In solidarity of Україна (Ukraine)

September 7, 2014

Friends and Colleagues in Ukraine – 2007

Friends and Colleagues in Ukraine – 2007

My red-eye last night over the Atlantic from London to New York was not flight I wanted to catch, but due to lack of seats on earlier flights I booked it with an overnight stay in Newark before heading off to Dallas.

I was one of the first to board the plane and I was shocked at the small size of the aircraft, namely a Boeing 757-200. As I entered I could see the plane end-to-end. It had two rows of seats of three either side. The business class was tiny and I could see into the cockpit.

I walked down to Row 23 and took my aisle seat, which is my preferred seating. My wife Melissa loves the window seats, alas she was not travelling with me today. When I checked in online I saw that the window seat on my row was occupied and the middle seat was empty, so I was praying to the gods it remained so.

As the plane began filling up my travel companion came and sat down in the window seat. He looked flustered to say the least.

"I thought I was going to miss the flight," he looked at me and offered in an American accent.

"Where are you coming from?" I asked.

"Kiev, I had to run from the flight from Munich with only a 30 minute gap," he replied.

After he settled down I started conversing with him.

"Were you anywhere neat the fighting in the east?" I quizzed thinking he was some government or military personnel.

"No I was in the west around Lviv," he answered.

"Business or personal?" I asked further, beginning to sound like an interrogator.

"Aah! not business I am tracing my Ukrainian ancestors," He replied.

"Oh wow! that's brilliant, were you born there?" I questioned.

"No, no I am third generation born in the US," he offered.

He continued to tell me how his grandparents had emigrated to the US and Baltimore in the early twentieth century. He was trying to trace further back where his family came from and or went from outside Lviv.

"Where are you headed?" he asked me.

"I am off to Dallas," I replied.

"I love Dallas, but not the football team, Ravens are my team who play tomorrow. Are you on vacation?" He continued.

"Oh! I am not much of an American football l fan, soccer is my game," I responded

"And I am going home to see my wife,"

We continued to talk about Ukraine and I told him about my short work assignment in Kremenchuk, a mining city four hours south-east of Kiev.

He explained to me how he had traced 900 of his relatives from his grandparents villages outside Lviv. He was planning to reach 1500 and he had subscribed to He explained that as he was finding more relatives and lineage data he was updating He said that this trip was his first and now that he had made contacts he was going to be able to conduct his research from the US, without too much of a need to travel back to Ukraine.

We talked about Ukrainian cuisine, and I mentioned to him Borscht soup which he grew up on. Although the Borscht he grew up on was slightly different to the one dished up in Ukraine. I also talked about salo another Ukrainian dish that I remembered from my tenure out there. But most of all we talked about how much and how hard the Ukrainians drank their vodka or Horika. One brand I recalled seeing was Nemiroff which flashed a recognition in my companion's eyes.

He further explained to me how many of the villagers asked him, not in a demanding way but with sadness and sincerity, "Will Obama help us?"

He did not know what to say, because he knew it wasn't a yes. He dodged the question as best as possible without disheartening people too much.

I have a soft spot for Ukraine and it's people. My time out there was most enjoyable and memorable. I found the people to be very friendly and welcoming. I enjoyed International Women's Day weekend during 2007 in Kremenchuk, where eating, drinking and merriment was had by all. I further visited Kiev during May Day celebration that year and the city was alive to say the least.

My companion explained how his grandmother rued the day when in 1994 Ukraine signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and gave up its nuclear arsenal. I asked him why.

"Well, she said that it would leave Ukraine open to threats from other nations and especially the imperialist ambitions of Russia," he explained.

"And she was right, Russia is chipping away and taking Ukrainian land, where does it stop?"

"Yeah! I think the west has to make a stance and help Ukraine as much as they can. Diplomacy is the only way, we certainly don't want a full-scale war in Eastern Europe," I explained.

"I have a feeling nothing will happen and Obama will do nothing, because he does not know what to do," he replied.

