Norcross to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta airport; a simple enough 45 minute journey. A man in a roughed up Honda pulls up to the hotel (more like motel), we pack in my small bag and head off to the airport to New York City. Little did I know I would meet the Afghan Uber Driver Who Touched My Heart.
After some minutes, he politely asks me, “where are you from?” I could tell he had an Arab accent. I said “here and there, New York City and Florida and anywhere my laptop is, really.” I asked back, “wa anta?” (“And you?” in my broken, admittedly terrible Arabic).
He looked surprised and confused.. was my attempt that bad? He quietly, under his breath, says, “afff.” That’s all I could hear. Was this a new Arabic word I hadn’t heard of?
The Afghan Uber Driver Who Touched My Heart
I said “I’m sorry, where?” He said “Afghanistan“, quietly and muffled, while looking in his rear view mirror for my reaction. We made eye contact. I replied, “oh! I just traveled to the Middle East.” I was trying to relieve his concern over my non-existent concern. He noticeably lightened up. Thus began the conversation with the Afghan Uber driver that touched my heart.
I asked a bit more about how he got here, knowing it’s not easy for young (early 20s) men from Afghanistan to make their way to the US in any time, much less these days. He shared that he worked for our Embassy in Afghanistan for years. Prior to his work in the Embassy, he was working in IT with his degree in computer science. He met an American who was his boss who eventually hired him over at the Embassy when he changed jobs himself. Seemed simple enough.
Then he added, “and I was shot at so many times that my boss told me one morning, ‘it’s time for you to go. I have for you a special visa that is immediate. A permanent residency in the United States for you.'”
Leave to America?
He was torn. He wanted to go to America but did not want to leave his family. Adding, “I didn’t want to die. I value my life.” His best friend in Afghanistan was ironically, his American boss. He snuck him into Afghan weddings (a no-no), took care of when him when he was ill and became his “brother”.
He showed me a photo of his Afghan car, riddled with bullet holes; one straight through the roof. I asked why they shot at him.. and who? He said “ISIS. They shoot anyone who helps Americans. Or really anyone.” I said, “how do you feel about the idea that to some in America, they represent Islam? Does it make you angry?” He said, tears filling his eyes, “they represent evil not Islam. My family, we could not hurt a fly. But people are afraid. We want to live and cannot speak out. In America, the people did not grow up in war like me, born in war and leaving war. And they’re still afraid and I understand that.”
Understandable Fear, He Says
I said, “are people afraid of you here?” He said, “I try not to tell anyone where I am from. I try to speak perfect English.” (And he did). He answered my question without answering.
I asked him if he celebrated his own religion here. He said “not so much, especially around here, people are afraid. My only real friend is my American friend in Afghanistan.”
I tried to change the subject to something a bit light hearted. I told him I have a young daughter. He asked an inquisitive first question. Was I married to her father? I told him no, and we were never married. His head perked up a bit. “How do you have a baby if you are not married?” I laughed and told him his father should share the birds and bees story, not an Uber passenger. A reference lost on him, but not the context as he belly laughed too.
This photo was taken in Madaba, but I haven’t been to Afghanistan. I showed him this photo and asked if it resembles his home country. He said “not anymore.”
Messages That Resonate
He asked how it works; two people with a baby together. I told him we cooperate and love her and that’s all that matters. We will always care for each other. Eventually you just focus on what matters and leave the past behind. That message resonated with him in ways I’ll probably never understand.
I asked if he wanted children and he chuckled again. I thought to myself, “he’s a young child.” He is young! He said, “actually I have a wife. I brought her with me but our degrees are not valid in the United States so now we are going back to school. I’m getting another degree in computer science and she’s becoming a doctor. I can’t drive all my life. I want back into technology. Here, I will always just be ‘that Afghan Uber driver.”
I nodded in agreement. I suggested he send me his resume and I could possibly help him get back into tech. And try I will.
After some period of silence and likely introspection by both of us, we approached departures. He looked back at me and said, “thank you for not hating us. Thank you for saying America did the right thing offering my wife and me a home here. I will make your country proud. I will get an American degree and contribute with all my heart.” He spoke as though he owed me some explanation. He did not. I told him, “my family came here too. You are as American as I am; I am as American as you.”
No doubt Sayed, you will make Americans and your family back home proud, no doubt. You are the Afghan Uber driver who touched my heart.