I met George Laszlo ’72 during the summer of 2013 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.
Update, January 30, 2017
President Donald Trump’s executive order of January 27, which suspended entry into the United States for Iraqis and people of six other countries for 90 days, reminded me of George Laszlo’s story and the Iraqi family he helped. I checked back in with him on January 30.
Laszlo told me that the family is doing well. Ali, the college student whom I met with Laszlo in 2013, has completed his bachelor’s in electrical engineering, magna cum laude, and is looking for a job. His sister is now in college. Tarik, their father, works as a street food vendor in Manhattan, and their mother is taking English classes.
Yet, these new travel restrictions mean that the family cannot leave the USA, even to visit family or friends, and expect to be able to return to their new life in the United States.
“For example, [Ali’s mother] can’t leave to help take care of her father, who is suffering from congestive heart failure,” Laszlo says. “In effect, Trump has now built an invisible wall around the country that will keep legal residents who are not yet citizens from traveling anywhere on the other side.”