An Iraqi in Kentucky – A Story of Hope and Inspiration.
I know this one is a little long, but I hope you stick with it. It is a great story and this man really inspired and moved me, more than many have, ever.
We are going from the Crowne Plaza Airport Hotel in Louisville to the Summit Plaza Mall in Louisville. Gina and I thought we would go and check out the Ulta Cosmetics store at this location, as it is supposed to be quite nice and is a newer location; plus, perhaps, we will even get in a little shopping for us before heading to the airport for our return flight to Vancouver. We had come to Louisville on Sunday to attend a trade show.
We grab our cab out in front of the hotel and are greeted by a friendly cabbie named Mohannad. Little did we know what an inspiration, and what an example of human strength our cabbie would become. How he would touch us deeply with his story, his attitude and his humility.
We don’t say a tonne to Mohannad on the way to the mall, a trip of approx 25 minutes. In his broken English, he tells us that he has never been to this mall, as he is feverishly trying to put the mall name into his GPS. He has been in the Louisville area (the States) for 2 years, 1 year as a cabbie and he was quite happy about his newest experience of trying to find a new location in town. He struggles for the first bit trying get his bearings and his trying to understand the GPS’s instructions. He is talkative enough and apologizes for his English. We reassure him, that quite honestly, his English is very good. He smiles; I think he does believe us.
During this trip, I am being the typical North American, and I am making up my own story of this man. He is probably a refugee or someone who scraped up the last of some family monies and comes to the States to see what he can do. This is probably the best he is going to do with good, but still limited English skills. I am not characterizing him as a bad person or unfriendly, I am just not giving him a chance at being much more than just being a good cabbie. Talk about being an overly judgmental person. I am ashamed at admitting this, but I have to write this down to keep the story as real as possible. Not a proud moment for me as I think back to a million instances where I have done this before. Other cab rides, while shopping, while eating out etc… thinking at what a jackass I can be. I can honestly say, this cab ride may have changed me enough to where I will try to not be so quick to judge. We’ll see…
Upon arriving at the mall, we ask if there is a cab stall located here so that we can get back to the hotel after we are done. Mohannad tells us there is not, but he would gladly come back for us if we gave a time. We settle on 2 hours of shopping and that Mohannad will pick us up at 4:00 by the Starbucks. We get out and start our tour of some retail and we proceed to “fuel” the Kentucky economy by leaving some dollars behind.
At 4:00, our smiling cab driver is waiting for us, asking us if the mall was as others had told him, “a very nice mall with the better stores”. We tell him that it was very nice and that now he should let tourists in his cab, who want to shop in the Louisville area, to try this mall out. He is pleased with this info and says that he will now start to do that, as he sheepishly says, that when he had been asked in the past about this mall, that he always recommended a mall closer to town that he was familiar with, thereby not having to venture out this way. We all have a good chuckle and start to head back.
A couple of minutes into the ride back, he repeats that in the year of cabbing, this was his first time to this mall. We ask where he lives in Louisville, as we are trying to figure out why he has never made this 25 minute venture prior. He tells us that he lives close to the hotel where he picked us up. I just assume that is where he spends most of his time getting fares. Maybe the language barrier that he feels he has is scaring him from longer trips, who knows.
Now, most times, I think we would have left the conversation there, but this man seems really friendly and his English is good, but he is not proficient and you know he is relatively new to the States, never mind just Kentucky. Now I am starting to think I may have “pegged” him wrong or maybe I should just be human and talk to him. There is something about him that is…interesting or intriguing. His smile and his laughter, I’m not too sure what it was, but I makes me want to find out a little more about him. From his name, he is obviously from the Middle East or Northern Africa or somewhere “over there”.
I ask Mohannad where he is from, and he tells us that he is from Iraq, specifically Baghdad. I ask if he was in Baghdad when the country was invaded and he then tells us a story that touched Gina and I, a story that moved me enough to blog about it. He takes us on a 6-year journey that starts in Bagdad and that will take us all the way to a cab ride in Louisville, Kentucky on September 25th, 2011.
He tells us that his wife, a medical doctor who was employed in the Ministry of Health, himself, an educated man with a masters in engineering (I think he said engineering) and the owner of a business, with his 3 children, aged 12, 11, and 9 at the time, were living a very good life in Iraq. They had some money and were definitely upper middle class (by our standards).
He tells us how that all changed when the former government is toppled. As he says, that was a good thing to get rid of Hussein, as Hussein was not a very good man and he understood why he needed to go. Hussein was hard on his people and was always causing problems with Iraq’s neighbors. I asked him what life was like under Hussein and then what it was like after the Americans removed him. He tells us that under Hussein there was fear for those who spoke up and protested against him, but that there was stability. He was not “proud” of the stability that Hussein provided, but appreciated it, because after the fall, chaos ruled the streets and neighborhoods. He said that it became terrible in Iraq. Neighbor fighting neighbor, and in essence (my interpretation) worse than he could have imagined. He went from a being well off family to nothing over night, as his beloved society starting to crumble into a lawlessness and savage state. He tells us “in one day, his life changed”. The struggle to feed and the struggle to provide safety for your family are challenged on a daily basis. He tells us of his country literally falling apart around him and how it was impossible to understand. And then he tells us the story, the story that changes his life and the life of his family forever.
