22 February

Ali’s Magic Coach, The White Van

by Jon Katz
Ali’s Magic Bus: Photo by Maria Wulf

It’s called “The White Van.” I do not know how many miles it’s driven, and I don’t really want to know.

But I call it Ali’s Magic Coach, and I often think of what a wonderful movie, documentary, or short story it would make. Ali’s van is a kind of mystical home, for him, for the young refugees he drives to school, to soccer practice, to lessons, movies, doctor’s appointments,  practices, and most of the places they need to go.

Ali is part friend, teacher, counselor, father, mother. When a teacher has a problem with one of his kids, they call Ali, not the parents, who often can’t speak enough English to talk to the teachers. Some of them live with relatives, their parents never made it our of their countries or the refugee camps.

If they need clothes, Ali f get them clothes. If they are hungry, he feeds them. If their families need help, Ali gets help to them. If they need help with homework, Ali helps them.  If someone tries to harm one of these kids, or calls them names, Ali will descent like a Mommy Bear, roaring and with claws out.

He is a gentle giant, a sweet soul. Do not mess with his kids.

These kids come from what some politicians call the “shithole” countries, that is, countries in trouble, torn by civil war, genocide, persecution or natural disaster.

Somehow, their parents made it to refugee camps in different parts of the world, some got lucky where chosen off of decades-old waiting lists to leave their camps and come to America. Sometimes, relatives got them out.

These children have horrific stories to tell and live challenging and sometimes grinding and difficult lives.  The coach is a magical carriage, whisking them off to learn, see, have fun, stay off of troubled streets.

Much of their lives revolve around Ali’s Magical Coach.

He takes them on their amazing journey through America, their new and sometimes very strange home.

When he pulls up to school, or for soccer practice, or a skating rink or pizza place, the kids pile out, sometimes it feels like a clown car in a circus. The bus is like a  home to the soccer kids, they love to be in it and around it. It is their safest place, I think.

They love the van, they sit on the roof, on the hood scrunch together on the big wide seats, curl up and lean against one another, their brothers and sisters. They are community. We shall walk together, live together, die together, they sing.

The coach belongs to RISSE, the refugee and immigrant support center of Albany. It can be seen sailing across bridges, on highways, outside of indoor soccer arenas and outside of Chinese buffet restaurants. Sometimes it stops at Wal-Mart for urgently needed supplies.

They alone know the experiences of the other, they understand each other. When I asked a very shy boy a question, fix or six others stepped in front of him and told me to give him some time to answer, he needed more time. Ali has taught them how to love one another and take care of each other, because so often in their lives, there has been no one to take care of them.

No one bother’s anyone else’s property, no one steals from another. Ali tells them about honor and brotherhood, and assures them America is a great country, the greatest, and its fever about refugees and immigrants will pass. He tells them when the kids born in America taunt them, call them names, tell them to go home where they came from,  make fun of their clothes and accents and food, he shows them how to be proud and dignified and patient. Last year, they burned the RISSE headquarters to the ground – it was arson – and slashed the tires on all of the vans.

And they are all of those things – dignified, patient and proud.

They do not fight, ridicule one another, laugh at each other. They say please and thank you. They clean up after themselves.

They are happy when anyone else succeeds, understanding and consoling when they fail. They demand little from life, and give much. Ali is scrupulous about following the rules of his coach.  Only so many kids, only so many miles, and the van is scrupulously maintained. I love the love that swirls around the magical coach, at  how safe and at home the kids feel in the coach. Lots of love and connection and emotion rides around in that coach.

Tomorrow, the magical coach is coming to my town, the soccer kids are having lunch with the Mansion residents. The Round House Cafe is catering the lunch – sandwiches. The Mansion is providing materials for the kids to make their own fudge sundae, some of them said they never heard of a fudge sundae, and had no idea what it was.

I went to Battenkill Books today and picked out 15 books and buttons for them to get when I meet them, graphic novels, books about dinosaurs and snakes, trivia and odd facts, the habit of animals,  100 unbelievable facts, stickers and posters, Star Wars and history, the Black Panther. You can just give them the bags of books, they will not fight over them but read them to each other and pass them around, and then bring them home to their brothers and sisters, and then pass them around again.

They read them aloud in Ali’s Magical Coach on the way home.

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