News

The Oregonian on Unseen Jobs: PSU night custodian works with perspective and patience
Author: Jayati Ramakrishnan, The Oregonian/OregonLive
Posted: January 27, 2020

To read the original story, visit The Oregonian. 

As most people clock out for the night, Leila Omer’s day is just beginning.

She puts on gloves, grabs her cleaning cart and goes from room to room in the basement of Portland State University’s engineering building, where she’s a night custodian. By the wee hours, everything will be spotless and Omer will head home before the sun is up.

As most people clock out for the night, Leila Omer’s day is just beginning.

She puts on gloves, grabs her cleaning cart and goes from room to room in the basement of Portland State University’s engineering building, where she’s a night custodian. By the wee hours, everything will be spotless and Omer will head home before the sun is up.

“For a long time I was feeling ashamed of my job,” she says. “At that time, I was married. It’s just how the person you’re with makes you feel. It had never been just me. I didn’t really like it before, and I didn’t know why.”

That changed when she and her husband divorced and Omer became the sole provider for her children.

“The work we do — it’s important,” she says. “If those kinds of services aren’t available, this place is filthy.”

Omer passes a group of freshmen huddled together, quietly sharing snacks and poring over their notes. She wheels a garbage cart through a lab, and a few students briefly smile at her as they throw out empty takeout boxes.

She picks up a nearly-empty trash can, into which someone’s dumped an open soda bottle. Even though the garbage bag is new, it now has to be replaced or else it’ll get sticky.

“I don’t mind,” Omer says as she replaces the trash bag. “But sometimes people will do things like leave their pizza boxes on the table. Then I think, the garbage can is right there. Just put it in.”

As the night goes on, the crowd thins out, and Omer may have to ask people to leave if they’re not students, occasionally calling campus security.

She adds that while she doesn’t feel scared, working alone at night can offer its own challenges — especially if something goes wrong.

“When you’re working in labs with things of value, it’s going to be your fault because you’re the janitor.”

Omer is one of 85 custodians that clean buildings on the PSU campus. Several others work the same night shift in the engineering building, each one working alone on a different floor. But Omer says she doesn’t feel lonely. She has made friendships on the job— some of which have lasted beyond the workplace.

“One girl — she would never pass me in the hall without saying hi,” Omer says. “One day, when I felt more confident with her, I asked her if she’d tutor my daughter and she said yes.”

‘Take it or leave it’

Omer enjoys her job and the stability it’s given her and her family. But she often remembers the path that brought her to this point.

Of Ethiopian descent, Omer grew up in Djbouti. Her father died when she was young, and her mother remarried and had more children. She was raised by her grandparents and didn’t have much contact with her mother. When Omer was in her teens, her grandmother gave her some advice.

“She said, ‘Your mom is going to America. Go over there and work and support me from there.’”

Omer was reluctant to go, especially with her mother and several half-siblings she didn’t know.

“If I was going to build a life, I wanted to build a life of my own,” she says.

Eventually, she got the chance. She had already met the man whom she would eventually marry. He came to the U.S. first, and after she arrived in Texas, Omer moved to Portland to be with him.

They began taking classes at Portland Community College, but Omer soon got pregnant with their first child.

Friends told her it would be difficult, and even her husband worried about how their lives would change.

“They said it’s very expensive, life is going to be hard, I didn’t speak the language,” Omer says. “I said, ‘take it or leave it.’”

She put her studies on hold and took care of their children. Around the time the oldest started school, she and her husband split up.

The plan

In the years that followed, Omer balanced work and finding a place for her family to live. She found a job as a custodian. After several years of uncertainty and looking for affordable housing, she and her children moved into a home she got through Habitat for Humanity. But Omer had one more plan: going back to college.

Omer hopes to do that once her youngest child starts preschool. Then, she wants to work with immigrants settling in this country, as she did nearly 20 years ago.

“When I came, I just wanted someone to guide me,” she says. “I would really love to help people coming to the U.S. from the beginning, to help them get back on their feet.”

She plans to keep her night job and take afternoon classes at PCC, finishing what she started when she first arrived in Portland.

“That’s really what I want,” she said. “If nothing changes, that’s my plan.”

And for now?

“I like what I do,” Omer says. “I just go home in peace. I’m taking care of my kids, taking care of me, doing what I love. It’s like, you get to go and work. You have a responsibility.”

She smiles.

“It’s just really exciting how my life turned out.”