In the 2 years after the fall of Hussein, he recounts a horrific incident that epitomized the chaos and lawlessness of this time. A story of his nephew being kidnapped and of a ransom of a million dollars being asked of his family. His family could not afford the ransom and alas on day eight of the crisis, a message is delivered that they could pick up the boy close to their home. Unfortunately, the boy has been killed and cut into four pieces. Mohannad has to pick up, and bag the pieces of the child and deliver to the grieving family for burial. At this time, for obvious reasons, he and his immediate family, as well as his 4 brothers and their families head to Jordan to escape Iraq and the turmoil. They are all fearful for their lives. He tells us the story so “as matter of factly” that it shakes you to your inner core. You cannot believe it. It is just not believable.
He lives in Jordan for 2 years. He tells us of the constant struggle for work and the struggle to just survive. Not near as bad as the times in Iraq, but really tough nonetheless. Neither his wife, nor he, can practice the professions that they were educated in. His kids are getting schooled, but it is not what they want for their children. He finally approaches the US embassy in Jordan after a year and half of struggle, and within four months, the US embassy, after hearing his story, works a deal to have Mohannad and his wife and children moved to the States. He is relocated in Louisville, Kentucky. His brothers are also spilt from family. One ends up in Sweden, two stay in Jordan and one heads back to Iraq. When asked if he is happy, Mohannad says that he is happy to be alive and he is happy that he is safe in America, but he misses his family and his dream is to have all relocate to the States.
I asked him what it is like being a Muslim in a pretty much Christian dominated area of the States? I asked him what it was like being a Muslim in a country that has a view of the Muslim world that was shaped by very few men and shaped around one very catastrophic day that changed the Western world forever, and changed how the Western world viewed their Muslim cousins? I asked him how was this new land treating him and his family? Was this what he expected?
He proudly smiles, and tells us that America has been very good to him and his family. They are treated as equals and treated as Americans right away, and he says this with conviction. They are a visible minority, his wife still wears her partial headwear to show she is Muslim, and yet they are not bothered, nor ridiculed. His children are safe and being educated. They are not being picked on or being discriminated against. His wife is being given a chance to potentially practice medicine again and he is working a difficult job that does not pay much, but he and his family are alive and together. He says what we all say, “money is not everything”; however, he really means it. He is happy to be in America and is happy to be accepted for what he is, a Muslim Iraqi man trying to provide for his family in his new country.
I ask him one last question. I ask him if he will return to Iraq? Will he ever go back to his country, his homeland? He responds that he cannot as it has the “smell of blood”. He sends shivers into both Gina and myself. It was sad to see someone’s childhood and early adult memories erased by such terrible events. But Mohannad is not a bitter man by any stretch. He is a realistic man and he is full of hope. He is not blindly optimistic, but I think he does see a light at the end of the tunnel. I have no doubt that he will be a success story and so will his family. He was a true inspiration and really made Gina and I think of the fortunate lives we live. Healthy kids and good marriages. Steady jobs and security. Never fearing for our safety and truly living with the huge issues of the first world – how can we find more time to shop, where is the next family holiday, should we buy new or used, should we go out, do take out, or cook in. Perspective is what a man like Mohannad provides. Inspiration and hope are also what he gives us. All that we can give him is a tip to share with his family, a warm and sincere handshake, and a heartfelt thank you for sharing his moving story to two Canadian strangers in his cab. We don’t do this in pity, but rather in embarrassment, maybe shame, and maybe even guilt for the life we live, and for the little respect and appreciation that we have for it. We have it all and we just don’t see it.
His children, he says are doing great. They are aged l8, 17 and 15 and they are all attending school in Louisville. The eldest is considering medical school. His wife is getting ready to write the US medical equivalency exams so she can practice in the States. When she succeeds with that, Mohannad can also look at updating his education so that he too can practice what he was educated to do. There is hope and optimism in his voice, and yet there is also caution. He has been through much and I guess nothing is impossible to him anymore, he has seen more than most, and definitely more than most North Americans.
He is thankful to God and to his new home. He has been given a second chance.
That was truly one of the more memorable and interesting cab rides I have taken. I thank God for the opportunity to meet someone like this man, Mohannad of Baghdad, Iraq; and now of Louisville, Kentucky.
Who would have thought I (we) would have gotten so much out of a baby trade show in Louisville, Kentucky in September of 2011.
Next time you are in a longer cab ride, maybe take the time to chat with your cab driver; you never know what you will learn or how up your life could be changed.
Mohannad, to you I say (I hope I got this right and don’t offend), Baraka Allahu fika بارك الله فيك
Ciao for now @kootenayborn