Some of my more memorable drivers were people from Iran, Jerusalem, Malta, Ukraine and Iraq. Almost a pattern, isn't there? The Iraqi was my driver on my way back home here in the Sacramento area and was moved to the U.S. after serving as a translator for the U.S. military the last 5 years. The U.S. moved his whole family here and they gave him a choice of 3 or 4 cities and he chose Sacramento, which is still a mystery to me, but he loves it here. He has another job and drives Uber to supplement his income. Of course I dove right into this conversation head first and wanted to know as much as I could during my 40 minute ride.
For his safety, and his family's, the U.S. brought them here. I didn't get into specifics with his lodging and how that was handled because he was adamant about telling me how great this country is and how bad it was in Iraq. He agreed that ousting Saddam Hussein was a good thing and the majority of the country was genuinely thankful to the United States for that. Saddam was a cruel man but he kept everyone in check; his departure opened the floodgates for all the bad people in the region to do as they please with little resistance or retribution.
This Iraqi, to me, represents the common person from that area- not the government, not an Iraqi official, not a person with any sort of influence, position of authority or stature. Just a regular Joe telling me what people thought. While grateful to the U.S. for getting rid of Saddam, the Iraqi's quickly became pissed at us for not doing what needed to be done- clearing the area of all the other bad people who used Iraq as a breeding and nesting ground for terrorism. What I find interesting is that the Uber drivers from the Middle East usually referred to the bad element there, e.g. Al Qaeda, ISIS, etc. as "assholes" and used America when talking about this country. Beautiful.
Iraqi: America did not fight these assholes who destroyed our country, and did many bad things to our people, the way that was needed. America should have destroyed them. Pulverized them.
Me: A lot of us wanted to, but when the bad guys started hiding in mosques and using women and children as human shields then the military were given orders to back down.
Iraqi: Yes, this is true, but a mosque is just a building. We can make a new one, but we cannot repair the people who died.
I admire the simplistic language.
I asked him if he had more family back in Iraq and he said no- his mother and sister were here, along with some cousins, were in the U.S. He was extremely grateful for having his family here.
"If they found out I helped the American military, they would cut my head. We would all be dead right now."
It was an intense 40 minute ride. I didn't have any baggage in the trunk but he still got out, walked around to my side of his car and shook my hand. He pulled me in for a modified bro hug and said, "May God guide you." Interesting choice of words since I did not ask him his religious affiliation and I assumed he was Muslim, but none of that mattered to him. All he cared about at that moment was the conversation we had and the experiences he shared, grateful to have someone listen to him.
My Iranian driver in Seattle shared a similar story but not as war-torn. He also loved the United States and had been here 3 or 4 years and also thought it was good for the U.S. to remove Saddam, but was also disappointed in the way the post war was handled. He spoke very good English and said a lot of Iranians speak english, although it may not be very good english. I told him his english was better than my Persian. This surprised him.
"That is good that you know my language. Most people I talk to think Iranians speak Iranian."
I told him most Americans don't know the capital of Iran or where Iran is on a map. We both laughed at this and got into a conversation about education in the United States versus other countries. He explained that Iran, specifically Tehran, has very good universities. He named some of them but I had never heard of them, although I would have guessed there was a University of Tehran, if pressed. He said this university was the best in the area but very competitive and hard to get into. I jokingly asked if Tehran had a football team and he laughed.
"We play football, but Americans call it soccer. American football is an interesting sport, but I do not understand it."
Most foreigners describe American sports in this way and they enthusiastically agree that even more confusing than our version of football is the sport of baseball.
When I asked him what brought him to the United States, he was very quick to bring up the current political and religious climate of his country. In fact, I always ask my Uber drivers, foreigners or not, this question, although sometimes I ask about the area and not the country.
"There is only a small handful of people who have the power, and these assholes are making it hard to live. They have the money, they have the power. I know our government was giving money to terrorists to hurt the United States. Religion is the cause of all the problems in my country."
I was floored. He went on to say how beautiful Iran is, but how much better it was decades ago- like, 40-50 years ago. In fact, his family used to vacation in Iraq, but that was before Saddam.
The uber driver from Jerusalem had only been in the U.S. for a few months and his english was at about a 4th or 5th grade level- good enough to understand what he was trying to say. He moved to Los Angeles to be with family and was working as a baker. This was one of the few difficult conversations to have because he told me he was Palestinian and I had some Jewish friends. As it turns out, so does he! You would never know that a Jew and a Palestinian could be friends by watching the news.
