CONVERSATIONS WITH MAINE

Patriotism rekindled by Ethiopian cabdriver in Texas

Downtown Houston, seen from midtown just before dawn.
Downtown Houston, seen from midtown just before dawn.
Posted Feb. 09, 2012, at 11:29 a.m.
Last modified Feb. 09, 2012, at 3:51 p.m.

Whenever I travel I learn something new, or at least I renew my perspective on the old. My husband had a six-day conference in Houston, Texas, this past week, so I went along for the ride. It wasn’t exactly vacation together, since he had full 9-hour days, but I filled most of my time exploring our nation’s fourth largest city on foot. I learned a lot about Houston, but the most lasting impression came early, from an unexpected source.

As with most cities, Houston is populated by people from all over the world. During those few days I met more internationals, in fact, than native Texans — from France, England, Mexico, India, Ireland, Germany and El Salvador.

On our trip from George Bush Intercontinental Airport to downtown Houston, we struck up a bit of conversation with our taxi driver. He was Ethiopian and had lived in Houston for five years. He came, he explained, on a “DV,” a diversity visa, which I had never heard of. I learned that it is a Department of State program that encourages countries with low immigration numbers to send people to the U.S. Just 55,000 are chosen each year from around the globe, by lottery, to receive a visa and try to make a life in the U.S. Chances of being selected are around 1 to 2 percent, so it is highly rare to be offered a DV.

It begins with luck, strict eligibility requirements and the diligence to fill out the proper forms. After that, success is based on effort.

They don’t know where they will be sent.

“I only knew about New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles,” our driver told us cheerfully. “But they said Houston, and I said, okay, I am going to Houston.”

He asked where we were from and when he heard “Maine” he asked about snow.

“I saw snow for the first time a couple of years ago when a little bit fell in Houston. It did not stay long.”

“Did you make a snowball?” asked my husband.

“Yes, I did,” he laughed. “A little one!”

When he first arrived in the city, he said, it was very difficult because he knew no English. They provided him with a cleaning job and lodging for six months. He soon signed up for a class in English as a Second Language, or ESL. He knew how important it was and studied hard to learn the language.

He learned to drive, got his license, and eventually saved up enough money to buy his own car and work as a taxi driver. Eventually, he hopes to earn enough to bring his parents and his fiancee to America from Ethiopia. And, he went on with high enthusiasm, he will become a U.S. citizen in two months.

He has begun work toward his next goal by studying accounting. He is good with numbers, he says, and would like to become a CPA.

We asked about life in Ethiopia, and wondered if many people try to become U.S. citizens.

“Yes!” He seemed surprised that we asked. “This is really a wonderful country you have — so much opportunity.”

This man, it suddenly occurred to me, is the embodiment of the spirit that founded our nation. He is a man filled with hope and gratitude for a new start in a land of opportunity, a man determined to work himself as hard as it takes to make the most of what this country has to offer him.

Sometimes I read the news and forget that we are still that country. I get jaded by stalemates in politics, greed in the workplace, cynicism and a general sense of entitlement rather than obligation. This Ethiopian-soon-to-be-American filled my heart with pride and patriotism.

I stand corrected. In ignorance, I have been guilty of stereotyping Texas as a place of belligerent flag-waving and narrowmindedness. But there is so much more to any place populated by 2 million people. In an unexpected kind of conversion, I left Texas feeling like waving an American flag.

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at robin.everyday@gmail.com.

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