He pulls into the driveway and turns off the car. With tears in my eyes, I reach out to shake his hand. He leans in for a hug and we hold it for a while. I struggle to keep it together.
“Thank you for telling me your story” I say.
“Thank you for caring” he replies.
I grab my bags and swing the door shut. He waits in the driveway until I enter the house safely. I don’t look back.
Aba* smiles at me as I open the door, showing a mouth full of pearly whites. We get chatting straight away, and I ask whether he was born in Australia.
“I am from Rwanda” he says. “Rwanda is an African country near Uganda and the Congo. I have been in Australia three years now. I come to Australia to do my Masters with my wife and two little children. We had only $3000 in our bank account and we didn’t know where we were going to live or what we were going to do for work. Our English was very bad. I only speak French….”
He was unassuming and kind. I continued asking the standard Uber questions, but with a little more earnestness. “Most people ask these questions” he says, “but they don’t really want to listen”.
I asked him if he missed home.
“I don’t miss home, because home for me is not like home for you. I lost my parents and my brothers and sisters in mass killings when I was 16, a million dead in three months. I have nothing to miss, not really.”
I ask him if that was during the Rwandan genocide, with the Tutsis and the Hutus. He responds with, “you know about that?”, shocked that a young western woman would know of the genocidal mass slaughter of almost a million Rwandans over 100 days in 1994. (If we did, where were we? Why didn’t we do anything?) I told him I had seen Hotel Rwanda and he nodded. “That’s the one. But it was worse than that. It is something you can never explain, something too horrific to think about. But I remember it. I see every image and yet, I can’t describe it. I can’t say it, not even now…”
Aba stares out at the road ahead and I shy away in my passenger seat, watching the cars drive by, their lights like ribbons in the wind. I remember sobbing on a beanbag at a Rwandan charity evening after watching Hotel Rwanda, unable to process just how evil humans can be. The scene where the car is driving along a bumpy road at night, only to discover that all those bumps are human bodies haunts me.
And yet here before me is a survivor, a survivor that not only saw it, but felt it.
“In our first week in Australia my family lived in a hotel, but we couldn’t afford it after that, so we moved to a hostel out of town. We were paying $500 for one room of bunk beds, and if they were busy more people would come and stay in our room too. It was hard, you know? We were running out of money very quickly and no one would give us a house- we didn’t have a rental history and we didn’t have enough money for bond. Most were asking for $6000 for 6 months. I didn’t even have $1000 to my name. So, one day I caught a train and thought to myself: I will just get off somewhere. I will just get off anywhere.”
He tells me he gets off at Parramatta station, an hour out of Sydney, and enters the first real-estate agent he passes on the main street. He talks to an agent and begs for a house. He tells him his story with faith in his heart and love in his eyes. He would give him every dollar his family owned. The man said he’d talk to his manager and to come back and see him in a couple of days.
Two days later he returned to the real estate agent with his wife, his four-month old, his two-year-old and their two bags of possessions. The man was moved by their sincerity and their need. He handed over a key to a unit in Blacktown and said: ‘Don’t tell my boss but go, go and move in and we’ll talk paperwork next week. Just get out of that damn hostel’. He walked up the road with his family and their bags and they moved under their first very own Australian roof. No bed, no mattress, no cutlery. Just two bags and each other. A week later they signed the papers and found a mattress on the side of the road. His wife was working, and he found a job too. He continued studying his Masters full time.
And then they struck luck, or maybe his Faith gave them a deserving gift. His wife got a promotion. They got permanent residency. He signed a contract for a full-time job. He bought a piece of land that, by the time it was registered, had doubled in value and thus no longer required a deposit. His two-storey house with a double garage is now being built. His children have just started at private schools. They have a bed to sleep on.
He calls his Australian life his resurrection. His second chance from his loving God. And he loves our country fiercely.
“I always hear people complaining that they will never be able to afford a house in this country and it makes me sad you know? Because I’ve only been here three years and I came with nothing. I have two children and a wife to provide for and I did it.” He did not speak boastfully, but with a kind of sadness. It was then that I understood the depth of my entitlement. The weight of my ignorance. My desperation to have things easy and to have things now.
I used to take out my phone when in an Uber. It was an automatic thing, like pulling out your phone when you’re on the toilet at work, or at a bus stop, or when your friend goes to the bathroom at a restaurant and you tell yourself you’ll look weird if you’re not doing SOMETHING. In an Uber, pulling out your phone builds a wall. We take comfort behind that wall, happy we don’t have to engage in surface level conversation with a stranger we’ll never see again. But the last few conversations I’ve had have taught me differently.
Uber has given a lot of people a chance to live. One girl I rode with was paying medical bills. Another was paying for his son’s education because he didn’t have a chance at a good education himself. Another was sending his earnings back home, so his family could eat and live and send his nieces and nephews to school. How many opportunities have Uber-users missed by pulling out their damned phones? How many people had stories they were willing to share if only a stranger cared about the questions they asked?
Aba taught me a lot about faith. He taught me a lot about my own privilege. He reminded me to listen and to think about what truly matters in my life. A Bible verse that has stayed with me, long past my Christian upbringing, seems fitting to leave at the end of this story in respect to Aba…
“Do not forget to entertain strangers, for they may be angels in disguise” – Hebrews 13:2
*Name changed for privacy