"Russia could take in Kiev in  weeks and Putin knows it, hence he is doing what he is doing," I offered.

We continued to make small talk as he showed me pictures of his family's village in Ukraine. He showed me cemeteries he visited to find ancestors. After being served dinner we both took to our private solace, he watched a movie and I listened to music.

I was happy to meet this man who had traveled to the land of his ancestors to trace his roots and in the face of adversity such as war. He was doing a commendable task of updating for anyone from his family to be able to trace their lineage. He was in his own way recording history.

Our flight was pleasant and we landed just before 9pm in New York. We said our farewells as I took the line to the visitor immigration section.

"Enjoy the game tomorrow and I hope the Ravens win," I offered.

"Thank you and enjoy Dallas," he replied.

To all those people I came across in Kremenchuk, I wish them safety and well-being. I further wish the people of Ukraine a peaceful resolution to the current crisis.

Kindness in Khash

August 15, 2013

Mountains of southern Iran

Mountains of southern Iran

It was January 5th 2006 and coming up to mid-afternoon as we crossed the border from Iran into Pakistan. Nobody stopped us which concerned Ebs and myself a bit. I parked our Nissan Terrano next to a ramshackle of a building and approached a man that looked like a border official. The man was shoe-less and lay on a low bunk bed out in the yard of the building. He looked at me with complete disinterest, but felt the need to wave me over.

I spoke to him in Urdu and extended my salutation in Arabic, "Assalam Alaikum".

"Walaikum salaam," was his reply.

I asked him about the border crossing and what we needed to do to get our passports and paperwork stamped. Without even getting out of his bunk he made a statement that brought our world crashing around us.

"You're at the local border crossing, the international crossing is 400 miles north near Zahedan,"

Ebs and I looked at each other and cursed under our breaths as a small gathering of locals began to take interest in us. We were tired, hungry, running low on fuel and were looking forward to calling it a day on the driving. We had been up since daybreak and had been driving for the last eight hours. We looked at each other and went back to the vehicle to look at our set of maps. We decided we would head back to Iranshahr and then try to get to Khash before midnight.

We got back into the vehicle and I turned it around to head back into Iran. With heavy hearts, depression creeping in and only a Jerry can of diesel left, a somber mood settled in the vehicle. I slowly navigated back over the potholed dirt road looking at the ominous mountains to the north through which we had to retrace our steps.

We headed off in silence feeling devastated by this monumental screw-up in piss-poor-planning. All we had to do was check with our friend Mehran who we had stayed with in the Iranian capital.

We drove back through the mountains and into Iranshahr before continuing onto Khash. It was late evening when we arrived into Khash. The town was alive with people coming out of the mosques having said their prayers and going about their business of shopping and socializing.

By now we had less than a quarter tank of fuel, our Jerry can was empty and we were mightily hungry. I drove to the center of town to look for a hotel and for some fuel.

We found a couple of policemen at a busy intersection of what seemed like the town's main square directing traffic. We pulled up beside one of the policemen and I asked him in English for a hotel, however he did not understand a word. He turned to his colleague who did not even look at us but carried on with his traffic duty.

Disheartened we were looking at the possibility of sleeping overnight in our vehicle. As I pulled away I noticed a Toyota Landcruiser behind us with three young men in it. They looked as if they were watching and following us. I raised my suspicion with Ebs and asked him to keep an eye out if they followed.

Whilst looking in the rear-view mirror I drove off to find a shop where we could buy some food. Driving around I eventually found a bakery. I parked outside and walked into the shop, but noticed the Toyota slowly pulling up behind us. I ushered to Ebs to stay in the vehicle and stay alert. As I came out of the bakery, three men were approaching our Nissan. I hurriedly got into the driver's seat and told Ebs what was going on.

One of the men approached Ebs' window and asked for it to be wound down.

"Hello, my names is Shahriah, we heard you talking to the policeman asking for hotel and diesel?"

