My plane had been canceled. I jumped in a cab. Said I needed to get to Detroit, which was four hours away.
The driver was a thin, black man with a thick foreign accent that I did not recognize. I glanced at the name on his ID badge. “Mursal Dhudhi.”
A half hour later, I heard him say, “Oh, no …”
In the rearview mirror, flashing lights.
The Ohio state trooper sauntered up to the passenger-side window. He had dark sunglasses, a belly that sank over his belt and an expression that suggested he’d seen one too many cop movies. He was white.
“Come with me,” he drawled to the driver.
In the front seat of the squad car, they sat for more than 20 minutes. Through the taxi’s rear window, I watched them talk, the driver waving his hands, looking scared and frustrated.
When he returned, with a speeding ticket, he could barely speak.
“What happened?” I asked.
It took a minute before he could answer.
“He ask me …if I steal this car,” he finally said, his heart pumping adrenaline into his voice. “He ask me …do I have drugs in car. He ask me why I go to Detroit, who I meeting there, is it drugs? I tell him you are customer, and I take you to Detroit. He say I only going to Detroit because car is stolen, or drugs, I should admit this.”
He shook his head wildly.
“Why?” he said. “He see a black man, he have to say that? Why?”
Life as a refugee
The highway rolled outside the window. Hot summer air blew in through the car vents. Eventually I asked where he was from.
“Somalia,” he said.
Somalia. I said I knew of his country only because of America’s involvement a few years back.
“Yes,” he said. “Civil war. Very bad place then. I come home one day, blood in house. Two brothers killed. Rest of family gone.”
I was stunned. “How long ago was that?”
“And have you seen them since?”
“Not see them since.”
As the car bumped along, the rest of his story unfolded. He was only 15 the day of the murders. A rival clan killed his brothers. His mother and sister were raped. His father, a professor, was missing with the rest of them.
“I do not eat for seven days,” Mursal said. “I cry all day. I am feeling alone. Then I run away to Kenya.”
So much for childhood.
The trip to America
In the years that followed, Mursal lived by his wits. In Nairobi, he found work washing dishes in a hotel restaurant. He tried to save money, but corrupt police took most of his paycheck.
In Uganda, he sold sugared milk on street corners. In Syria and Lebanon, he washed dishes again. He wrote the Red Cross, hoping for word from his family. None came.
For eight years, he was a nomad, moving from country to country, bunking with Somalians, sleeping on floors. He eventually joined a group of refugees that pooled its money and drew names from a hat. The winner used the savings to escape to a safer place.
“When my name finally come, they say, ‘Where will you go, Mursal?’ I say, ‘I want to go to America.’ “
And eventually, with a fake passport, he got here. He sought asylum, waited six months in a Philadelphia jail and finally was admitted. That night, he celebrated his freedom at a Burger King.
Mursal Dhudhi is 25 now. He is studying at an Ohio college. Last year, he received a letter through the Red Cross. His mother wrote. She, her husband and several brothers and sisters are in refugee camps today, somewhere between Somalia and Kenya. Mursal drives a cab in hopes of saving enough money to bring them out.
He shook his head. “That cop does not know I only do this for survival.”
I looked out the window. I thought about the swaggering trooper. What did he see when he looked at this man? Did he have any idea that this black-skinned face and accented tongue had endured more horror and hardships to get here than the next 10 people in line?
We hear a lot about racial profiling. And despite denials, we all know it exists. It might help, then, if the next cop thinks about Mursal Dhudhi and remembers that behind every assumption is a human who can prove it wrong.
MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear
“Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 weekdays on WJR-AM (760).