Thursday, February 5, 2009

Upstanding Citizens in Europe

I apologize for having kept you waiting, dear readers, but it has been yet another hectic three days of meetings, exams, trans-Atlantic negotiations, and work, work, work.

I need to tell you about a couple of people I met last Sunday on the way home to Cluj from Finland.


In the Helsinki airport I met a tall, light-skinned African man who told me he was a "White Somali" named Ahmed. We were sitting at the gate, waiting to board our flight to Budapest, Hungary. Ahmed clearly needed to talk to someone, so I listened, even after the silent frowner sitting between us rose, and went elsewhere to wait.

Ahmed said he has nine children, and a residence permit in Budapest, where he lives with four of his children, and no job. Technically, he says he has refugee status, as he shows me a UN ID card, because the White Somalis are presently a persecuted minority in their home country, and as such he receives a modest stipend from a refugee-relief agency. But, he also has a wife and five other kids in Somalia. So, Ahmed has been in Eastern Europe since 2005, hoping to find permanent work as a truck mechanic, so he can afford to bring his family from Somalia. He shows me a truncated finger to prove that he is a real mechanic. Then he says that he spent the money to fly to Helsinki because a Somali contact here had put him in touch with a potential employer, and that employer had told him to come on up for a talk. But once in Helsinki, that person had not appeared at the meeting place, and had not answered his telephone. So, Ahmed was heading home empty- handed.

That was an expensive disappointment, you say? Well, listen on, my friend.

In no way was Ahmed asking for a handout. He was clearly a proud man.

Ahmed can't find work because, while he can speak Russian, English, Arabic and several African languages, he can't read or write at all. He says he went first from Somalia to Moscow, then walked across Russia and the Ukraine to Hungary in 2005 and 2006. He nearly froze along the way, which took him the better part of two years. And every time he could work for a few months to save some money, the Ukrainian gangs would come and steal his money. He called them "bullies." But the police would do nothing for him. He thought them probably in cahoots with the gangs. Then, we were called for boarding.

We boarded to distant seats on the Finnair Airbus 320, and I didn’t see Ahmed again.


At the Budapest A/P I had a five-hour wait for my connection to Cluj-Napoca. I sat in a café near an outlet where I could power-up my laptop, and tried to access a wireless connection. Wireless was apparently out of service, so I played some MS-hearts. Nearby, a gentleman was sitting, and our eyes met. “Having a good trip?” I asked. “Not so far,” he replied in a recognizable Greek accent. “All my luggage was stolen, right from my side, in a Madrid Airport Hotel.”

As I soon learned, Loizos is a 67 year-old “Big Animal” Veterinarian from Nicosia, Cyprus, who had flown to Madrid to meet with a sheep breeder. It had to do with a shared interest in breeding sheep with a genetic resistance to a certain disease. But in Madrid, while he was talking with the desk clerk at his hotel, a thief or thieves had picked up his bags and disappeared. “And the hotel manager did not even apologize to me,” he said. (This scene was right out of the movie “The French Kiss.”)

“The farmer in Spain had told me that he wanted to meet with me, and said since he did not speak English well, he would hire an interpreter,” Loizos went on. “But when I called him from the Airport in Madrid, he said he did not have the money for an interpreter, and would not be coming into the city for our meeting. So I am flying home.”

Loizos and I talked for a couple of hours. He is a brilliant man, with a no-nonsense mind, and an iconoclastic wit. I really enjoyed the time we spent together. I promised to put him in touch with my equally brilliant and skeptical Amherst College (1961) roommate John Marshall Sellers, DVM, a farm-animal veterinarian in the Pennsylvania Dutch country.

Those two up-standings needed to be blogged. (I’ll try not to make you wait three days for the next posting.)

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