Sonder, or Riding the Bus with Refugees

What follows is an incredible essay shared by one of our bus riding volunteers, Rachel Forde. Take a few moments to read and we know that you’ll be inspired, challenged, and refreshed, just like we were. Enjoy!


Sonder

n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

-John Koenig, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

It was one of those situations that happens from time to time when you ride the bus: you approach your stop just a half minute too late, and you’re left watching helplessly as the connecting bus you were hoping to catch peels around the corner and disappears down the street, leaving you dejected on the sidewalk. Sometimes it’s the fault of traffic, sometimes it’s just an incident of poor timing in the complicated system that is Metro Transit. You settle in for a long wait, which in our case was thirty minutes, as it was in the blue hours of the evening and the 3A dwindles in frequency after rush hour. But “settling in” is relative when there isn’t a shelter at your stop and it’s a cold November night.

We were just practicing; there was no doctor’s appointment or class to get to so there was no real rush. Mostly we stood around with our hands in our coat pockets, occasionally practicing the traditional Minnesota folk dance I call the “polar vortex shuffle.” The Bhutanese couple I was with spoke only a little English, and my Nepali was limited to greetings and food, so the story of the little family I waited with was still hidden from me, behind a veil of pleasant smiles and gestures. Their four-year-old son was quiet and well-behaved, but I still felt bad that he had to wait so long, so I let him watch an episode of Curious George on my phone until I saw the familiar orange signboard of the next bus coming up Rice Street, and our wait was over.

I always wonder about the stories. I am a “Bus Buddy” for MCC’s Refugee Services. Typically, I meet clients at their first Jump Start class, where they learn how to ride the bus, and after the class is over, I escort them back to their homes to make sure they get there safely and know how to get to class the next morning on their own. Metro Transit is not always the most intuitive system and it’s easy to get lost when you’ve only been in the Twin Cities for three weeks and have no memorized geography. But when you don’t have other transportation options, be it for economic reasons or disability, a bus line near your house is a pathway to freedom.

Being a bus rider shapes you in surprising ways. You pay more attention to the weather, as you will be standing in it a lot. You develop a mental map of your city that is alien to people who drive—ask me for directions by car and you will receive a look of panic. Ask me how to get to the Mall of America Transit Center from any given point in the cities, however, and I will fire off three or four options, with relevant details such as which routes are the fastest, which ones require the fewest transfers and the least amount of time spent waiting at a bus stop, and where the coffee shops are so you don’t have to stand twenty minutes out in the cold. I spend a lot of time in the urban core, as where the buses go determines where I live, where I work, and how I spend my leisure time.

But most of all, while sitting in a car is a solitary act, riding the bus is communal. You recognize people, even if you never speak to them. You calculate personal space, and read people’s body language, and pay attention to where the route goes, who rides your bus, and what it says about socioeconomics, race, segregation, and justice. You become acutely aware of your own latent prejudices.  You wonder about the people around you—the pasty white kid with the clown makeup and the trench coat and the bolts in his ears. The black woman across from him, still wearing her work uniform, tired and watching videos on her phone after a long shift at Burger King. The elderly Somali woman with her bags of groceries, sharing a seat with the boy with the nose-ring and the pink streaks in his hair. They are all on their way to somewhere. You’re wondering about them; maybe they wonder about you.

On a recent assignment, I helped an Iraqi woman and her mother back to their apartment in the north metro. They were on their way home, and in keeping with the humbling value that their culture places on hospitality, they invited me up to their apartment for lunch. It had snowed the night before, heavy, wet snow that coated everything and still looked fresh and clean. We sat by the window and ate apples and cookies and drank sweet, milky tea, and practiced our English and Arabic.

“Snow,” she kept saying, each time looking out over the parking lot with a kind of wistfulness. “Nice.”

She and her mother had been in the country only three weeks, following a brother who had arrived a couple of years earlier. She was worried about finding her way to class the next morning, and other things, I’m sure. I don’t know what it’s like to be a refugee. I don’t know what it’s like to have to say goodbye to everything you thought your life was going to be, and to have to start over in a place where it’s cold and it snows. I’m happy that they are here and are a part of our community, but I wish it was under better circumstances, and by their choice.

I don’t try to define them as “refugees,” because that is only a part of their story. A very dramatic part of their story, to be sure, but people heal from trauma and grow and become and write their own new chapters. In my own story, I am the protagonist, but in theirs, I’m only a side-character. When I was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 16, I hardly understood what it would mean to never be able to drive—how that would determine where I lived, where I built my future, the kind of opportunities that would be open to me and the values I would adopt. Being a transit user has its challenges, but in those few hours where the plot of my story briefly intertwines with those who have come to this country seeking safety and a future, I feel like I’ve been entrusted with something holy and consecrated, and I don’t see myself as disabled anymore, but as privileged beyond measure.

 

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