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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Death dents immigrant family dream

Hifsa Ahmad with a picture of her husband,

Hifsa Ahmad with a picture of her husband, Farhan Zahid, with their daughter, Mishal, left, and sons, Ahaan and Ayan. Credit: James Carbone

There is a sameness to households beset by death. Food is everywhere, casseroles and aluminum pans and platters. The smallest children, too young to understand, are ebullient, then shushed. The older ones help watch the littlest. The adults are shaken by circumstance, and consumed by the pressing chores of sudden mortality, and an uncertain future.

But in the Bay Shore home where Pakistani immigrant Hifsa Ahmad lives with her three children and mourns her husband, there sits a reminder that this is an immigrant family pursuing the American dream, still within a striver’s grasp, and enduring the hardships of that quest, still daunting.

Where the kitchen meets the living room, there is a single bed where her brother sleeps.

This is an Uber and Lyft family, ride-sharing toward stability and prepping for the next step on the economic ladder — prosperity.

Ride-sharing is today’s turn-of-the-century pushcart, a business/job whose outcomes depend on work ethic. Uber and Lyft drivers can work 12 hours a day on either app. An efficient driver willing to put in 84 hours a week in this region can clear $100,000 to $150,000 a year before expenses. And if you don’t own a car, the companies will lease you one.

But like so many of the ways immigrants have created lives here, from building railroads to digging coal to erecting steel in the sky, ride-sharing can be difficult and dangerous.

Farhan Zahid, 32, was killed Saturday while Ubering four young people who’d chosen to drink responsibly. Three passengers in his car also died, another remains in critical condition. The driver who crossed the centerline on Montauk Highway in Quogue and struck Zahid’s car died, too; police say he was speeding and marijuana was found in the car.

Tuesday night, sitting in her living room with family, Ahmad said 10 or 15 of their family members do Uber and Lyft.

I have also driven for those companies for three years, because the work situations for me and my wife keep us apart much of the time and my daughter’s college tuition bills need to be paid.

But Zahid, who drove in New York City before bringing his business closer to home a few years ago, was more typical. A study from The New School found 90% of city ride-share drivers are immigrants. Ahmad said her husband drove more in the past but 40-50 hours a week lately, while pursuing a master’s degree in IT. "He did it at night," she said, "so he could spend days with the children. He drove enough to pay the bills while he worked toward something better."

But Ahmad also said her husband complained of increasingly dangerous drivers and customers who often cursed and once or twice struck him, who trashed his car. Ahmad’s brothers said they encounter that, too. Having done over 5,000 rides without being meaningfully mistreated, I think that’s anti-immigrant xenophobia.

So when people claim upward mobility is dead in this country, ride-sharing proves it’s still achievable. But it is not an easy path.

The abuse frustrated Zahid. The danger killed him. There is a GoFundMe. If we could remember the agony of Ahmad and drive with care, it would be a blessing. If we could stop abusing immigrants, it would be a kindness. And if we could help Ahmad and her three children, ages 6, 3 and 16 months, we’d be living up to the American dream.

Columnist Lane Filler's opinions are his own.