Does struggle shape the American Dream?

Monday, April 9, 2012 | 1:02 p.m. CDT; updated 9:06 a.m. CDT, Monday, May 7, 2012

ST. LOUIS — Ahmed Abdalla was 14 the first time he slept with a pillow under his head.

Abdalla, now 20, was born in Somalia and was raised in a refugee camp in Kenya. His parents built a mud hut to shelter their growing family. His father started a store in the camp to support them. Abdalla and his younger siblings were kept close under his parents' wings between school and home, to keep them safe from gangs.

When they moved to the United States, eventually settling in St. Louis, Abdalla's role changed. He spoke the most English, so it was up to him to navigate the streets, translate in stores, answer the phone. It still is, to a large degree.

Abdalla says he likes being able to help his family in this way.

And that makes me wonder. Is stark survival a necessary leavening for developing a sense of responsibility? And if so, how can deprivation become a strategic element of raising younger generations, rather than a consequence of generational tragedy?

From our field reporting to date, virtually all of us have brought comments about the "laziness" of younger generations back to the newsroom for discussion. Baby Boomers — raised by Depression-era parents or grandparents, talk about what it was like to go "without." The general consensus we hear is that they believe it made them stronger.

It also made them want to provide for their children, give them something better, protect them from the same hardships.

"We spoiled them," said Natalie Whitaker, 46, a hairstylist from Centralia. Although she and her late husband never had children, she implicates herself in collective responsibility for the generation that followed hers. "But we meant well," she said.

Will the children of the Great Recession, as the last several years are now being called, be stronger for all the foreclosures? Will going without their parents’ financial security, without neighbors in the houses next door, without their own clear prospects of employment awaiting them after graduation — will these fissures in the construct of their confidence end up building character in the end?

Ahmed Abdalla is still learning the ropes of his new part-time job as a bellman at the posh Union Station Marriott in downtown St. Louis. He's still learning English, too. He attends community college, to get his reading and writing skills up to par for university classes.

He takes a long and patient view. He still lives with his parents, and plans to until he finds a wife. He'll think about a career once he's linguistically proficient enough to pursue one. He considers art but thinks a trade might be more practical.

Either way, he's pursuing opportunities that are not options for his friends and family who remain in Kenya.

"America means freedom," he said. "It's survival."

This story is part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri's next generation in challenging times.

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