I saw something at an airport two weeks ago that I can’t get out of my head. As I approached the security line to pass through to my flight, I saw a man and two young children approach the first checkpoint. He spoke no English, and I could not tell where he was from or what language he did speak. He had a laminated badge hanging from a blue piece of royal blue yarn around his neck. His son, about age 5, was trying to be good and sticking close to his dad’s leg – his younger sister had found a fork, of all things, on the floor and was jabbing it into the air and smiling, trying to get her dad’s attention.
But her dad was preoccupied and anxious. And the woman working the security line was extraordinarily rude to him. First, she took one glance at him and his badge and dismissed him with her hand saying she had never seen anything like that. She didn’t even look him in the eye. Then she called for a supervisor. The man stepped aside – I tried to offer him a reassuring smile and to get a glance at his badge to see if I recognized it or if it had a note on it that would give us a clue about what he needed or where he was supposed to go. Then the woman looked at me, rolled her eyes and jerked her thumb towards him and mumbled some unkind words about him and how she didn’t need this in her day. I didn’t reply – but I also didn’t speak up. I should have.
The supervisor came over and immediately started saying that he couldn’t understand him – and he got louder each time he said it. I thought: it’s not going to help you help him if you just yell at him. He can’t understand you. Then a younger airport employee said, oh, that means that someone is going to meet him and take him somewhere (she referred to it as a volunteer group, I don’t know whether it was a non-profit organization or a church). At that point, the supervisor relented and his face even softened a bit. The man looked relieved, though a bit wary, and he was trying to placate his daughter so that she didn’t poke her own eye out with the fork or throw a tantrum because he took it away from her.
When I started putting my belongings through the conveyor belt – holding up my jeans up with one hand because I had to take my belt off, freezing because they asked me to take my cardigan sweater off, and trying to manage four bins with all of my odds and ends and a separate one for my laptop – I looked back to see the man still was trying to communicate to the TSA to explain his situation. And then I overheard an agent say, oh, he’s from Chile.
Oh…from Chile…so maybe everyone could have been a bit more caring and compassionate to this man traveling alone with two children (why alone?) that possibly had dealt with a tragedy of 7.9 proportions on the Richter scale. He’d possibly come to America out of desperation and hope – and his experience at the airport was terrible. I later saw him inside the terminal – so perhaps he was headed back to Chile or to another U.S. destination where he was going to be helped by generous Americans. He certainly wasn’t just here for a vacation.
And the reason I’ve been thinking about him over and over again is that I was reminded that we all have a role to play when it comes to representing America – and part of that responsibility is providing a kind word, a supportive gesture, a smile to those who come here out of hope, to experience what it’s like to be free, to be able to lean on someone in case their lives in their own country has been turned upside down. I’m well aware that not everyone comes to the U.S. with good intentions, but those people (and terrorists) are a distinct minority and we have these security checks and immigration laws for a reason. And I also know that this particular behavior was not typical of the TSA.
But all of us have a chance to be an ambassador for our country. I wish I’d have not been so selfish with my time and worried that I’d miss my flight (it ended up leaving 2 hours late anyway), and that I would have done the right thing and tried to assist the man and his children. The least I could have done was pried the fork out of the little girl’s hand and given her something else to play with.
I hope that wherever they are today that their first memories aren’t of the encounter I witnessed, but about the generosity and kindness of the organization that was willing to help them.
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