Martin Luther King Jr. said that “people hate each other because they fear each other, they fear each other because they don’t know each other. They do not know each other because they are separated from each other.”
I want to explore this concept- fearing what we do not know. Because I think often, we only fear that which contradicts the things we think we know. “Truths” that we think provide us with security and assurance, but actually inhibit us from connecting with one another in a deeper and more profound way.
With that in mind, what scares you? Or perhaps, more specifically, who scares you?
Who are the people you avert your eyes from on the street? What experiences have taught you this? Have you ever confronted it? Would you ever confront them?
I want to share the story of a man who so many Americans would fear if they saw him at an airport, or heard his name said aloud. A man whose reputation in America is obstructed by exclusionary rhetoric and the espousal of fear.
I am going to wait to give you his name.
I first spoke with him through the crackling static of my cell phone. I placed one hand over my other ear to try and diffuse the noise and interpret his accent. “Allo? Allo? Ms. Thomas? I am…in the…at the corner of…are you here?”
“What? I’m sorry, I can’t..hello? I’m in a red scarf and a tan coat. Did you get that?” I enunciated into my screen. A car horn blared closeby which made me jump.
Then an older black car pulled up to the curb in front of me, the source of the horn. I waited cautiously, phone still at my ear, to see if this was who I was supposed to meet. The driver side door opened, a foot was placed gingerly on the ground. A pair of comfy looking Clarks protruded from underneath his khakis.
He looked to be about my dad’s age, his skin a mixture of olive and caramel. After pressing his hands together apologetically he reached out to shake mine, warmth spreading across his features as he smiled. “Hello, Ms. Thomas, good morning.”
“Hello,” I said sheepishly, breaking eye contact and looking at the ground as he transferred his hand to my bag and placed it in the trunk. I subconsciously blamed my standoffish response on the obscene time of day (if you can call 6:45am day time), but I knew there was something else that had hindered me from showing as much immediate kindness.
He opened the door to the back seat and I slid in, graciously welcoming the chance to mingle with just my coffee. Once he pulled onto the highway, we sat in silence for a while. Just two strangers, sharing any other mundane commute. Until I sneezed.
“Bless you” he said immediately.
“Thanks,” I replied. He grinned from ear to ear, looking inordinately pleased with himself. He must have caught the quizzical look I was giving him because his eyes found mine in the rear view mirror.
“I wasn’t sure if I said it right,” he said. A small invitation into his insecurities which lowered my guard.
“You did,” I laughed. “So, where are you from, uh, originally?” muffling the end of my sentence into my thermos to mask the awkward segue.
“Syria. I have been here in Colombus, in the US, for 10 months now…And you are from here?” he asked trying to continue the pleasantries.
“No I’m from Philadelphia.”
“Ah, the weather there, there are tornadoes and earthquakes and monsoons?” The innocence of the question struck me. Suddenly I found myself giving a geography lesson about the northeast.
“I would love to see New York City,” he mentioned as it came up in passing. “My children have always wanted to see it.”
“Yeah you should go with them at Christmas time! It’s magical.” But I wanted to take it back as soon as I saw a forlorn expression grow on his face.
“…Are they not here?”
“No. They are in Syria, with their mother, waiting.”
We’d reached a pivotal moment in this little black car.
With some effort, I changed the topic. “What did you do for work, before you came here?” Something told me there was more to this man than a career of chauffeuring.
“Computer programming. I studied at the University of Jordan. My company sent me all over the world: Paris, Dubai, London. But I was laid off. Not so easy to find the same job here…so I live with my brother in law now. This is his car service.”
“This must be very frustrating for you,” I said sympathetically, but worrying it came off as condescension.
He sat quietly for a moment. “It’s not so bad. I meet new people every day. I hear their stories. I see that many of our frustrations are the same. Lots of big dreams wasting away at small desks. At least I am surrounded by windows.”
We talked about London for a while. Turns out we had lived blocks from each other while I was working at the House of Commons and he at a large software firm. And here we were now, crossing each other again, at a much less exciting intersection of life.
We didn’t talk about war. We didn’t discuss politics or religion. Instead, we reveled in each other’s unfamiliar pasts, traversing with ease through a simple conversation some are too afraid to even begin.
As he dropped me off, I thought, here is a man who can speak four languages, several more if you include those in computer programming. A man who strives to persist in this world, only to be denied, uprooted, demoted by it. A man who cannot see his family. And yet there he sat, smiling into the early morning glare, wishing me a good day, the same way I imagine he would to his own children.
But what if all I had said to you in the beginning was that I had gotten into a car with a man named Assad?
So I’ll ask you again: Who are the people you avert your eyes from on the street? What experiences have taught you this? Have you ever confronted it? Would you ever confront them?
We cannot afford to fear what we do not know. Alternatively, we cannot be afraid of revealing ourselves to others. We all share the commonality of being human. We all have big dreams, and we can all choose to walk through the world as windows.