Here’s a true story. A friend of mine got into a cab in Chicago recently, and got to talking with the cab driver along the 45-minute ride. She learned his name is Hamdi and he is originally from Somalia. My friend Farrah asked him how he got here.
It was the 1980s, and Somalia was descending into chaos. A famine broke out as warlords blocked the delivery of international humanitarian aid to those who needed food. Violence between the Somali clans grew worse. One day Hamdi’s father was murdered by a rival clan, right in front of him. As his family was fleeing the violence, he was separated from his mother and sisters. He eventually made it to a refugee camp with his young cousin. He stayed in that refugee camp for six long years. Then, as one of his last acts in office, President George H.W. Bush sent troops to Somalia in 1992 to restore order and assist with famine relief. Hamdi was then able to make it out of Somalia. He arrived in California, stayed on the West Coast for about a year, became an American citizen and moved to the Windy City. Hamdi recently was able to find out that his sisters are alive and well in Kenya. It turns out they made it to safety all those years ago.
After surviving the anarchy of Somalia, Hamdi now drives a taxi. He gets behind the wheel at nine o’clock every morning and drives until nine at night, so that he can send his sisters money. When he finishes, he goes to a local cafe that serves Somali food and eats dinner while watching CNN on the restaurant TV. Then he goes home and watches YouTube videos about current events on his phone. He feels like he keeps up with the news.
He also feels that as a Somali-American Muslim who doesn’t drink, and doesn’t have a wife or kids, life in Chicago can be pretty lonely. “He talked about how he found it difficult to make connections and friends, based on the color of his skin and his religion,” Farrah told me. She asked him what his wildest dream is, and he said it was to get his CDL license and become a truck driver – so he could see the rest of America.
Just then they reached her destination, and she wished him well and got out of the cab. She asked for his business card, and he gave it to her.
What Hamdi didn’t know was that Farrah worked with the sister of President Bush’s longtime chief of staff, Jean Becker. “I didn’t tell him what I was going to do,” Farrah told me. “But the idea of learning each other’s stories, that’s what made me do it. We all need to take the time to hear about others’ experiences and learn from them.”
So Farrah got back to her office and told Jean’s sister about Hamdi. Shortly afterward, Hamdi’s cell phone rang. “Hamdi, are you driving your cab right now?” Jean Becker asked him, “Because if you are, I want you to pull over on the side of the road.” She asked if he remembered speaking with Farrah. He did. She then explained who she worked for, and asked if he’d hold on while she put the 41st president of the United States on the line. There was a stunned silence. And then Hamdi said yes.
Farrah texted Hamdi after 41 called him: “I hope it was a wonderful experience. Keep following your dreams!” He sent back this message: “Hi Farrah I remember you very well and I spoke with the president. I am really excited and happy with your positive steps and how you sacrifice your time and energy for me, and I am very glad for that. Thank you so much.”
When I spoke with Farrah afterward by phone, she told me, “I thought he had a great story and I know someone who might share this story. I believed if I ‘shared the story forward’ maybe he’d get to make the connection with President Bush. We all have these global stories, but we all can still be connected. I thought of my mother, and I wanted to connect with this man who had come such a long way to be here.”
Hamdi’s story is a very American story. He’s a hard-working, law-abiding citizen who came to the United States with nothing, yet he’s also a Muslim who seems to feel isolated. The fact that he thought someone like President Bush wouldn’t want to speak to him is heartbreaking.
As I said, this is a true story, but it’s also a metaphor for what’s so often missing today – from Hamdi’s humble gratitude to Farrah’s kindness and President Bush’s enthusiastic reaction. On many levels, we can learn from all three of them.