Rehab is a 41-year-old Muslim woman, displaced from her bombed out home by the turmoil in Syria. She lives with her family in our city and is happy to be here. I found her walking along the street one hot day, dressed entirely in black.
I didn’t know where she was going, but knew she needed a ride and when I picked her up she seemed very grateful. Smiling broadly, she bobbed her head up and down in a friendly sort of way. We proceeded with hand gestures and nods and eventually I got her home. She knows the word "thank you" for sure, and thanked me again and again. Then she gave me a phone number in spite of the fact that we have absolutely no way to converse...I think she just wanted to make a connection.
I was so touched by her circumstances, I wrote about her in a blog that week. Since then I have been back to her house with a couple of Arabic-to-English dictionaries and flowers and have taken her to a big international grocery store 17 miles from her home so she could buy the foods she is used to cooking.
So when I went to pick her up another day for a trip to the grocery, she looked puzzled. She called an interpreter and spoke Arabic hurriedly into the phone. The woman told me Rehab didn’t know why I was there. HMMM.
Well, that made sense. I thought she understood, but really had no way to be sure. The interpreter went on…”she doesn’t need to go to the grocery,” she said. “She wants you to teach her to drive.”
Really? I thought. Teaching someone to drive is not a very difficult task. If the student is careful and doesn’t stomp directly on any of the peddles, it can be achieved without loss of life. But, arm a Syrian woman who has never driven an automobile with an eight-seater behemoth of a van, (seriously, it has to be 20' long) being taught by an English-speaking teacher and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
She proudly produced a learner’s permit. Who knew that Indiana had permit tests in Arabic? Not I. Some gentleman had taken her out for four one-hour sessions and she was beyond ready to go again—like a 15 1/2 year-old who excitedly jangles the keys in front of her parent saying, “Can we go? Can we? Can I drive? OK? Can I drive? Huh? Can I?” In fact, Rehab needs 50 hours of driving experience to take her driver’s test and get a license and she is—putting it mildly—very excited about it.
Off we went. I took her to a large high school with big parking lots, assuming that the students would all be home in the summer. What a laugh! There were kids everywhere, running on and off the tennis courts into the road, emptying from busses and lining up to get back on busses.
And, in the midst of all this was Rehab, piloting her big tan van around and around the school, pulling into and out of parking spaces. (And colliding constantly with the imaginary cars that were parked in the adjacent spots.)
I want to stop right here and let you soak in the impossibility of this scene. Rehab barely knows what ‘STOP!” means, much less, “swing out to the left and pull straight into the parking space so you don’t hit the other cars.” There was much nodding and drawing on paper of cars on the road and what would happen if she did this or that.
I think I’m pretty tough, but an hour and a half of this was exhausting. Then she said, “Rehab home?” (as she grasped the steering wheel and pretended to turn it toward the street.) “No, Rehab,” I said with a firm smile, shaking my head vigorously. “You are not ready to drive on the road,” which clearly meant nothing to her. So I took the keys, opened the passenger side door and stalked around the front of the van to to make it very clear we were going to exchange places and I was going to drive home.
Rehab is a wonderful woman, full of love, a great cook and some day she'll make a proud and responsible American citizen. She is, however, a terrible driver and I’m not quite ready to die for the Syrian Refugee Driver Training cause. But I will be back, and I will be back and back again until I get her ready to face the impenetrable gaze of an Indiana Driver’s License Examiner. And, by that time, we will both have learned a lot.
In the wake of wild fires that have displaced almost 90,000 people from Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, Melody Rowell and Ian Bates of National Geographic came to photograph and tell the stories of some of the evacuees. What they found in the midst of chaos was hope and generosity.
As the fire raged all around, if residents had not already left town, a knock at the door from police was the last call. People were given 10 minutes to gather up what they could and get out of town. They would then spend hours in traffic, and most were unsure about where they were going. They also didn't know if their homes would still be standing when they returned. One thing is sure, the town that so many have called home for so long, will not be the same when they are allowed to come back.
The photo above is Luke Thwaits. He is a commercial electrician, and he watched from across the street as the fire burned down the shop where he lived and kept all his tools.
