With the refugee issue front and center in the political discourse, a story of hope and prosperity…
“Work as if you’ll live forever; pray as if you’ll live for 5 seconds.” That’s the motto of Walid Al Houssami.
You never know where you’ll find such wisdom. In this case, it came from my driver on the way to Detroit’s Metropolitan airport. A sage behind the wheel. (Actually this story’s about two wise men; the first, behind a steering wheel; the second, behind a laptop.)
Walid, his wife Najwa (a teacher) and kids moved to Detroit from Lebanon in 2001. Walid, nickname Weeda, had learned some English at school in Lebanon. The family chose Detroit because relatives had preceded them. “And,” he says, “family is No. 1 in my life.”
Having worked in HR in Lebanon, Weeda found an HR job with a quality control company in the auto industry. With the 2008 downturn, Weeda lost his job and his house. He went to work for a gas station, cleaning and refilling the pop cooler. “No problem,” he says about his gas station job. “I wasn’t ashamed.” He would have been ashamed, he says, if he had applied for welfare when “my health is good, thanks God.” (That’s a direct quote. Weeda’s English is a little spotty. But a helluva lot better than my Lebanese!)
“When my son catch me working at the gas station,” he says, he switched jobs. He became a driver for Metro Car.
The Al Houssami children flourished in the U.S. Their father insisted they learn to work. “If I give them $100, and they lose $20, it doesn’t mean anything to them. If they work for $20 and lose $5, they feel it.” Son Hassan, 35, is now national sales manager for UBC, an express scripts company. Daughter Leila, 30, is a store manager for Limited Express in NY.
Weeda’s children each have a son and a daughter. His 10 year old granddaughter, Najwa, was chosen to sing and dance as Moana in “The Lion King” on Broadway last June.
Weeda says, “God bless the USA and the American people.”
Weeda often drives for journalist/author Mitch Albom. He also drove for Mitch, his wife Janine and Chika. Chika’s the young Haitian orphan the Alboms, who never had children, took into their home and hearts. She’d been living in a Haitian orphanage the Alboms started funding after the devastating 2010 earthquake.
Chika had DIPG, a brain tumor, for which there was no treatment in Haiti. Assured that DIPG was fatal, the Alboms nonetheless brought this delightful child home to Franklin, MI, and did whatever they could to save her. In good times they took her to Disneyland, sledding, an aquarium, a mall. In bad times they took her to Ann Arbor, New York and Germany for medical treatment. After 23 months, Chika died from the tumor. She was 6.
As I’m out of town so often, I hadn’t heard the story. Weeda produced a section of the Detroit Free Press, with a long, heart-warming and heart-breaking article on the Alboms’ journey with Chika. It’s written in the direct, observant, sensitive style I admire in Mitch’s work. As Chika becomes more debilitated, Mitch writes, he carries her often. His doctor tells him he may have a hernia and should stop lifting heavy things.
Mitch writes, “He says I should stop, but I know I will not. Holding this little girl, her arms hooked around my neck, head cradled beneath my chin, is the most satisfying posture I have ever known.”
Toward the end of Chika’s life, Mitch relates a scene from Christmas day. Chika opens a gift, a red sweater. Janine leans over and kisses her. Janine asks, “’Do you want to kiss Mr. Mitch?’ She nodded and kissed my cheek with a spitty smack. Then Chika whispered, ‘Kiss each other.’ So we did, in front of her face, and Janine started to cry and said, ‘Thank you, angel.’ And with her good hand, Chika reached for the tissues and pulled one out and tried to dab Janine’s tears, which only made her cry more.”
Weeda’s proud to say that after 9 years without a home of his own, he bought a new house this year. He and Najwa recently celebrated their 45th anniversary. Weeda hopes to buy and operate his own car, allowing him to spend more time with family.
When Chika died, Mitch ordered Weeda’s car so its driver could attend Chika’s funeral. Weeda was there to say goodbye to the Alboms’ short-lived but extraordinary little girl.
Weeda says, “Mitch Albom is the Detroit Angel.”
Thanks, Weeda, for the ride and the story. And for being a fine example of what’s possible in America.