I head out of the airport in San Francisco and grab a taxi. I consider myself an outgoing and social person, but I’ve just spent six hours or so crammed next to a bunch of strangers in a combination of airports and planes. All I want to do right now is hang in the back seat of this taxi, enjoying 45 minutes of quiet.
You never know with taxis though. Sometimes, the driver will ask where I’m headed and then stay quiet the rest of the way—the two of us physically in the same car but mentally somewhere else entirely. Other times the driver will want to make small talk. We’ll talk about where we’re each from, what the weather is like back home, how many kids we have and how long I’ll be in town for.
Today, it turns out, is not going to be quiet ride.
The driver—a middle aged man—and I take turns talking about where we live, the weather, all the standard fare.
He asks if we play football where I’m from. Soccer. He corrects himself remembering I’m an American and we made up our sort of football just to be difficult. I tell him that yeah, actually, soccer is pretty popular at home. He asks if any area teams need a coach. I tell him I’m not sure.
He goes on to tell me how much he loves soccer. How he’s always loved playing it, coaching it. He tells me about how, the other day, he was practicing and offered to teach a few tricks to a twenty-something year old who was nearby. She said sure. She was good, but he started to show her a few things she hadn’t known. He challenged her to a race and won. He raced another twenty-something (her boyfriend if I remember correctly)—he a bit more confident in his abilities but in actuality not as good as the young woman. He beat him as well.
He tells me how there is a level of art to the game that most casual fans don’t appreciate. How if you go back and watch the greats, you see a sophisticated grace. He compares it to Steph Curry this year or Michael Jordan (who he believes is still the epitome of basketball perfection) and how they transcend the sport they play in—how they see things others don’t and move in ways others don’t.
He tells me he wants to coach soccer professionally someday. I smile and say that’s great, but internally I know that’s a long shot. I always wanted to coach basketball professionally. Everyone has a pie-in-the-sky dream like this at one point or another in their life, but that doesn’t mean they come true as planned.
Maybe sensing what I’m internalizing, he insists. He tells me he knows he will. He firmly believes that, in the United States, he can do anything. If he puts enough time and energy into it, and if he stays patient and focused, there is nothing he can’t accomplish here. It’s the same old American dream that we’ve heard many times—though I have to admit I haven’t heard it as often lately.
He elaborates. It turns out he believes this because he’s done it already.
The taxi driver’s name is Ahmedin Nasser. He moved to the United States from Ethiopia in 1985. At the time there were no freely available public libraries in Ethiopia. None. After graduating college, Ahmedin decided to change that. He and 12 friends organized Yeewket Admas with the goal of bringing free public libraries to Ethiopia.
He rounded up $15,000 in donations and sent a 40-foot container of books, 11 computers and 4 printers back home. His organization is responsible for at least eight different libraries in Ethiopia now.
He tells me he felt he needed to give back—that we all have a responsibility to do that. He’s a firm believer in a quote he once heard attributed to Albert Einstein: “The value of a man should be seen in what he gives and not in what he’s able to receive.”
He hands me a laminated newspaper clipping from an article that was written about him. He’s proud of this, and rightfully so.
Proud, but not content.
He’s currently working on the next step of his vision—ensuring that there are more libraries setup in Ethiopia and that these libraries will be properly maintained and sustainable.
I ask why libraries…why books. He tells me it’s because books can transform people. He tells me that we take it for granted in the United States that we have free access to a wealth of knowledge. He goes on to talk about how much he loves books and that he believes that one of the most important things you can do for a young child is introduce them to the love of reading.
I mention The Reading Promise to him, and he asks me to write the title and author down so he can grab a copy. He starts to tell me about a young boy in Africa who couldn’t afford to go to school, yet through a book learned how to build a windmill to bring electricity to his village. I mention that he has written a book (The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind), so I write that down for him too.
He thanks me and tells me that books are something he will never hesitate to indulge in. He says he’ll happily go a day without eating if it means he can buy a couple great books. He is a Muslim. Fasting is part of his religion so going a day or two without food is not a difficult thing to do—in fact he finds it revitalizing.
By the time we pull up to my hotel—45 minutes after stepping into this taxi feeling exhausted and worn down—I’m revitalized as well. I thank him for the amazing conversation and ask him if he minds if I type up some of it. He’s more than happy to let me. He says he wants everyone to know that someone ordinary can do extraordinary things.
In 2014 there was a research paper that concluded that people who interact with strangers when they’re traveling (whether by train, plane or taxi) are happier than those that do not. I’ve always had my doubts.
But at least on that day, in San Francisco, talking to Ahmedin Nasser—it was true.