It had been quite the evening. Food was settling in our stomachs after a long dinner at someplace we liked to think wasÂ different â€“ a sushi restaurant in downtownÂ Chicago.Â I hailed a cab and all four of us girls hopped in clumsily. I got the awkward shotgun seat next to the cabbie. After the three in the back fell asleep, there were still several miles of Lake Shore Drive until we would be back in Evanston. A lack of stimulation and the liquid courage I drank with dinner left me bold enough to initiate a conversation with the taxi driver.
â€˜â€™So, where are you from?â€™â€™ I asked.
â€˜â€™Oh, Iâ€™m from Baghdadâ€¦in Iraq.â€™â€™ He seemed young. I pegged him for late 20s or early 30s.
â€˜â€™Wow, interesting, and when did you come here?â€™â€™ I continued.
â€˜â€™Well, I was with a refugee group that first took me to Australia, and then to here in about 2005.â€™â€™
â€˜â€™Your name?â€™â€™ I pried.
â€˜â€™Hassan,â€™â€™ he smiled and reached over to shake my hand while keeping one of his on the wheel.
â€˜â€™Iâ€™m Mallory, nice to meet you.â€™â€™
He seemed happy enough to engage in conversation, andÂ to be honest he piqued my interest. I had actually never met an Iraqi before. I remembered reading thatÂ nearly two million Iraqi refugees had been displaced.Â Thatâ€™s about the size of the city where my father livesÂ in Houston, TX, that had been uprooted from their homes. HassanÂ was apparently one of the two million andÂ I wanted to know what his experience as a refugee was like so I pressed on, wondering what kind of story he might have.
â€˜â€™Does your family live here too?â€™â€™
â€˜â€™Some of them do. Iâ€™m lucky because my wife lives here with me in Chicago.â€™â€™
â€˜â€™Do you keep in contact with your other relatives in Baghdad?â€™â€™
â€˜â€™Well no, not anymore.â€™â€™
â€˜â€™Is it too hard keep in contact with them? Are they refugees too?â€™â€™ Perhaps I was too forward.
He hesitated. â€˜â€™Noâ€¦most of my family was killed in a bombing there in 2006,â€™â€™ then after a moment of silence, he said, â€˜â€™sorry.â€™â€™
For a second, it didnâ€™t register. Then, it hit me like a pile of bricks. I looked at him as he stared straight ahead with an expressionless face, his knuckles white on the steering wheel.
â€˜â€™Wh- Why?â€™â€™ Obviously, not my best interview question, but it was all I could verbalize at the time. I wasnâ€™t mentally prepared for his answer and my response was purely organic. â€˜â€™Why would someone DO that? Iâ€™m so sorry. Iâ€™m so so sorry. I canâ€™tâ€¦I canâ€™t imagine.â€™â€™
He explainedÂ that in some situations, a member of a militant group would force regular citizens to commit horrible acts of terrorism by threatening to murder members of their family if they didnâ€™t comply. â€˜â€™They might have to choose between their family being killed or killing someone else for maybe 300 dollars…it’s not always terrible people but sometimes to save their family or to get money, it’s what they have to do.â€™â€™ he explained, motioning with his hand as we wound through the smaller roads in Evanston back to our apartment.
Three hundred dollars. Three hundred dollars was the price of my ipod. Three hundred dollars is half of my monthly rent. Three hundred dollars is a round-trip flight home or a TV or a few weeks of groceries. Three hundred dollars is not a compensatory payment for killing other human beings -Â but in some parts of this world it’s just that. I couldnâ€™t immediately respond to Hassan. I was lost in my own thoughts.
He spoke in excellent EnglishÂ about the political situation in Iraq and changes in the past seven years. His words were not lost on me, but I couldn’t help but dwell on thoughts ofÂ his murdered family and his new life in Chicago. I live in the same city as this man and if I had sat in the back seat of the cab or if I had hailed a different taxi perhaps, I would have never heard his story.
Hassan stopped and looked over at me, noticing that I was distracted.
â€˜â€™Donâ€™t worry,â€™â€™ he said as he pulled up to my apartment building in Evanston. â€˜â€™Really we are all just poor people trying to survive in these times.â€™â€™
I nodded and shook his hand, paid and then thanked him for speaking with me as we all stepped out of the cab. There was so much that I had neglected to ask, so much that I would want to know about a person whose life changes so radically in such a short period of time. But as I turned to watch him zoom away, he was already off to pick up another group of strangers.