Road Trip 2021: The American Immigrant Story

A few years ago I blogged about the Sayderi family  (not their real name), refugees from Afghanistan and Iran, who had moved into our daughter’s family’s basement. The mother and father were probably in their 30s with two daughters age two and five at that time. After two years in the DC area, they had bolted for Columbus, OH, where they settled into an apartment supposedly in a less costly and more attractive neighborhood with better schools. We had kept up with them mainly through weekly Zoom sessions when Embry tutored the oldest daughter, now almost 10, in reading. The big news was that the mother, now in her late 30s, was expecting another child, but other than that we really had no idea as to how well they were doing. Going to see the Indian mounds in the Columbus area would give us a chance to find out and to catchup.

What to expect? Keep in mind that the Sayderi family arrived in the U.S. four years ago with hardly more than the clothes they wore. They were refugees who had been living in Turkey for five years and somehow ended up here as part of a United Nations resettlement program. Neither husband nor wife spoke more than a few words of English, and the husband had been denied any formal education in Afghanistan because when he was of school age, the Taliban controlled the country. Also because he was blind in one eye, he had been denied the chance for his dream job—becoming a truck driver.

Picture yourself in a similar situation: living for years in refugee camps in a foreign land where there was little chance for work and where you were not welcomed, then suddenly uprooted and landing in another foreign country, flat broke, where you knew no one, could not speak the language, and had a medical disability that kept you from working. How would you manage in such a situation?

Between the supportive services provided by Lutheran Social Services and funded by the U.S. government, help from our daughter’s family, our neighborhood church, and us, they were able to settle in, learn some English, get help to restore the husband’s eyesight, get driver’s licenses, buy a car, get the husband a truck driver’s job as a long hauler, and eventually move into their own apartment. Great success story, right?

So it would seem. But still, you never know. What they had had achieved seemed to us like accomplishing the impossible but not without stress, and not without taking an emotional toll. Would Columbus really be any better? The support network in Washington, which enabled them to make such strides, would probably not be available in Columbus. How would they manage?

As we drove into their sprawling apartment complex in what appeared to be a middle class neighborhood, I noted that at least with regard to housing and neighborhood, they probably were better off. We were met with smiling faces and embraces. The two girls now wore headscarves and at age five and nine seemed more grown up. Everyone’s English was a little better. The girls were totally fluent, and the parents were still struggling a bit but getting their points across.

The wife had prepared a huge, delicious mid-day feast of chicken, lamb, and rice, along with fruits and vegetables, which Embry and I enjoyed sitting at a small, elevated table next to the kitchen with the two girls. Our hosts were seated on pillows on beautiful carpets on the floor in the living room beside us. A huge flat screen, smart TV was mounted on the wall behind them. There was not a single additional piece of furniture in the apartment as far as I could tell, except for a bunk bed in the girl’s bedroom, which the girls said they never used. They slept on the floor in their parent’s bedroom. I recalled how much effort by people in our church went into furnishing their apartment in Washington and chuckled. Having western style furniture was not what they were used to or wanted.

When I commented that I was very impressed with how nice their apartment was, the husband said they were moving in one month. Beaming, he pulled out his smart phone and showed me a photo of a  3,100 square foot house with cathedral ceilings listed for $419,000.

“Moving. Bought house. Close in two weeks. Leaving!” he exclaimed.

When I showed my disbelief, the oldest daughter piped in, “Daddy bought us a house and we are moving in three weeks. We are going to Houston.”

His smiling wife elaborated in broken English that he had put down over $100,000, which he had received from fellow long-haul drivers and had his credit approved for the mortgage. She went on to say that she had checked out the schools and they were good. The reason for choosing Houston was that is where his Afghan best friend now lives and where there is a large community of refugees from Afghanistan. As a long hauler you can live anywhere.

This news was followed after lunch by a short ride to a nearby shopping center where a huge 18-wheeler truck was parked carrying parts of a tower crane on the flatbed trailer.

“My truck,” he said proudly, “Own. Own truck.” On his tee shirt were the words “United States of America.”

We were invited to hop in the cab and check out the small “apartment “behind the front seats—bed, refrigerator, hot plate, and storage area along with a mounted computer on the dashboard for logging times on the road and rest stops. Then when we got off, he hopped in and started up the engine. He had two days to deliver the tower crane to Richmond where he would drop off the cargo and await another pickup call from the dispatcher. He would be gone two or three weeks before returning home for a short visit, then off again.

“Is this a great country or what?” I muttered under my breath as I marveled, bordering on disbelief, at what the family has accomplished. By any measure,  their story is one to warrant being  on  poster child placards celebrating the American Immigrant: home owner, independent business man, and a decent income, with one foot surely pointed in the direction of arriving  in the middle class. And all this in only four years.

But at the same time, I realized the sacrifices they are making and the stress in their life. Embry asked me later if I noticed the tears in his eyes when he waved goodbye to his wife and daughters.


Next post: the Indian Mounds.





5 thoughts on “Road Trip 2021: The American Immigrant Story

  1. Your gift for both writing and especially empathy in the amazing Howell family, never ceases to amaze me! This is a remarkable story about what makes America REALLY great…It remains a melting pot with kindness such as what each of you gave without conditions a hope for what we can at least in part become.

    Thanks for this example of what “a hands up” can result in and the life changing opportunity for this resilient family.

    Love, Karen McMichael

  2. Truly wonderful story, Joe. At least for the old “up by the bootstraps” types like us, it is the uniquely American
    Story, the successful immigrant story. I just loved how the other truck drivers supported Mr. Sayderi. It should be on the front page of the Post. If we survive as a democracy, it will because of new loyal citizens like these. We have a friend and neighbor at the Post, Steve Mufson, to whom I will forward it. Great work! How about a book of stories like these?

  3. Dear Joe,

    These reports on your Ohio trip are a real eye-opener. Today’s is almost unbelievable: so much material wealth in just four years! Let us hope he will realize he has more than enough now and will not continue being away from his family so much of the time. Or else they would be caught in the dark side of the American dream …

    In Paris yesterday, immigrants (mostly African men) who deliver food very quickly on their bikes rebelled against the horrible racist remarks they are confronted with, on top of exhausting physical conditions. They hadn’t dared do it earlier because the pay is good and there are no skilled jobs available to them. Modern slavery here too …

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