“So where are you from?” I asked the smartly dressed cab driver.
I wanted to start a polite conversation as he headed out of the airport and accelerated on the Bayshore Freeway towards downtown San Francisco. From experience, this kind of small talk fills the journey, but always gives insights about local geography, weather, football and politics. Cab drivers are like wikis.
“I’m from Eritrea”
“And where is that…?”
“Eritrea is a small country in East Africa”
“Aha…” I exclaimed with an appreciative tone.
“It is next to the Red Sea and surrounded by Sudan and Ethiopia on the other side. Ethiopia is actually 10 times bigger…but there was a war between the two countries.”
“Hmm…you are very lucky to have seen both worlds” I remarked.
“Yes, if I tell you my story, you would not believe it!”
“Really!” I encouraged him, looking outside as we passed the Bayview-Hunters Point.
“Eritrea has natural resources. It was a colony of Italy more than 100 years ago. Then it became a province of Ethiopia, becoming independent only 20 years ago. A war began with Ethiopia, where many people died. After the war things got worse…”
I looked at my phone to check the time. We were just crossing the Fallen Bridge Park area. The cab driver continued with his story.
“There is no freedom of religion in Eritrea. I had to escape to stay alive! I went to Sudan, and from there to Dubai, where I got a job, but they did not allow me to stay. I left for Peru, then to Bolivia, Columbia, and finally to Mexico…from where I ultimately came here. In most countries they would either ask me to go back to my country or go to jail!”.
We were in downtown San Francisco passing by the Moscone Center, named after George Moscone the famous Italian-American Mayor. I peered at the eye capturing SFMOMA, designed by a Swiss architect, one of the first museums dedicated to 20th century art.
Meanwhile it was quite amazing listening to the cab driver’s story. “How long did it take after you left Eritrea to arrive here in California?”
“It took me over 6 months, and it cost a lot of money. It was very dangerous. I crossed 15 countries before arriving here. It took time but finally I was granted residency and later I got my citizenship. This is my country now and it is a great country.”
“I am glad it has all worked out for you” I said in a congratulatory tone, as he processed my credit card payment using his sleek new iPhone.
What does it take to become a great country? I thought to myself as I headed to the 39th floor of the hotel to check out the breathtaking view of the penthouse restaurant called “The View”.
What role does the influx of fearless people play, in the development of a country?
I remembered reading somewhere that immigrants are twice as likely to start a new company. Apart from thousands of midsized companies that have created jobs, even some of the iconic companies in the US such as Google, eBay and AT&T have been founded by immigrants. It is reported that in the year 2006, the US accepted more immigrants as permanent residents than all other countries in the world combined.
Is “moving”, critical to evolution?
Later I read that the first anatomically modern humans probably expanded from the Eritrea region in Africa. According to a report in the Science magazine, the discovery of a 1.8 million year old skull has offered evidence that humanity’s early ancestors emerged from Africa, as a single adventurous species. Was there a risk of losing lives? Were they trying to escape from prowling saber-tooth tigers? Perhaps not much has changed even in modern times. There is still the “credible fear” of losing one’s life, but nowadays at the hands of human predators.
Here is another perspective on “moving” from the world of art. Italian-American artist Francesco Vezzoli has bought a church in Montegiordano, Italy. The church is without a roof, and almost in ruins. Francesco plans to "uproot" the entire 1500 sq ft church and reconstruct it brick-by-brick in the courtyard of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) PS1, in New York. The MoMA is dedicated to turning abandoned structures into contemporary art.
In his own words, Francesco is destroying a church by tearing it down, but also “saving it” at the same time. Would this church remain the same old church as before? Perhaps not. Would it ever become like a true church that was built for worship? Perhaps yes, if you consider art to be like religion with a following.
Where do we move next?
Rupert Murdoch said famously: “I’m a digital immigrant…my daughters on the other hand are digital natives. They’ll never know a world without ubiquitous broadband internet access…We may never become true digital natives, but we can and must begin to assimilate to their culture and way of thinking.” Amen.