It was midnight when I landed. It had been a long day. I had performed a funeral that morning and then hopped on a flight with a 3-hour layover in St. Louis. I like St. Louis, but three hours is a long time to be in any airport.
I stood in line for a taxi and planned to collapse in the back seat for the 25-minute ride to the hotel. But, my driver was a talker. Sometimes that is great, sometimes I just want to close my eyes. As he told me his story, I was intrigued and wished the ride was longer.
He was from Somalia. Somalia is in the Horn of Africa. It is bordered by Ethiopia to the west, Djibouti to the northwest, the Gulf of Aden to the north, the Indian Ocean to the east, and Kenya to the southwest. (I knew you didn’t pay attention in geography class. Neither did I. Thank you, Wikipedia!). It has been a center of war and unrest for centuries. When it declared its independence from Britain and Italy in 1969, a government was established which fell to civil war in 1990 and the fighting has been constant since. Tribes fighting for land, for domination, for religious rule, for power. Same song, 46th verse in world politics. It’s always guys trying to beat other guys. Just let the women work this thing out, gentlemen, and we could find paths to peace pretty quickly.
His family grew up on the coast, trying to survive. About 43% of the population lives on less than 1 US dollar a day, with around 24% of those found in urban areas and 54% living in rural areas. (Again, thank you Wikipedia). When war took away options for employment, this young man’s family entered the fishing industry. This is hard, physical and dangerous work that hasn’t changed much over the centuries. He lost a brother-in-law to drowning and the rest of his relatives have endured physical harm and injuries.
When he was 16, he moved with an uncle to Kenya to try to find better jobs and send money home. They entered the US Visa lottery and ultimately were chosen. Per the USA Diversity Lottery website, “the Diversity Visa Lottery Program is the most generous immigrant visa program in the world, with up to 55,000 Permanent Resident Cards allocated yearly. If a person is unable to qualify for family, refugee or employment visa in the United States, this is the only option they have to immigrate to the United States of America.” Actually 100,000 names are chosen and the 55,000 who respond first and meet the criteria are chosen.
And, when this young man and his uncle won the lottery, they were also told where they were moving—to Des Moines IA. Now just imagine these guys who have lived their lives on the edge of the world in Africa being told their future and their hopes are in Des Moines. Iowa. Wow. No offense to Des Moines, but it’s not exactly a well-known city of diversity or bustling economy. Makes you think of the Kevin Costner quote from Field of Dreams: “Is this Heaven? No, it’s Iowa”.
But, they were more than willing to accept the opportunity and moved to Des Moines when he was 18. He was first placed at a hotel laundry. He spoke no English, worked 60 hours a week, and made $500 that first month, most of which he sent home to his family in Somalia. Then, as his English and acclimation improved, he was moved up the ranks in the hotel, working in the kitchen and in hospitality.
Today, he and his uncle own a taxi company and are living the life they hoped for. He still sends money home to his relatives, he’s married, has children and is an integral part of his community. In Des Moines. Iowa.
Can you imagine being sent to a place you did not choose, with a language you did not speak and trying to find a way to survive and succeed? I can’t. It made me crazy to be in Brazil for 3 days with no English TV channels! What if I had to figure out how to make a living there? We are so very spoiled.
We are a divided country when it comes to the conversation about immigration. Are we the country of big arms and big hearts who truly want to accept the tired and the poor and the huddled masses? Are we a country who feels that immigrants are taking over and giving nothing back? Are we a country who still holds to the dream that each person should be given a chance to succeed? Are we a country who wishes to build walls and send people back to a place they’ve never known? The answers are more complex and diverse than a slogan, sound bite or chant.
I’m afraid that some of us tend to lump people into the same basket. A person could hop into the cab of this man and assume that he was just another illegal alien, rather than taking the time to hear his story and what he overcame just to be able to thrive. And that he came here legally with a green card that gave him all the rights and benefits of a US Citizen as well as the opportunity to apply for citizenship after five years. We need to stop and hear each other’s stories. That’s a much more important citizenship test than posting memes on Facebook or yelling at each other in the streets. And, the sad fact is, his country is now one of the countries that are banned from travel. So, his family cannot come see him and I’m pretty sure that he is afraid to leave the country to visit them. That hardly seems a fair way to treat a citizen.
And the next time you hop in a cab, don’t close your eyes. Open your ears to the possibilities of understanding another person’s journey. It might just change your heart a little bit.
Glenda Stansbury is Marketing Director of InSight Books and Co-Founder of InSight Institute Certified Celebrant Program. She is also a speaker, a trainer, and an observer of life, and one of Doug Manning’s adorable and talented daughters. You may email Glenda at OrdersAndInfo@InSightBooks.com.