A Driving Lesson and a Life Lesson: Mario’s Story
Some of you know that to pay the bills as I finish up my doctoral program at Boston College I teach drivers’ education for a few hours every weekend. It’s also why I pray! In all seriousness, though, I consider this to be work consistent with a pro-life ethic and work that I try to do well. Very rarely, though, does a driving lesson affect me as profoundly as the lesson I had on July 30, 2016. On this particular afternoon, I was filling out paperwork when a young man named Mario came into the office. There had been a scheduling error and Mario was left stranded without an instructor, and so I volunteered to help out. That’s how Mario and I ended up doing a lesson together. He taught me far more than I taught him that day.
As we drove around the city, this 21-year-old shared with me the story of how he ended up in Worcester, Massachusetts. It is a story that begins in his hometown of Baghdad. Mario described the violence in the war-torn city, and how normalized violence had become for children growing up in Iraq. Kids would compete in the morning to see who could find the most shells on the rooftops from the nights of gunfire. Finding dead bodies in the river was commonplace and not shocking at all. His family fled the violence, escaping to Fallujah, only to find the situation there was no better. At one point, his father became the victim of a bombing. Although he was taken to the hospital for emergency surgery, his family was not notified. They assumed he had been killed in the attack, only to find out after weeks of worry and grief that he had survived.
The family made another attempt to escape the violence, this time making their way towards the border with Syria. En route, they were captured by opposition forces and taken hostage. I teared up when Mario said, “I thought we were going to be executed.” He was only 14 at the time. His siblings were even younger. A local cleric intervened, vouching for the family and saving their lives. Eventually, they made it to Syria and gained refugee status there, but when the civil war broke out, the conditions made it necessary to move again. Lutheran Social Services worked with the U.N. to bring Mario and his family to Worcester.
Now, Mario is a college student, living with his family in peace, and working towards a career in pharmacy. I invite him each semester to speak with my students at Anna Maria College so that they might hear a personal story about refugees instead of debating the topic in the abstract, as if we were not talking about real people just like ourselves. With his mix of honesty and humor, he tells his story and answers questions with the poise and wisdom of someone twice his age. I, for one, am deeply grateful that he is here and that his family is safe at last.
Worcester takes in about 500 refugees a year. There are three organizations that handle the process, two of which are religious: Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services (now called Ascentria Care Alliance). This common work for the good of refugees is one example of what the bishops at Vatican II meant when they described the joint work that can be accomplished in the ecumenical movement: Catholics and Protestants “engage more intensively and more cooperatively in fulfilling those duties toward the common good of humanity which are demanded by every Christian conscience” [Unitatis Redintegratio, 4].
Together, we are fulfilling the words of Isaiah the prophet: “Thus says the LORD: Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn… If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday.” For Mario and his family, the light has shined brightly.
“You are the light of the world,” Jesus said. “A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” In America, I like to think that it is the same light that Lady Liberty holds high in New York Harbor, a light held aloft by many people of different religions and of none, good people all, who fulfill the Lord’s command whether they recognize it or not—people who say to Mario and his family, “Welcome! We are so glad you are safe. We are so glad you are here.”