When I walked outside into the frigid Canadian air, I saw a slender, brown-skinned man leaning against a taxi.
“Did you order a cab, sir?” he asked.
“Yes, I did,” I said.
He grabbed my bags and tossed them into the back of the van. I quickly slid into the van’s passenger seat to get out of the cold.
“Where to, sir?” the driver asked as he entered the vehicle.
“To the airport, please,” I said.
The driver fastened his seatbelt and started his meter.
“How are you today?” the driver asked.
“I’m doing well,” I said. “I’ll be happier when I’m back at home enjoying the Texas heat.”
“You’re from Texas?” he asked. “I used to love watching the Houston Rockets when Hakeem Olajuwan was on the team. Never question the heart of a champion.” We spent the next few minutes reminiscing about the Rocket’s championship run and discussing the Rocket’s future prospects.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“I’m from Somalia,” he answered. “I’ve been living in Canada for about nineteen years now.”
“Really,” I said. “Canada’s climate is much different than Somalia’s. How did you adjust?”
“You get used to it,” he said. “I saw snow for the first time when I was a kid. I marveled at the brilliance of it. I spent the whole morning playing in the snow. Later than morning, my teacher called to ask why I wasn’t at school. I told her that I thought school was canceled because of the snow. She explained to me that we would never have school if they closed every time it snowed. That was my first lesson in coping with the Canadian weather. But I do miss the African sunshine sometimes.”
“I enjoy the sunshine too,” I said. “Have you been back to Somalia since you’ve been living in Canada?”
“Only once,” he said. “Things are bad in Somalia. That’s why my family left.” He told me about the horrific violence that he had experienced as a child. It was as if a flood gate opened. I could tell that he really needed to get some things off his chest.
“Kids used to pick on me when I arrived in Canada because I was the new kid,” he said. “I was never bothered by their teasing because I’d experienced much worse abuse. I’ve been beaten. I’ve had guns pointed in my face. I’ve seen people get butchered with machetes. Their petty name calling was inconsequential.”
I was deeply moved by his confession. I’m always concerned about my kids’ having to deal with bullies, but the driver gave me a whole new perspective.
He continued to tell me about a time that he did get upset by some perceived bullying. One day in gym class, the teacher introduced hockey. Being from Somalia, my driver had never played hockey before. While they were playing, one of his tormentors bumped him. My driver was fed up and decided to end the bullying once and for all. He raised his hockey stick over his head and chased the boy around the rink.
“Hey, man,” the boy yelled as he tried to escape. “What are you doing?”
“I’m about to kick you’re a**,” my driver threatened. The gym teacher raced over and grabbed my driver around the waist before he could complete his mission.
“Why are you grabbing me?” my driver protested. “Didn’t you see what he just did to me?”
“Yes, I did,” said the teacher. My driver was furious.
“You mean you saw him bump me and you’re not going to do anything about it,” said my driver. The teacher allowed my driver to calm down before explaining that body checks are part of the game of hockey. My driver told me that he was extremely embarrassed, but the other kids didn’t dare tease him about it.
“What’s your impression of the stories about the Somali pirates?” I asked. I wasn’t sure if this was an appropriate question, but I had never met anyone from Somalia and I wanted to get some insight from someone who lived there.
“The pirates have been overblown by the media,” he said. “These young men are desperate because of political corruption and foreign intervention. They are angry and bitter and see no other way to survive. I don’t condone what they do, but I understand why they do it.” He shook his head as he drove. I could tell that he still held some feelings of bitterness.
When we reached the airport, I was sad that our conversation was coming to an end. I paid my fare and gave the driver a nice tip.
“By the way,” I said as I collected my bags. “My name is Fred. What’s yours?”
“I’m Ahmad,” he said. “Thanks for talking to me.”
“No,” I said. “Thank you for talking to me.” This brief conversation made waking up at 4:30 a.m. worthwhile.