Face to Face with Otherness

Amanda and K

Photo: Amanda and K

Amanda Steinberg is the founder of DailyWorth. At the time of the 9/11 attacks, she lived four blocks from the World Trade Center.

Running down the street on that warm September morning, I experienced what few Americans have: explosion, screaming, mass hysteria, commuters falling to their knees. There’s something about watching thousands of people die at your doorstep. It changes you.

Living inside of 9/11 drove me to a lifelong desire to explore “otherness,” as my own way of dealing with endless agony and frustration around how our world chooses to play out conflict.

Today, DailyWorth is taking a break from our regularly scheduled programming to tell you a story about two women—one being me, another being a young Iraqi bomb victim I happened to meet when we were both stranded in a Chicago airport last January.

The Night I Met ‘K’

Standing at the Chicago United Airlines customer service desk at 11pm last January, annoyed by my cancelled connection between SFO and PHL, a teenage boy escorts a caramel-skinned girl in a wheelchair to the counter.

I notice she has no hands, unless you call blistered, scabbed, potato-shaped knobs “hands.” Her eyes are wide and dark, grappling with the idea of no flight out of a strange city.

“Car-bomb victim” the steward whispers. “From Jordan. Her flight’s been cancelled like the rest of ‘em.”

Then I hear via Mr. wheelchair pusher say, “United’s Special Services hospitality suite is too full with young kids. So they won’t take her in tonight. She has nowhere to go.”

Disfigured young woman with no one to care for her tonight?

Anticipating my own guilt-ridden migraines, I volunteer to take this wheelchair-bound girl to my hotel. And just minutes before I was anxious about my own Matrix blip.

I ask her name—I’ll call her K—and learn that she’s Iraqi.

Walking nervously into our warm hotel suite (Hooray! She’s not left to freeze alone in the Chicago airport!), I recognize we’ll be sleeping in beds side-by-side.

“So when did it happen?” I ask her. (I have a charmingly empathic-less way of asking what’s on my mind.)

“20 years ago,” she says in perfect English. “My mother had me and four siblings. Two of my siblings died in the bombing. My mother and I are now like this. We’ve been living in Portland, Oregon for the last four years.”

She asks for a bath. Sure, I have kids. Washing her black hair in the tub, I’m reminded of my own black hair and how similar we are. “I’m from the same part of the world as you—Israel.” Except, I’m not actually from Israel—I’m an eastern European Jew…so why am I telling her this? Probably just looking for a connection, contrived as it was.

No response. “Have you ever met a Jew before?” I ask her. Silence. Oh no, I’ve just scared her.

She shakes her head, no. Back to hair washing. Damn it–why’d I have to say that? Maybe hoping for some sign of “We’re supposedly enemies and I’m not going to cause you any more pain” affirmation. Maybe she’ll go back to her family and say, “A Jew helped me,” and word will spread.

As I scrub her scalp, she closes her eyes. I notice I’m starting to cry–tears streaming down my cheeks.

Post-bath, we look around wondering what we’ll put her in for bed. Her luggage was checked through, so she has nothing to sleep in. I pull out my sweatpants and a sweatshirt.

Dressing her, my fingers brush against the scabs on her hands and back. Her entire body has “issues” of one form or another–blistering tissue, swollen sacs of fluid, and pockets of blood. I’m settled by the fact that I’m no longer feeling repelled by her skin or fingerless hands.

We wake up the next morning and she tells me she was cold. I didn’t tuck her in properly, I realize. I’m not sure I even cleaned her as she needed to be.

I pull apart her carry-on, looking for clothes for her next leg of travel. “It’s okay,” she tells me implying that she prefers the red-lace wrap dressing she wore the day before. I offer to refold everything in her bag.

We descend to the lobby to call a cab. We both need coffee.

I make hers to spec from the percolator across from reception. Two creamers. Two sugars. I hand her the cup. She presses her hands together like clamps, as she asks me for one of the stir straws. Ah, the stir straw. To sip. So she doesn’t have to lean the cup back to drink.

The taxi cab ride to the airport is bumpy. She’s gripping her scalding hot coffee with her “hands” trying to get a sip. I take it out of her hands and place it in the cup holder.

We’re waived through to security. We get to go home now.

I care for K through security like one of my kids. Shoes off. Laptops out. Soothing stroke across the forehead. We make it. It’s 11am. My flight home is at 2pm. I can’t do this anymore.

I wheel her over to the airport’s “Special Services” room for kids and handicapped people travelling alone. K asks me to stay with her. I can’t. I have to go home.

We hug. I run.

Reach out. What are your feelings on war and what we as women, and as leaders, can do about it?