I just met a man. He is 63 years old. He drives a taxi for a living, in Los Angeles.
We got to talking on the ride to the airport. He asked where we were from. I answered Japan. He laughed and remarked that he has a difficult time distinguishing Asians.
We asked in turn about his background. “Africa,” he said. “East Africa actually. Ethiopia.” There was a hint of nostalgia in his voice, laced with melancholy.
“Oh I see. How long have you been here?” I continued.
“Have you had a chance to go back for a visit?”
“No. I can’t. There were some political problems you see, and I can’t ever go back…”
A civil engineer by training, he had penned an article in an Ethiopian newspaper critical of the government. For having the temerity to voice his opinion, he was taken into custody, held for a year without trial or representation. When he was finally given the opportunity to speak in front of a judge, the magistrate castigated him for being negative. Then put him back in jail.
He was eventually released for reasons not entirely clear, but he surmises it had something to do with general lobbying by the USA and EU on behalf of political detainees.
He flew to the US, landed at LAX, asked the immigration officer for asylum.
I started to cringe at this part of his tale, anticipating the harsh reception he may have received. Turns out, the immigration officials took him aside, sent him to see higher-ups.
They put him up at the Marriott near Westfield mall in Culver City for four nights, without charge. They questioned him. Checked up on him. Then approved his request for asylum.
Just like that.
A month later, his wife and two sons joined him.
Eight years on, as he’s relating his tale, this man is positive, enthusiastic. Happy, I note.
He qualifies, "I’m not so happy for myself. I am old. Everything is different for me. The food is different. Even the water tastes different. Ethiopia is where I grew up.
“But my kids love it. They speak without any accent, just like Americans. Kids are so adaptable. My elder son is in college now. My second will be soon.”
He beamed as he spoke those words.
“Africa is like this. It’s so backward. The leaders are so backward. They don’t see how the world is, and don’t care.”
“I’m so happy the US was able to give you a new home,” I offered.
His immediate reaction: “I have no idea where my family and I would be without this country.”
We parted company at Tom Bradley International. We gripped each other’s hands and locked eyes.
“I am happy for you. Be well,” I said.
“Have a safe trip,” he replied.
A moment’s pause. We let go.
It was a taxi ride always to remember.