It is amazing what you can learn from someone during a short ride from the airport to the hotel. What I have learned is that most of the people who come to the U.S. are not the people we hear about on the news. The MSM covers the fringe, on all topics, and does not represent the overwhelming majority of people who are just normal about life.
The mixed reactions I get from foreigners about homelessness and the people begging on the streets are very interesting to me. Some drivers become visibly upset and excited while others are calm, almost saddened by the conversation- like most people in the U.S. While there are many different viewpoints on how to handle the homelessness situation, these drivers I talk to have the same base sentiment- it is a pity there are so many homeless in the United States; why are there so many homeless in the United States? But their "why" comes from a different angle.
Why is there so much homelessness and people begging for money in the streets when they live in the greatest country? Why are they begging for money when there is so much opportunity here?
This statement is common, but the delivery is one of the two methods I previously stated. The guy from Jerusalem was banging on his steering wheel while the guy from Iraq was calm.
We have all seen the effects of government assistance and how it can be both beneficial and detrimental. I am not going to get into the politics behind it since it doesn't really matter which side is in control of our government. Neither side really cares and re-election is the most important thing to our politicians. It is a shame Americans do not stew on this more often- it would make life much better, I imagine.
Most Americans are a car accident away from being in ruin- one hospital tragedy away. Most Americans don't have a savings plan, a 401k, a source of cash flow if they lose their job. Government assistance is a good thing and Clinton, piggy backing on reagan era legislation, really changed the way the welfare program is implemented- for the better. However, our welfare programs constitute $1T in annual spending. That's one trillion. A million million. A one with 12 zeros. 10 to the 12th power. Most people hear a trillion dollars and just think, "Damn, that's a butt load of money", myself included. For such a large amount of tax spending, I often wonder if there is a better use of that money.
Homelessness is a complicated issue surrounded by a lot of negative stigma, stereotypes and misinformation. Some were forced into it, but some prefer it. If a person prefers to live in a tent on the shores of the American River, or on the sidewalks of Portland, and beg for change instead of work then that is their choice, and the beauty of this country. What I don't like is my tax money distribution to help them- not that we have the choice to delegate a percentage of our taxes to government programs, but you understand my point.
All other conversations are irrelevant to me- it is none of my business that these people might be lazy and prefer tents over cubicles, that they can live off the government instead of a steady paycheck, that their morals and work ethic are different than mine. I do care how my tax money is used to help them. the money I give them on the streets is a different story.
I never stood why people get so angry when they give a panhandler a pocket full of change or a few bills and then get mad when the person runs into the nearest liquor store for smokes and a bottle. What did the person think the panhandler was going to do with $1.44 in change- clean themselves up for an interview for that manager position down at PetSmart? I just assume that is what bums do with the money I give them- purchase something that will make their shitty lives not so shitty, if just for a few minutes.
An interesting twist to all of this is the homelessness problem in Hawaii. I was stationed there for 15 years and I recall seeing a lot of homeless on Waikiki Beach. Mostly locals, which blew the "You never see Asians panhandling" stereotype out the window. Here is a really good article by a guy who talked to two homeless people in Hawaii called 6 Insane Realities of Being Homeless In Hawaii. The author lists the three main reasons people are homeless in Hawaii, and those reasons may or may not be applicable to the homeless outside of the island nation.
Bringing back around, there will always be homeless, there will always be poor people. And they all need our help in some form or another. My issue, along with the immigrant Uber drivers I talk to, is that if you are able bodied and can't make it in America, then that's your choice. Somewhere along the line there was probably a poor decision that was made, albeit a minor one at the time that did not foreshadow the hard times to come.
Are taxpayers responsible for these poor decisions?
- Should we be responsible for supporting a single mother with two children fathered by two different men who has empty cupboards?
- What about a stay-at-home mother/wife who was divorced and has no way of supporting her children because the father skips out on his child support?
- The 20-something who went into debt for her gender studies degree and now has a hard time getting a job because there are no gender studies factories in her area?
- The 30-something who is massively in tuition debt because of his MBA who was just let go from his job because his company was bought out by an overseas firm?
- The 70-something whose husband just died and had very little to leave behind to his widow?
- The homeless alcoholic/drug addict with mental health issues who screams at people on the corner?
All of these people need our help, of course. Bad luck and poor decisions are part of everyday life. But that $1T could probably be spent really helping these people.
Does giving them shopping carts really help? What about cell phones- how many people with government issued cell phones turn their lives around? Are free condoms and needles really making a dent in the homeless situation?
I don't know, but it makes people feel better and in today's society that's all that matters.