I can tell you that it was 3:37pm on a Tuesday afternoon. Detroit was experiencing, what felt like, it's 473rd straight day without sunshine. The city streets were freshly plowed after having 6 inches of snow dumped on them the night before. My phone went off, requesting an uber pickup on the campus of Wayne State University. As I approached the campus, I called the rider waiting for me, so that I could pinpoint exactly where to pick her up, knowing that campus is usually somewhat chaotic in mid-afternoon.
As she answered the phone, I could tell English was not her first language. I adjusted to understanding her speech patterns, saw she was waiting on a sidewalk across from Jimmy Johns, and in no time, I had pulled up next to her. She got into the back of my car, and it was then I learned her destination was 40 minutes away.
Typically, I start making small talk with my riders as soon as they get into the car. Within that first minute or two, I try to gauge whether he/she is in the mood to be chatty, or if he/she would prefer to sit in silence and peruse the phone for the duration of the ride. In this particular case, I made the decision not to push any conversation. If a rider speaks a broken version of English, small talk can be difficult, misunderstandings could happen easier, and the conversation might take more brain power than the rider wants to exert on an uber ride.
Much to my surprise, Reem started into the small talk shortly after we drove away from campus.
She asked me if I drove for Uber full-time.
She asked how long I had been driving for Uber, and if I liked it.
She asked if I grew up in the area.
Reem was a curious student, which made me curious about her. "How long have you been using uber?" I asked. "I have only been living here for six months, so I haven't used uber very many times." It seemed almost inevitable that the conversation was going to 'go there', if only because Reem wanted to talk about it. If I had been her, I can't imagine how anything else would have been on my mind.
"So you moved here six months ago? Where are you from, originally?"
"I'm from Iraq. I came here last semester on a student visa."
Just the Friday before, President Trump had signed an executive order, temporarily disallowing any entry into the United States to anyone from 7 major countries in the Middle East; Iran, Syria, Somalia, Lybia, Yemen, Sudan, and, yes, Reem's home country of Iraq. If you've been alive at all in the last 5 days with access to the internet, it's been impossible to avoid hearing about the EO, the backlash, or the resulting airport protests. Even more, you probably have had your laptop or social media feeds flooded with memes, hashtags, and hot takes/opinions from anyone from celebs, to your co-worker, to your Aunt Joan. But, as tired as I was of hearing about the EO and its fallout, it was important for me to listen to what Reem was feeling.
"I'm scared. My family is very scared. We don't know what could happen next. My parents are both sick, and I was going to visit them over winter break. But now, if I go back to see them, I won't be able to return to finish my semester." As Reem described her situation, there wasn't an ounce of anger in her voice. She spoke softly, as if she was still processing everything. "The people at the university, they've been great. My professors gathered all of us, and said they were here to support us, that we're a community."
Reem went on. "My family is scared that I'll be sent back...that my student visa will be taken away. But I don't want to go back. I'm the first of my family to come to the United States to get an education. If I go back, all of the money that we've put toward my education will be wasted, because I won't be able to return to finish." But then Reem started to play out scenarios..."but what if my parents get worse? What will I supposed to do then? This is very scary."
I wanted to assure Reem, but, honestly, what the hell do I know? At heart, I'm a fixer; maybe you know the feeling. If someone you care about has a problem, your instinct is to come up with a solution to fix the problem. In this scenario, I was at a loss. I thought that maybe I could reassure Reem by asking about her student visa, to show she'd already done what she needed to do to get that.
"So, what did you have to do to get your student visa?"
"It took me about...I would say...it took me two months", she said as she tried to recall the process. "I applied with the U.S. Embassy at home, and then they interviewed me three weeks later. It was a long interview. They asked me about my background, my family. They asked what I thought about America, why I wanted to go there. They even asked about my rings, my earrings, my jewelry. They wanted to know what they meant...if they had any significance. After my interview, I had to go to another office two more times. It was not hard. It just took a long time."
Let me say at this point: I'm not here to take political sides. I believe that compassion for humans is a good thing. I believe an instinct to keep a country's citizens safe is a good thing. I believe political engagement is a good thing. And I believe there's a way for all of us to attain all of these things, and do them with love, void of malice, name-calling, or prejudice.
But on a random uber ride on a Tuesday afternoon, I didn't see a political side. I saw a person, scared for her future, feeling lonely and even more separated from her family than before, and yet determined to accomplish what she'd spent tons of time, money, and airline miles to achieve.
As we arrived at her destination, Reem said, "Thank you so much for listening to me. I'm sorry I talked so much." I told her not to apologize...that her story was worth listening to. I then asked if I could tell her story to people (and take a selfie with her).
"Of course," she said as she started to climb out of the back seat. "Thank you, Mister Greg. I will pray for you." Before I could respond, she shut the door.
I'll pray for you, too, Reem. All of us will.