William, my Uber driver, picked me up in his black Honda Accord after yoga on the corner of Pacific and Washington. I had been waiting for him next to a homeless lady with no pants on. She threw her legs in the air as each person passed by. We all tried to look away. "Crazy night," he said knowing this was just another typical scene for Venice, CA. There's always something strange going on. Earlier, William told me the lady was throwing pillows in the air. "Poor thing," was the only response I could come up with. I wondered where she was from, who her parents were and how she came to live on the streets. We both silently acknowledged the sadness in this poor woman's suffering. It was obvious that all she wanted was for someone to notice her existence. And we did.
"Where are you from?" I asked the tan man at the wheel. He looked at me, then back at the wheel. "Well," he began. "I've lived here for 30 years. Since I was five." He stopped there as if perhaps he was embarrassed of his true heritage, to talk further. But I continued to look his way, kindly prompting him to continue. "I was born in El Salvador," he finally said. "Oh, cool!" I replied. "Why did you leave?"
"There was a war," William explained. "A group of people overthrew the government. There was no control. It was bad. I remember dead people on the sidewalks." We both sat in silence for a brief moment absorbing the words that left his mouth, words that send chills down my spine. "And I was only five. I still remember."
"We left our house," the diver said. "Like, you didn't sell it?" I asked. "You just fled one day because your parents were scared?" He said, "yes."
A car parallel-parked on the side of the street pulled out in front of us and waited in our way to make a u-turn into the passing traffic. Most would have cursed the driver. William sat there patiently. Waiting was easy. Patience was easy. I could tell that as his mind retraced the dead bodies on the pavement–the memories of his childhood, he was grateful to have the opportunity to be still amongst traffic and not be among the dead imprinted in his mind.
"Have you ever gone back?" I asked. "No, it's still bad there. I've gone to Guatemala, walked over the border. But came right back. It's scary. There are gang bangers. They control everything. If you owned a business, like a grocery store or something. They make you pay them rent. Even though they don't own it. And they come in the store sometimes and just take what they want to eat or have parties and take all of the alcohol. And if you don't let them, if you don't pay them..." William struggled to continue the sentence. "They will kidnap you or...." He left it at that.
The traffic flowed and we sat in the car appreciative of what we call normalcy. I thought of the similarities of my ride a few nights ago back in Albuquerque, NM. When I asked him the same question, "Where are you from?" He too was hesitant. He was from Iraq. And he too had fled from his home country. "Do you remember Saddam Hussein?" he asked us. "Yes," we said. "Thousands of people died every day," Ahmed told us. "I left 13 years ago."
Ahmed continued to tell us that he fled by himself, leaving his family, his home, everything. Three months after arriving in Albuquerque, he met his wife in a country-western bar. They wed in a church despite the fact that he is a Muslim. "We do not fight about religion," he said. Love is love.
"Have you ever gone back home?" I asked. "No, I don't want to go back," he said. "I Skype with my family. I have three children. They want to go to see where I'm from, to see family. But I don't want them to go. They don't know what it's like. ISIS, all of those groups. I don't want them to see what I have seen."
My eyes have seen things that caused me to flee too. Like William and Ahmed, I am hesistant to let the mind drift back through my past. Drunk driving accidents. Suicides. Deaths that, even though they weren't my own, caused me to enter a void, to die in a sense that I would live but that nothing would ever be the same. From each of these experiences, I didn't flee literally. But I was moved.
We are all refugees. There's something each of us has experienced, whether it be real trauma and loss or something as simple as heartache, that causes us to suffer. We can easily fall in this suffering like the homeless lady I stood by while waiting on William from El Salvador. We can drown in our sorrows and wait for someone to notice we exist. Or we can take our suffering and grow from it, out of it, in spite of it. Allow the mind to migrate out of pain. Flee from suffering. It is our human right.
*This is based on true experiences. Some names may have been changed for privacy purposes. Quotes are from my best memory but are not verbatim.