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Commentary: Diplomacy at the gas pump

We'll call him Ali though that's not his real name. Makes no difference for this true story. The young man's parents were born in one middle east country, and Ali was born in another middle east country, (both Muslim-majority countries) after his parents moved there. Today he lives alone in Fargo.

Ali was not considered a citizen in the country where he grew up because his parents weren't born there and were considered foreigners. For this reason, Ali could not get an education at home. So, at the age of 15, he pulled up stakes, said goodbye to his parents and siblings and set out for Indonesia, a temporary stop, where he lived alone, worked part time and studied English for two years. Ultimately, his destination was New Zealand, but circumstances brought him to America, the land of opportunity.

Ali is now 20 years old. He's a handsome, clean shaven kid with a good haircut, neat clothes, an outgoing personality, a keen sense of humor and an absolute determination to complete his high school education and enroll in college as an engineering student. He will complete four years of high school and three years of evening classes in an alternative education program. He works 30 hours a week as a green-card carrying foreign resident stacking shelves at a retail store. He lives alone in a basement apartment and cooks for himself, generally following the dietary habits of his family home. He speaks regularly with his family by phone and skype. He has occasional meals and attends church with a Fargo family although he is not a Christian. He doesn't smoke or use alcohol.

His Fargo friends have taught him to drive and have assisted him in buying an older car for getting to work, to school and around town.

A few weeks ago, Ali went to a gas station to fill his car with gas and encountered something he'd never seen before: a plastic bag covering a gas nozzle. For those of us who have seen these plastic bags, we understand it tells us the pump is out of order and to use another one. But to Ali, it caused confusion. He thought the bag was to keep the nozzle from freezing. He pulled the bag off the nozzle and tried everything he could to get the pump to work, but it refused.

On the opposite side of the pump, out of the corner of his eye, Ali saw a middle-aged man looking at him and smiling. He tried not to look at the man, but as his frustration with the pump continued, the man kept watching and now he was smirking. The next time he glanced up, he could see the man pointing his cell phone at Ali and was recording his struggles. Ali is clearly not a Scandinavian, so the man, choosing not to offer an explanation or a helping hand, decided to make a record of the young foreigner's struggles so he could enjoy them over and over, probably showing them to his friends for a good laugh.

Finally, thoroughly rattled and humiliated, Ali went into the station where it was explained to him that the pump was out of order and to move his car to another pump. When he finished filling his car, he retreated to his apartment, shaken, where he absorbed the experience, feeling mocked, ridiculed and deeply hurt.

Most of the people in Fargo — the students and teachers at school, the folks at the store where he works, and the family that takes him to church and invites him to meals, have been kind, helpful, encouraging and welcoming to this young man. But this one jerk at the gas pump has given him a cruel experience that has unsettled his warm, comfortable feeling about American hospitality to foreigners. It only takes one sour apple to spoil the entire pie.

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