to see how much food got thrown away. Remember, not too long before, I had been in a famine, and now everywhere had running water and every trash can had tons of food. It was crazy.” 

My mother sacrificed so that I could have a better life, and for that her own life is rich.

With his mother’s sacrifice in mind, he promised to send money to her and his family back home as soon as he received his first paycheck, and the Friday he got it, he was beaming with excitement. “But,” he interrupts, his voice assuming a darker and quieter tone, “That day I was robbed at gunpoint on the subway. People knew that Fridays were paycheck days, so they would look for people like me and steal. It happened for three weeks, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t escape it.” Even worse, his mother was sick at the time, and he had called her the morning of the third mugging to assure her that she would receive money soon for medicine. “So,” he continues, “when I got off the train that day and they took the money, it broke me, not because they were stealing from me but because they were stealing from my mother, and I had made a promise to her I wasn’t going to be able to fulfill. I thought to myself, if this is what life’s like, I can’t survive here in America.” When he got to his apartment, he began to pray to God and ask him for guidance. “Keeping promises is a crucial part of the Quran, you must keep all promises, and I knew that this one would be hard to keep.” Surprisingly, one of his friends greeted him and gave him money and a critical recommendation: “This city is going to eat you alive. Go to Seattle. It’s nice there.” 

After obtaining political asylum and a working visa, he finally went to Seattle. Washington state had few Gambians at the time — Mr. Jatabarry said “maybe ten” — and he was consumed by the fear that he wouldn’t fit in. However, as soon as he came to Lakeside and interviewed for a facilities position, he knew something was different. “My boss, Mr. Dawkins, hired three people of color on the spot,” he says, remembering the day he became an employee of Lakeside. “I knew then and there that I was going to be alright, that I would be accepted.” This sentiment was only reinforced when, after mentioning offhandedly to someone at Lakeside he needed money to bring his family (i.e. wife and daughter) over from the Gambia, the community started a GoFundMe page that raised over $5,000 in less than twenty-four hours, and teachers began to drop off old clothes at his house. For him, it’s hard to put into words the pure joy he felt in these moments, and every day he thanks God and the Lakeside community (specifically Mr. Dawkins and the facilities team) for the gratitude and sense of belonging they’ve conferred on him. 

That is Jatabarry’s final lesson: be kind. As he stated throughout the interview, he would not be where he is today without the kindness and love others have shown him. He’s had difficult experiences with prejudice in the United States — a man once accosted him in the streets and accused him of abuse for supposedly “forcing” his wife to wear a hijab — but for every bad encounter, he is reassured by his time in Red Square, where “all races, genders, etc. are laughing and smiling in each other’s company. It’s a really beautiful thing. I know all these kids are here to make a better tomorrow, and that they (although they all have different responsibilities and skills) have come together to make this world a more livable place. So, I only encourage them to help each other, to give without any reason, and to love without any conditions.”