During a recent trip to Washington DC, I took an Uber to my visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. I expected it to be an emotionally draining and impactful visit, so as soon as I got in the car I put my head down in my phone to clear as many emails and texts as I could.
After a few minutes into the ride, something didn't feel right. There was a man driving me, sitting just in front of me, and I had yet even to acknowledge him. I put my phone down and started chatting with him. I began by asking him his name. With his face just about completely covered in a mask, he said, "Khumainy." Then I asked a few more typical questions; where he lived, how long he's been working today, does he like driving Uber, etc. However, it was when I asked him what he did before driving Uber that the ride became really interesting, and one I will never forget.
He said, "I worked for the United States Military, Fort Benning, acclimating U.S. Soldiers with the Afghan culture before they were deployed there."
Khumainy was born in Afghanistan and was about 16 years old when our troops went there in 2001. He, like all of the other young men and so many Afghans, was excited and hopeful that the Americans were coming, because they hoped it would free them of decades of war, violence, and mistreatment by the powerful and corrupt warlords. He was in the first class of recruits to join the newly formed "Afghan National Army." He was proud to serve alongside the Allied Forces. Khumainy shared that while off to a great start, the Americans lost the hearts and minds of many Afghan people early because conditions had not improved as expected. But he had seen enough of America through his relationships with the soldiers to compel him to join the military as an advisor, and move to the United States.
As we chatted more I asked him if he was a US citizen today. Even through his mask, I could tell that he had the brightest smile when he told me he was, and that the day he became a citizen, it was one of the biggest honors for him, and his family. The next day a good part of my six-hour drive back home was spent thinking of Khumainy, him as a teenage boy so excited with the hope of the arrival of American soldiers.
I started to think of this American experience and I remembered something my cousin Lillian shared with me once. Many years ago she was on a European vacation with a tour group. Everywhere she went, there were other tour groups, and frequently the person doing the presentation at a particular location would say, "So you are the American group." Lillian asked one of them, how each of them knew they were the American group. He said, "That's easy. Look at the French group; all the same. Look at the Italian group; all the same. But look at the American group; everyone is different."
This is the country we live in. This is the country Khumainy wanted to spend the rest of his life in. No, we are not all the same. We are different. We bring different experiences, different heritages, and new dreams to this shared experience. There is no other place in the world like it.
While we are celebrating our nation's independence across this country this week, one man, who is continuing his part in this amazing American experience, is providing someone in the DC area with a great Uber ride. I hope they are fortunate enough to ask him a few questions so that they too can be inspired by his life, and be reminded of what truly makes America great.
Joe Fox is a Motivational Speaker, Leadership & Life Coach, Chief of Staff, Silverseal Security, U.S. Department of Justice Medal of Valor Review Board Member, Board of Directors, 9/11/01 Tribute Park, Board of Directors, 5Star Life Insurance Company, and former NYPD Transit Chief