Last summer, I met George Laszlo ’72 while he was visiting campus with Ali*, a 20-year-old college student from Baghdad. While we sat in the Union Atrium sipping tea, I asked George how he had gotten to know Ali. The story he told me was extraordinary.
It all started with a chance encounter on the subway in September 2007. While taking the E train home from JFK airport after a business trip, George gave directions to a fellow traveler, a stranger to New York City and to the United States. This man then departed, accidentally leaving his backpack behind.
“I knew that if I gave it to the conductor, I would never know if its rightful owner would ever see it again,” George says. “Our short connection made me feel responsible to find him myself.”
George and his wife, Eileen, did manage to locate this man, and they ended up taking responsibility for much more than the return of his backpack.
It turned out that this man — let’s call him Tarik* — had just arrived from Baghdad, where he had been working as an interpreter and guide for the US military for the past four years without a break. Knowing that Tarik was exhausted, his Army buddies had suggested this vacation trip to the United States. Then, he intended to return to his family — his wife, his son Ali, and his daughter — and continue his work.
But Iraqi militias had already murdered one of his brothers and attempted to kill another in retaliation for Tarik’s involvement with the US government. It became clear to the Laszlos and to Tarik’s Army buddies that his life was in danger in Iraq, and they persuaded Tarik to stay and seek asylum in the US.
George and Eileen took Tarik in for a couple of months, then persisted with him throughout the frustrating two-year bureaucratic nightmare of obtaining asylum. It took almost four more years to get his family out of Iraq, during which Ali survived an attempted kidnapping and saw his best friend murdered.
A week after arriving in New York, Ali told Eileen and George, “For the first time, I feel like a human being.” He is headed back to college, his sister is in high school, his father has a job, and his mother is learning English. They live in Queens.
Does George regret picking up that backpack, six years ago? No. “I’m happy for them,” he says. “It was worth the effort, and we now have a whole new set of friends.”
— Laura Barlament, Editor, Wagner Magazine, winter 2014
*Names have been changed to protect the family’s identity.