Now I have the United bastardization of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” stuck in my head. This comes from listening to the same recording approximately a quarter-gazillion times while on hold. I expected to awake this morning in Denver, but instead I learned a very valuable lesson about refugees. It went down like this: yesterday’s east coast storm over-performed while United Airlines under-performed. Seeing the forecast, I changed to an earlier flight to try to beat it out of Dodge. I arrived in Newark only to have my flight incrementally delayed until it was cancelled around 9:30. By this time all the hotels within 11 miles of the airport were booked solid from earlier cancellations. Taxis were running into Manhattan only. Access to New Jersey Transit was not possible. I’d been awake since the 4 a.m. text alert from United that said bad weather was on the way. Finally, around 1 a.m. I found an unoccupied piece of floor and slept next to total strangers.
The experience opened my eyes to the plight of refugees. Weary airline employees (probably worried about getting home themselves) were not friendly and didn’t welcome questions. The line for rescheduling flights was, by no exaggeration, at least 400 individuals long, one of whom told me this morning she’d waited 8-hours to talk to someone. Since cancelled flight baggage is not checked, it had to be retrieved, and the line for doing such was equally as long as the rescheduling queue. United was under-staffed, stressed, and not in control of the situation. Nobody wanted to listen to you. You were just another stranger with a sad story and all of us have problems, don’t you know. The refugee has no place to go. Nobody to care.
With my aging cell phone dying, my lifeline to those who cared was fading. The shops closed, cutting off access to food. Ground transportation was not responsive. Hundreds and hundreds of people were stranded, relying on their own wits (or in my case, lack thereof) to decide what to do. I just wanted someone to say “Go here. Do this.” Instead I found myself wrapped in tweed, using my carry-on, Jacob-like, for a pillow. I felt for the strangers around me. They were suddenly friends as we were all in the same category—displaced people. This nightmare lasted under 24 hours for me, but I am now keenly aware that it never ends for some. Refugees need a caring glance. A kind word. And it would help if the powers that be would leave Gershwin alone.