Scam or Grace?

Her name is Hawa. She is a native of West Africa, but holds a State of New York issued identification card.  She speaks in a way common to English speakers of another native language — understandable but heavily accented by her mother tongue. She looked young, around 19 years old.

My wife and I met her in the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport, terminal one,  at 6:00 a.m. on the mezzanine level opposite the ticketing gates and security checkpoint.  We all were sleeping on the floor. 

 We had checked in at the Frontier Airlines electronic kiosk where we paid our luggage fees and printed our boarding tickets.  There were only two agents working the desk and a long line – our first hint of trouble.  When we moved to bag drop, there was no streamline process for bags, only the one long line, and it was not moving – our second hint of trouble.  After a 30-minute wait, we made it to the counter, but we were too late by 2 minutes. We had entered the 45-minute before departure zone and our flight was “closed.” We were given a number to call, asked to step away from the counter, and left to our own to figure out our dilemma.  After another 15 minutes on the phone and $180 in change ticket fees. We had a flight home.

At the same time, a young woman who had been left on her own at the airport was trying to figure things out, too.

Hawa had three pieces of luggage: two to check and one to carry-on.  Her husband, whom she met online and recently married, lived in St. Cloud, Minnesota.  She married for love, but he married for her green card.  When he could not achieve his objective, he packed her up and dumped her at the airport with no way home and no money.

Then bottom line to her story was that although she had a potential ticket home (her mom would pay), she had no money to pay the luggage fees. She had three suitcases which represented her entire life.  She was stuck. She was hungry and she was sleeping on the floor of a airport, just like us. 

What would you do? 

Well, my first thought was that she was scamming us. Her story seemed bizzarre — green card fraud, online marriage arrangements gone sour? Other facts also seemed incongruous — she wore nice clothing, had a working smart phone. She had no driver’s license, but she had a legitimate identification card. Why didn’t her mother purchase her ticket AND luggage fees?

My problem was that I was recently returned on home leave from China.  Living as a foreigner in a new country without native cultural intelligence (knowing how to get things done in a culture), and speaking broken phrases in an attempt to make oneself understood in a non-native language made her story plausible. 

And, there was no denying the look of hunger and desperation in her eye. Even online, internationally arranged marriage for green card status was conceivable — a friend suffered the same. 

I, too, many years ago, at her age was stranded in a German train station with no money. A thief had stolen my money and plane ticket, while I naively dozed  on a train station bench unawares. A elderly German couple took a chance on me and invited me into their home. It was safer than spending the night in the train station, they said. And, they added, there was something in the look in my eyes that suggested my story was true, even though I spoke in haltingly in German. 

So, we went with Hawa to the American Airline ticket counter and confirmed that she indeed had a booked flight to New York. We paid her baggage fees, shared a Salted Nut Roll that we always eat when traveling — kind of a tradition – and waved goodbye as she went through security.

We hope she arrives safely home to family and that she will help another person, one day, in a similar predicament.

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