With an approved Schengen visa in hand, I stepped out of the French embassy in DC yesterday, hurrying back home. As usual, I used Uber to call a quick cab . Now, chances that I will get into an engaging discussion with a cab driver are 9.5 out of 10. If there’s any sign of interest after the usual opening pleasantries (“How’s your day been..Good day outside”), say a little glance in the rear view mirror or a smile, I grab the opportunity to start a conversation pretty quickly.
In the bigger cities in the US, most of the cab drivers are expatriates from all over the world. And with the exponential rise of the sharing economy, more recently I have had a much larger variety in the cab drivers – many students, many just doing Uber/Lyft as a second job, and some just for fun.
Yesterday, it was a recent expat from Iraq. With two daughters and a wife, he moved to the US as a refugee last year. He had a pronounced middle-eastern accent, a scruffy beard and a poignant yet gentle look. He asked me if I was from the middle east, so that was a good start! I smiled, shook my head and asked him to guess my nationality, which is one of my favorite ‘question for a question’ game with strangers. In about two tries, he got it right. We talked about his relocation experience, if the US government helped him and his family settle, if they are taking well to the country, if they have made some friends around. He led most of the conversation, with almost vacant eyes, a feeble smile, and pausing every now and then to collect his thoughts and to hide the occasional deep sadness in his voice.
A short ride away, I asked him to pull by the curbside near my house. He dropped me, I thanked him. I turned around and said “I am so sorry for your country…. and what it is going through…”. I debated if I should say “It will be all right..” , but before I could decide, he said “It’s over. My country is destroyed”. I looked away in dismay and started walking towards my house… There was a loud honk behind me. I turned around, it was from a car behind him..it seemed that for a minute the driver from Iraq had drifted off into the darkness of the words he had just spoken. He looked startled with the honk, but composed himself quickly. And drove off into the wide and calm roads of his new city, where the promise of a better life stands to be tested, for him and for his family.