I explained what our predicament was and where we had come from. Ebs further stated that if there was no hotel we wanted to buy some diesel and be on our way as we had lost a day's driving.

"Well, why don't you come to my father's place we will get you diesel and food. If you want to stay the night you can sleep at our house," He offered.

He went on to explain that the other men was a brother and a cousin. They got back into their car and asked us to follow.

"What do we do mate?" I asked Ebs.

"Not sure," Ebs replied.

With no other option I decided we would follow the men. The men drove out of town and into the dark night of the Iranian countryside. The road was potholed and unpaved so the going was rough. Eventually we arrived at what seemed like a compound with a six feet high wall and barbed wire along the top. The gate opened and we drove our vehicles in and parked up, my Nissan behind the Toyota.

I gave the keys to Shahriah who asked a man inside the compound something I took to be to fill our vehicle and Jerry can with diesel. We then followed our host into the three-storey concrete house. Inside we took of our shoes in the hallway and turned right into a large carpeted room with pillows placed along the walls. Along one wall sat an elderly man with several other men seated around him talking. Upon seeing us they stopped and looked up.

Shahriah introduced us in Farsi, we greeted him in Arabic as was customary in the Muslim world. He then ushered us to seat, which we did leaning into the huge pillows and resting our travel weary bodies. Shahriah went off to get some food and when he returned he told us of why he approached us.

He had seen us enter town and followed us for a while. He then went home to seek advice from his father as to what he should do. His father scolded him and told him to go back out immediately and bring us into their house for food, shelter and safety.

"Khash is a town where many murders happen and there's a lot of guns coming from and going into Pakistan,".

Ebs and I looked at each other and gulped. He explained how the Baluchistan province was split into three between Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Baluchistanis do not consider themselves to be part of any of the three nations, therefore they cross borders at will and fight for the Baluchistani cause no matter which country it is in.

We spent the next couple of hours being fed and watered. Shahriah was the only one who could speak English, the others apart from Farsi spoke Urdu so I conversed with them, whilst Ebs chatted with our host.

Even though we were offered to sleep overnight we kindly declined as we wanted to press on and get to Zahedan in order to cross the border the next day. Our hosts pleaded us to stay as the drive and countryside was dangerous. We insisted on leaving and after having said farewell to Shahriah's father and companions, we were escorted to the border of the town. We had a full tank of diesel plus our Jerry can was full, we were also given some dried fruits and bread to take as well as some water bottles.

We approached the border of the town which was manned and said our farewells to our generous and kind hosts.

"Do not stop for anyone or anything, just drive. If anyone hails you or flashes their torch ignore them and Inshallah you will get to Zahedan safely," Shahriah offered.

We hugged each other, and got into the car. I put the vehicle into gear and drove away into the dark night whilst waving goodbye.

Driving away I thought about the magnanimity of Shahriah and his family. He was like a guardian angel who came out of nowhere and saved us from a fate not worth contemplating about. Their generosity knew no bounds and they opened their hearts and home to us. Kindness and beneficence was extended to us without any expectation of payment or favor. I will never forget their help and the solace they provided. I hope one day I can return this to another human being in need.

(A story from my second book; to be published in 2014)

Driving to Iranshahr

Driving to Iranshahr

No Entry

August 7, 2013

View over the English Channel from aboard P&O ferries

View over the English Channel from aboard P&O ferries

It was Sunday July 14th, Bastille Day in France and I was catching the 09:30pm Euroline coach from Paris Porte de Bagnolet to London Victoria.

It was a nine hour coach journey with two stops on the French side, followed by a ferry across the English Channel, followed by a non-stop run to London's Victoria coach station.

I was not too enamored by the prospect of a 'red-eye' overnight coach ride to London in cramped seats, to then get into London at 6am the next day. However, it was out of necessity rather than choice.

