First World Problems

Posted 02.14.2011

Egypt10 My college senior son and his friends have a phrase they use with each other when one of them starts griping about something that is really inconsequential. After one of them rants for a while, another one will call a stop by reminding the one who’s ranting, “First world problems.”  It’s a perspective reset. The recent events in Eqypt are such a reset. Last week, I got a reset of my own.

I was in Atlanta for a meeting with some coaching colleagues. On Friday night, we piled into a couple of taxi vans for a 30 minute ride to dinner at the home of one of our hosts. I sat up front with the cab driver, Ismail Akubar.  Ismail was a friendly guy and we quickly fell into a non-stop conversation that lasted the length of the ride. Here’s what I learned from Ismail.

He’s 41 years old (looks ten years younger) and grew up under a dictatorship in Somalia.  After years of civil war, he left Mogadishu in 1991 just before the Black Hawk Down incident.  From there, he spent seven years in a refugee camp in Kenya.  He came to Atlanta in 1998.  I asked him out of all the places in the world that he could have moved to after the refugee camp, why Atlanta?  He smiled, laughed softly and said, “I didn’t have a choice.  I was part of a refugee relocation program and Atlanta is where they sent me.” 

Ismail’s first year in Atlanta was challenging. He didn’t know anyone and didn’t have the credit history to sign a lease. After about a year, he found a Somali friend with credit who co-signed a lease for his first apartment. He got a job at the Hertz service counter at the Atlanta airport which he had until the 2008 recession. He’s been driving a taxi since then.  He told me that compared to working at Hertz, driving a taxi is a little like gambling because you never know when you’re going to get paid. It can be a long wait between fares.

Egypt11 Our conversation really took off when we started talking about the revolution in Egypt that had climaxed earlier in the day with the departure of Hosni Mubarak. The joy and excitement in Ismail’s face and voice were unrestrained. The two of us broke down the events that led to the victory in Tahrir Square like a couple of guys whose team had just won the Super Bowl (or the World Cup depending on your preferences). Ismail told me that he had been on Facebook throughout the day with his Somali friends in the States, in Africa and around the world and they were all saying, “We need to do in Somalia what they did in Egypt.”  Of course, that desire for freedom is not just limited to Somalia. The citizens’ uprisings that started in Tunisia and then moved to Egypt are, according to reporting in the Financial Times, spreading to Algeria, Yemen and, once again, Iran.

People want to be free. Late in our ride together, I asked Ismail what’s it like to suddenly end up in the United States after spending the first 28 years of your life under dictators and warlords in Somalia and a refugee camp in Kenya.  With a distant look in his eyes, he exhaled softly and said,

“Man, this country, you can’t believe it. You can do anything here. When you live in a dictatorship, your life is not your own. They tell you everything you can and can’t do.  My father used to tell the story of going to the bank to withdraw money for the weekend.  The manager would say, ‘You can only withdraw a hundred dollars today.  That’s the limit.’  You couldn’t even take your own money out of the bank because the government is skimming it.  If you complained, they put you in jail.”

Ismail and his wife, who is also Somali, have five young boys. They have their own home.  She drives a school bus to help make ends meet.  Her job allows her to be with the boys after they get out of school at the end of the day.  They have their challenges, but they’re happy.  They’re free.  They want the same freedom for their friends back in Somalia.  They’re encouraged and excited by what’s happened so far in Tunisia and Egypt.  Ismail and his wife have their problems, but, on a relative basis, they’re first world problems.

What inspiration do you take from Ismail’s story or what citizen leadership has accomplished in Tunisia and Egypt?  What kind of perspective shifts do these stories create on problems you’re facing?