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(AP Images/Hadi Abdollahian/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Hadi Abdollahian/Ringer illustration)

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Your Uber Driver (and Aspiring Astronaut) Has Arrived

The most remarkable thing about Shareece Wright’s Uber story isn’t the more than 540 miles he rode from Chicago to Buffalo. It’s the journey of Hadi Abdollahian, the man behind the wheel.

In the eight months he’s been an Uber driver, Hadi Abdollahian has spent plenty of evenings waiting in the ridesharing lot near O’Hare International Airport. Some nights, the line of cars snakes so long that the 26-year-old has time to crack open a book in the front seat. On June 4, though, with the clock creeping toward 10 p.m. and the traffic mostly gone, he breezed to the front to pick up a passenger named "Shareece."

What happened next became national news. "Shareece" was Shareece Wright, a seven-year NFL veteran and first-year Bills cornerback. After missing his connecting flight after traveling from Los Angeles to Chicago, Wright was scrambling for a way to get to Buffalo for the team’s voluntary offseason workouts. He was down to his last option — finding an Uber driver willing to shuttle him more than 540 miles, across five states.

Uber asks riders to input their destination before a trip begins; what most passengers probably don’t realize is that the current version of the app doesn’t allow drivers to access that destination until they start the trip. Seconds after accepting the request, Abdollahian fielded a phone call from Wright. Abdollahian could make out only scattered words on the other end of the line. It’s an emergency … I have to get to Buffalo …

Abdollahian originally thought the request was for a local Buffalo Wild Wings or Buffalo Grove, Illinois, a suburb about 20 miles north of the airport. Learning that an eight-plus-hour drive halfway across the country lay in front of him didn’t change anything. He’d given Wright his word, and he was going to follow through. "I made him a promise," Abdollahian says. "I was going to get him there by 7 a.m."

Without a single piece of luggage, Wright climbed into the back seat of Abdollahian’s 2016 Nissan Altima. "I was really shocked [that he said yes]," Wright says, "but I was thankful. When the first two [drivers] canceled, I thought, ‘This is a long shot.’"

The pair stopped just once, for gas. Abdollahian ate nothing on the trip, and drank only the last sips of a water bottle that he’d carried all day. The Altima pulled up to 1 Bills Drive in Orchard Park, New York, about 20 minutes before Wright’s first team meeting. It seemed like something out of a movie — a perfect hit for the internet and local newscasts, a kooky tale of dedication and compassion floating in a sea of horrible headlines.

What most of that coverage didn’t get into, though, was the full story of the driver — who fled his native Iran in 2011 and arrived in Chicago as a refugee from Turkey about four years ago, who took a handful of odd jobs to scrape together enough money to buy that black sedan, and who used it as his only means of income while finishing his associate’s degree. To most, the tale of the longest Uber ride imaginable was the most unlikely they’d hear all week, but the more remarkable story belongs to the man behind the wheel.

Abdollahian says that his world began to unravel in 2008, when his father died in a one-car accident near the family’s home in Ahar, Iran. A former Air Force pilot, Abdollahian’s father had long stood in opposition to the Iranian government, since the Islamic Republic’s overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979. Abdollahian knew his father had spoken out against the new government over the years, but he wasn’t sure of the extent. Still, he questioned whether his father’s death had been an accident, and pushed authorities for answers. Eventually, he started a pair of websites filled with material critical of the government.

He says that over the next few months intelligence agents picked him up on several occasions — both at his home and on the street — and took him to secluded facilities, where he says he was repeatedly tortured. Because Abdollahian wasn’t under arrest, he says these detainments would last only a day or two. After getting home, he says he’d often tell his mother he had been visiting friends. "There’s a lot of stuff they don’t know," Abdollahian says of his mom and two older brothers. "And I don’t want them to know. I don’t want them to know what happened to me."

In spring 2011 Abdollahian says he was given an order to appear in court. Fearing that a legal case would prevent him from ever leaving the country, Abdollahian says he booked a flight to Istanbul for June 11. With only a backpack, an extra shirt, and the equivalent of about $500 in cash, he flew to Turkey and caught a bus to Ankara. His first stop was the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Abdollahian says he ran into a Persian man outside the agency after filling out his registration form to seek safe refuge. By happenstance, the stranger knew of an apartment complex nearby that regularly housed people as they waited out the U.N. process. "[It was] shitty," Abdollahian says of his living conditions. "And I mean it."

For the next two years, Abdollahian did all he could to stay afloat in Turkey. He says he worked construction jobs, mopped floors in restaurants, and did anything he could to bring in money. After learning Turkish, he says he landed a job as a translator with the U.N., helping Farsi speakers with applications and questions.

