Occasionally something happens to put real life into perspective — even when I am living inside the noise that is a presidential campaign.
I had first noticed the exhausted young family at the O’Hare International Airport gate in Chicago Wednesday afternoon, as I was waiting to board my connection from Iowa to New Hampshire. They were a couple with two children — a baby and a toddler, who was sprawled out sleeping on the floor of the terminal. It turned out they were in the row behind me on the plane.
As we got off in Manchester, the gate agent pulled me aside. “Could you keep an eye on them?” she asked. They didn’t speak any English, and seemed mystified by the baggage claim. That was when I noticed the International Organization for Migration card the father was wearing on a string around his neck. It identified them as Congolese refugees. Their bag — a bag, not luggage — came off the belt. It was no bigger than my own suitcase, and I assume it contained everything they owned.
No one was there to meet them, so I called the phone number of the sponsor named on his badge. I got routed to another number — in New York, I think. They had no idea who these people were. I dug through the paperwork in the plastic bag the man had carried on the plane, looking for a case number.
I didn’t find one amid the evidence of the bureaucratic maze they had had to negotiate to get here: State Department documents, health records, ID photos.
Even so, there had been a glitch. A horrible one. The social services agency was expecting a different family, later that night, but not them. So I sat down with them to wait while things got straightened out. Their toddler was gobbling the little bag of snack mix from the plane, so I went to the food court and brought back the most nutritious meal I could find, turkey sandwiches on bagels.
The TSA guy by the baggage claim turned out to have been a refugee himself from Cameroon, 10 years ago, after he had gotten on the wrong side of the government there. He was able to talk to them, and told me they had been traveling for two days — from Tanzania, to Kenya, to Dubai, to Chicago, and now here to New Hampshire. They were fleeing one of Africa’s longest and most brutal wars, one that rarely makes the front pages of American newspapers. And one that never gets mentioned in a presidential campaign where immigration has been Topic A.
About two hours later, a caseworker arrived. He worked for Ascentria, an organization formerly known as Lutheran Social Services of New England. They were working on finding the family a hotel room for the night, but he was worried, because he hadn’t known to bring a car seat for the baby. (I told him I was sure the rental car counter could help out on that one.) Under normal circumstances, there would have been an apartment waiting for them, stocked with food for a week.
I’m sure a better life awaits them here, after the horror they were fleeing in Africa. As for me, I’m grateful to this brave little family. I will think of them the next time I get overwrought by the hassles of my own privileged, first-world traveling life.
A flight delay, a middle seat, bad WiFi — that no longer seems like such a trial.
Karen Tumulty covers politics for The Washington Post.