I arrived at Porte de Bagnolet an hour before the scheduled departure time, yet me and my fellow passengers had to wait until 10:30pm to leave. Most of us were hot and bothered wilting in the sweltering evening heat. When the coach eventually arrived, there was no orderly queue or anyone directing people on to the coach. It was a free-for-all. Everyone made a mad dash for the coach dumping their bags hurriedly in the belly of the metal people transporter and up the steps to get a prime seat. Passengers for the later 11pm coach surged en masse to get on board, only to be turned away by the gruff French driver. This caused an almost stampede like situation with the 9:30pm passengers shoving to get on and the later passengers trying to get off.

Eventually, the chaos died down and with all the passengers on board we departed. I sat in an aisle seat with a gentleman from the Far East in the window seat. The seats were extremely cramped with no toilet facilities. I shook my head in dismay as I heard babies crying and little kids being settled down by their parents. I thought how inconsiderate of Eurolines to have a vehicle with no toilets when the journey was so long.

The mixture of passengers was extremely diverse; on my left across the aisle sat two young female American backpackers, there were people of African origin, others from Eastern Europe, a couple of south Asian families and some natives from the UK shores.

The heat had exhausted me so much that the cool air-conditioned interior of the coach led me to fall fast asleep within seconds of sitting down.

The first time I awoke was somewhere between Paris and Lille where the driver called a ten minute comfort break. I could barely open my eyes and slept through. The second time was in Lille, again I was too tired to even open my eyes.

It was sometime at around 3am that we arrived into the port of Calais. Before we could board we had to go through French and UK immigration controls.

All the passengers alighted from the vehicle and queued up in a portacabin and one by one were called to the desk by a French immigration officer. All the people looked dead tired. No one was in conversation, it seemed that everyone wanted to get back on the coach and catch some sleep.

Then I caught a glimpse of a young lady being escorted away by one of the two French officers, leaving the sole desk to process the remaining passengers. I groaned silently.

Eventually I arrived at the desk, got the cursory glance as my details were checked and then ushered on. Outside I was directed to another makeshift cabin building where the UK immigration were based.

Here the scene was very different. In contrast to the French two desks, reduced to one, here there were six manned desks plus several officers just standing and watching the passengers with their keen eyes.

Here a lot of the passengers looked alert yet intimidated and frazzled. Initially it did not register with me what was going on, the fuzziness of sleep deprivation was not making me think clearly. However, I was seeing more people being pulled aside and then 'click', it dawned on me that these people had questionable papers and they were potentially trying to enter the UK illegally. I watched several people of various nationalities being pulled aside into rooms out of sight.

I gulped and thought, "Wow! this is the hard coal face of illegal migration".

The whole scene woke me up from my walking slumber as I approached the desk. Once cleared I went back to the coach and retook my seat. The coach slowly started to fill up except the two seats in front of me and my Oriental seat buddy. I thought he may have been stopped too, but he turned up running just seconds before the coach left.

As the driver fired up the engine I scanned the vehicle and saw approximately six seats empty which were occupied prior to the immigration checks. I came to the realization that those six were detained for potentially trying to get into the UK illegally. I thought about those people, I thought about the money they must have spent either through getting the paperwork on their own or paying middlemen who probably charged extortionate fees.

If these people were trying to illegally enter the UK it was wrong, yet I felt sorry that they probably spent their life savings trying to get here. The coach driver did not wait and he drove the coach onto the waiting ferry. I began to contemplate the lives these people were leaving and what drove them to go to such extreme measures to try and get into another country illegally. I could not judge their circumstances as I did not know what they were fleeing.

One thing I realized by what I witnessed was that I was extremely lucky, my father had arrived into the UK as a genuine immigrant. Even though I had heard of illegal immigrants around the world this is the first time I had witnessed the reality of it. Furthermore, I was humbled to the core. I was humbled by the fact that I can, I have and I am still able to travel as a global citizen without any obvious restrictions on entry to any country. I was humbled by the fact that I had a choice in determining my country of residence. I was humbled by the simple right of freedom that I had. A right that many human beings do not have in many guises and forms.