The wait seemed interminable. According to the U.N., approximately .06 percent of all refugee applicants are granted relocation to a third country. Stories have to be corroborated. Candidates are interviewed multiple times. And while the U.N. has a policy against commenting on any individual case, a representative made clear that the details of Abdollahian’s story align with the organization’s process for granting refuge.

"There are no words that can describe it," Abdollahian says of his time in Turkey while his application was pending. "It was so stressful. You have no idea how long it’s going to take for your case or what’s going to happen."

When checking the status of his application one morning, Abdollahian says that he saw he had been approved. "I didn’t believe it," he says. "I thought something was wrong with the computer." He refreshed the page. Same message. He restarted the computer. After waiting for it to reboot, he checked again. "It took three times," Abdollahian says. "The third time I saw it, I had a little bit of hope."

Upon landing at O’Hare in January 2013, Abdollahian knew only a few words of English. He says he was picked up by a contingent from the U.S. State Department, and as they yapped away, he nodded along with every word. "I was just like, ‘OK, very good,’" he says, replicating his enthused head bob. "I didn’t know anything." He was set up with an apartment on the North Side of Chicago and a job at a dining hall at Loyola University. "[I understood that] I’m in a different country," he says, "and I’m going to have to start my life at zero — below zero."

On his first day at his new job, Abdollahian was tasked with flipping burgers. As the students cycled through, asking for specific orders, the deluge of foreign words became overwhelming. "They were like, ‘Pickles,’ and I thought, ‘What the hell is a pickle?’" Abdollahian says. "And there were so many cheeses." Not long into his shift, he asked his manager for a bathroom break. "I told him, ‘I’ll be back, for sure,’" Abdollahian says. But as he walked off, he didn’t know if that was true.

(Courtesy Hadi Abdollahian)
(Courtesy Hadi Abdollahian)

Over time, the job became easier. Yet as he spent his days surrounded by students, a different type of malaise set in. "I was watching them and thinking about how I could have been one of them," Abdollahian says. "Instead, look at me." After saving enough money, he went to nearby Harry S Truman College and registered for ESL classes. Soon after, he started taking credit courses. He earned his associate’s degree in computer science from Harold Washington College — along with Truman, one of seven schools that make up the City Colleges of Chicago system — in December. He’s since been accepted to Loyola, the place that inspired him to pursue his education after arriving in Chicago.

As a child, Abdollahian says that he would lie with his brother outside their Ahar home and look up at the stars. That sense of wonder — and his father’s history as a pilot — made him want to become an astronaut. All these years later, the dream remains the same. His Uber gig is a means to an education; that education is a way to chase his aspirations of one day going to space.

For now, he waits, this time on decisions about student loans and financial aid. "I’m trying to believe that I’m doing the right thing," Abdollahian says. "I know it’s risky. But I’m trying to believe I’m on the right track."

Sitting in the back seat of Abdollahian’s car, Wright exchanged standard road-trip pleasantries with his new companion. For starters, he asked how long Abdollahian had been in Chicago. "He told me, ‘It’s a long story … but ya know what, we’ve got some time,’" Wright says. Abdollahian proceeded to tell him everything: about his skepticism regarding his father’s death, about his awful experience in Iran, and about his time spent in Turkey. He also told Wright about his dream of becoming an astronaut. "It’s one of those things where you feel sad, but you also feel excited about all the things he’s overcome," Wright says.

The pair swapped stories for about three hours, with Wright telling Abdollahian about the extended family he’d just left in Los Angeles and how he couldn’t imagine navigating the world alone in the way Abdollahian has. Well past 1 a.m. on June 5, Wright dozed off. He woke up with the car parked in front of the Bills’ facility. "I told him, ‘You’re a trooper, man. For real.’" Wright says.

After getting a $300 tip from Wright and saying goodbye, Abdollahian turned around and headed straight back to Chicago, again stopping once for gas. He arrived home, crawled into bed, and slept for the next 12 hours.

Awaiting him the next day was a barrage of attention Abdollahian never could have anticipated. Wright called to say that he’d posted a screenshot of the ride receipt on Twitter, and that a host of news outlets had asked for Abdollahian’s phone number. "It’s just so exciting, unexpected, and weird," Abdollahian says. "It’s something new for me." Bills sponsor BlueRock Energy matched the $932 total for the ride with a check. Nissan messaged Abdollahian and told him that his Altima’s next tune-up was on the house. In parentheses, Nissan asked a simple question: How does it feel to be famous? "Yeah, for 15 minutes, it’s OK,’" Abdollahian says of his response. "But I still have a lot of stuff to take care of."

Looking back, Wright says that hearing Abdollahian’s story left him at a loss for words. When Wright climbed into the back seat, he was just thankful for a ride. He never expected to also receive a sobering jolt of perspective — one that he says he won’t soon forget. "You never really know [what people have faced]," Wright says. "Everybody has a story until you hear the next person’s. I’d [keep] all my problems that I’ve ever had."

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