Five years ago today, my daughter Nicole was making her way back to Uganda from a London/Macedonia trip with her sister Carol Linn. Carol Linn was on her way home, but Nicole was stuck in Dubai. When she called me in the middle of the night five years ago, I had never heard of Dubai. All I heard and understood from her words was she was stuck in an Arab airport. This is what I envisioned:
Here is the reality:
Even though she wasn’t sleeping on a dirt floor, I got myself in a tizzy over her dire circumstances. I didn’t sleep for four days while I cried and called everyone I could think of to help my daughter. Nicole spent the 4th of July and the eve of her birthday on the 9th in this airport, with the potential of spending a month there by herself. I was relentless.
In the meantime, Nicole had a mind altering experience that defined what it means to be an American. I wanted to share that experience with my readers on our country’s birthday.
Here is her story in her own words from her email updates:
Sent: Monday, July 13, 2008
Well, I’m back home… in Uganda…This has been a very eventful two weeks, I concluded my stay in Macedonia, went back to London for a night, and made it back to Uganda with a few hiccups… In that time, the fourth of July, and my 21st birthday elapsed. So, I hope you enjoyed barbeques, and fireworks, and when I see you, you owe me a drink to celebrate my b-day!!!
This email won’t really be about Africa either… Sorry! But I will tell you about the long road (or I guess air stretch) that got me back here, because it’s been quite impactful. Very long story short, in a situation beyond my control I missed my Emirates flight to Dubai from London, and got put on stand-by. When I finally arrived in Dubai (the capitol of the United Arab Emirates) I had missed my connecting flight to Uganda by twenty minutes…
I wasn’t too worried about it though. How popular could a flight to Entebbe, Uganda be? I figured I could easily get on the next flight…
I marched up to transfers, confident that whatever the situation, I would be able to talk my way through. Not so. There is only one Emirates flight a day that leaves for Entebbe, and every flight was overbooked until July 28th. Also, since I had flown stand-by from Heathrow to Dubai and missed my flight to Uganda, I had not arrived as a confirmed passenger and would not be leaving as a confirmed passenger, so I had no priority.
I laughed loudly as I received the news because that is always my first reaction in unfavorable, out-of-my-control situations. I tried all my usual persuasive skills to secure a spot on the flight for the next morning, but my confidence dropped from the overbooked plane filled sky and shattered on the Arab filled stand-by desk. I was left with my naivety…
I had failed to realize that I was on the other side of the world with people who don’t speak English well; who, for legitimate reasons, do not like Americans and are especially not fond of American women; that I had a crazy story that was not easy to explain; and that my smile did not pull any weight.
I finally broke down on the phone with my mom, describing the situation, and she immediately started calling around pleading my case with the Emirates offices in New York and Dubai. I made my way through every Emirates employee at the Dubai airport telling my story and pleading for help in any way. I smiled; I sobbed; I spoke calmly; I yelled; I blamed the airline for seriously overbooking their flights; I spoke of my work with orphans… to blank faces, to no avail.
I received no form of accommodation or affirmation that getting on the flight was a possibility. I tried getting to Nairobi, or Addis Ababa–no option costing less than five-hundred dollars. I don’t have that kind of money; volunteering doesn’t make you rich by the way… I couldn’t even justify spending the money it would cost to leave the airport, and a hotel was out of the question when there were perfectly good floors. I wandered the airport alone, feeling like Tom Hanks in The Terminal.
The foreign languages, smells, prayers (five times a day), and culture overwhelmed me. I was tired and angry, and as I looked around at the edge of my hopelessness, I thought: all these people look like they’re going to blow up my plane anyway. My racism shocked me and immediately made me sick to my stomach. I began to deal with a set of issues that have never surfaced before because I’ve never come face to face with my hidden prejudices. I was so angry that they hated me and that they judged my blonde hair, I didn’t even stop to think about why or about what would happen if the situation had been reversed (the person in my shoes would have no chance… could you imagine?)
I’ve traveled enough to know that Americans aren’t well liked anywhere these days, but I never knew the true weight I carried when I flashed my passport. When I leave the sea to shining sea, I carry the burden of the ignorance we have let the people in our country develop; I carry every act of racism and persecution; I carry responsibility for every war we’ve waged… We have drastically screwed up our worldly reputation, and that’s not ok, because we need this whole world, whether we think we do or not. I conflictedly sifted through my thoughts as I walked end to end of the terminal, over and over, waiting for the Emirates shift to change, so I could plead with the next batch of employees.
Round two of fresh faces and fresh tears resulted in encouragement to go outside the airport to look for lodging because they couldn’t accommodate an unconfirmed passenger. They assured me that my visa would not be a problem… because I was American. And it hit me, that whether or not we have a good reputation right now, I am still free… and not just in my own country, but in the world as well. I am free to go anywhere and everywhere my heart desires. I am free to dislike our government’s choices, and I am free to voice a call to change. I am consistently in countries where it is nearly impossible for their citizens to get out because no other nation will issue them a visa. I am in countries with people who have limited voices because their country keeps them silent… And, at the end of the day, I’d rather be free, than well liked…
I held my head high through every further eye roll and stare down, proud to hold the passport that I do, embracing the good and bad that comes with it, and promising myself that I will always live above the world’s perception of Americans. I did end up making it out on the flight the next morning, in huge part because of my mom’s incredible motherly rage, bawling on my behalf, and because an amazing Emirates employee took pity on me during my thirty-fourth, not entirely fake, break down.
I hope you all got to celebrate the 4th, embracing our freedom, and the greatness of our country. I am thankful for everyone that is out there right now serving our nation, striving to keep our freedoms intact. I hope you all live encouraged that no matter what our current reputation in the world may be, we are free to change it. I know I plan to 🙂
I am now back in action in Uganda and have overflowing gratitude that I have the capability to be here. I feel like I have caught my breath and am fully ready to submerge once again into this continent, empowering its people to live free, no longer captives to the cycles of their history. I am thankful for all of you, and can’t believe you actually read my emails… sorry they’re so long!