Although he had lost all his belongings and the costly tools of his trade, he gathered up what meant the most to him--his 5 dogs and got out of danger. He drove around with them for days trying to figure out where to stay [that would take him and his beloved pets]. Eventually, he says, something caught his eye in the oil workers camp of Wandering River.
“I just happened to see a crowd of lights in the dark, and it was the fire station. Right when I got there they happened to be unloading the trucks of water and food. Emotionally I was really good until I started seeing all these people helping each other. This random guy looked at me and was like, ’You’re all black [from ash]; you really need a shower.’ He gave me a towel and said, ‘Go have a shower.’ I got out of my car and got to have a shower at the fire station, and I was just bawling. I couldn’t believe everyone helping one another,” he says.
“I was here for a few days, and I was scrambling around [trying to take care of all] the dogs. I left for a few days to talk to farmers, looking for a spot the dogs could stay at. [The oil workers] told me to come back, and they said if I wanted this shed I could have it.” Thwaits says he now just wants to return home to Fort McMurray, where he moved in 2011 looking to settle down. “I don’t care if the oil [industry] goes down,” he says. “I just love this town.”
Rowell and Bates recorded many more stories of people who are just like us, but by an act of nature or war, they have been pushed out of their homes, losing every material thing they owned and facing an uncertain future. Like the refugees of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Ukraine, the need is personally and universally overwhelming. Luke Thwaits “was just bawling…,” he said. Overcome with emotion, he couldn’t believe the generosity of those giving aid to him and others who were so desperately in need. But he should believe it.
Human generosity should be so obvious and common in our daily lives—disaster or no disaster--that there is no surprise when someone reaches out a hand to help. We are the generous. Where the rubber meets the road, we are there. And the vast majority of us belong to this inclusive and happy club.
Show your generosity. Shine like those lights Luke could see at the fire station. Shine so that those who need it, can see our light even in the darkest of times.
I don’t know how she got here or how she manages without a word of English, but there she was walking along a busy road on a rainy day swathed in a long black dress with a scarf covering her head.
I passed her going the other way and wondered how far she had to go. There were no sidewalks, so she teetered along the white line on a narrow, but busy city street.
I checked to see if anyone was going to run into me before I swung Finn (that’s the name of my car) around in a commercial parking entrance and pulled up to her.
Lowering the window, I asked her, “Do you want a ride?”
She smiled. She may have no understanding of most English words, but she knew she was getting an offer of transportation and shook her head up and down as she opened the passenger door.
I cleared my shopping bags off her seat, throwing them in the back and started up in the direction she had been walking.
“Where are we going?” I said, and she smiled and nodded. "OK," I was thinking, "this is going to be tougher than I thought…."
“Straight?” I asked as I pointed down the road. “Street,” she answered, nodding. I continued to try to talk to her (and no, I didn’t raise my voice, thinking that might help her to understand).
Finally, when I asked her where she was from, she understood. “Syria,” she said softly. So now I knew or I think I know why she has that hanging-on-by-her-fingernails look. “Where are your children?”…I made rocking the baby motions. “School,” she said. I said, “they’ll do very well here.” This time I was smiling and nodding and she smiled, showing a need for dental work that she is too poor right now to get.
Against a back drop of the execution of more than 150 women in one town for refusing to “marry” ISIS militants, she is lucky. But how lucky would any of us feel having been ripped from our homes and inserted into a community that cannot communicate with us, that suspects us, and to whom we are strangers in every possible way.
With hand signaled directions I managed to get her to her apartment—more than a mile from where I had picked her up.
As we sat for a moment in front of her apartment, I could actually feel the softness and sorrow in her heart, and I noticed she has beautiful eyes. (BTW, the picture above is not Rehab, but boy, does it look like her.)
Anyway, before she got out of my car, she said "cafe?" I must have looked puzzled, because she began to mime picking up an invisible china cup from the "saucer" of her outstretched palm. She was asking me in for coffee.
I had to decline, I was headed to an appointment. She was thanking me profusely. "Thank you Madam, thank you," she said over and over. I told her my name was Nancy and she told me her's was Rehn. We exchanged phone numbers and I left. Now, regretting that I didn't take the time to just be with her, even if it did mean another twenty minutes of sign language.
When I picked her up, I admit, I had very little idea where we were headed and I don’t really know where Rehab and I go from here. But one thing is certain, we'll see each other again.