3 min read

What comes in the silence.

(TW/CW: This email newsletter describes a car accident and bystander failures)

About two months ago, while I was in California for work I got into a terrible car accident that nearly killed me. The accident had all the elements of a scene out of a movie: an elderly driver going at top speed through an intersection ran a red light. The impact sent my rental car spinning across the intersection, it slammed into a traffic signal, the traffic signal fell and landed on the car and the car caught on fire.

But wait, there’s more!

I cut the engine and got myself out of the car. The flames surged and then put itself out. It was a busy intersection and there had to have been many witnesses. I assumed (wrongly) many would stop but no one really did.


Two white women pulled over to the side of the road and screamed at me from their rolled down windows: "OH MY GOD YOU SHOULD BE DEAD!!!"

I was so disoriented, confused and hoping they were witnesses asked, “Did you see what happened?" and they said "No but we heard it!" Still confused, now aware of my injuries and that I left my phone in a car on fire, I asked, "Well did you call 9-1-1?" and they were like "No, why?"

To quote the inimitable Ruha Benjamin, "I don't need allies. I need you to do something when you smell the smoke."

(A witness eventually did show up, he followed the driver who hit me and made her stop then he circled back and gave his report to the police. This person is a hero.)

I’ve been through enough life events like these to understand, as a wise friend recently reminded me that “the mind heals slower than the body”. I’m reminded of this each time my mind confuses this accident in peaceful California with the last time I was in a car spinning out of control that caught on fire in an active war zone. This time isn't that time, I intellectually understand. But it feels the same.

I paused writing this newsletter over the summer to focus on leading my team staffing communications for athlete-activists during the Summer Olympic Games. For weeks, I’d walk into my office and felt like a proud symphony orchestra maestro conducting important and overdue global conversations about mental health. It was wonderful to see the phrase “It’s okay to not be okay” everywhere and then things just… continued to not be okay. Gaza happened. Then Cuomo. Then Afghanistan. Then COVID hit my family. Then car accident. And then and then and then…

This time isn't that time, I intellectually understand. But it feels the same.

At the onset of the pandemic, there were so many declarations that this would change everything. But did we really let ourselves be changed? Did we ever do anything to let it okay to not be okay? Smell the smoke. If this time is different, the only thing to do is to be different and respond differently. So I took the advice Michaela Coel urged in her 2021 Emmy speech, “In a world that entices us to browse through the lives of others to help us better determine how we feel about ourselves, and to in turn feel the need to be constantly visible, for visibility these days seems to somehow equate to success—do not be afraid to disappear. From it. From us. For a while. And see what comes to you in the silence."

What came to me in the silence was immense gratitude and surprise. Surprise at all that I am learning still even now and gratitude that I have perspective. I’m not okay but I know I will eventually be okay. My arms are full carrying grief but people I love and trust are still carrying hope for me. I know my arms won’t be full of sadness forever and when I’m ready I can carry hope again too.

Over the holiday break, hope came to visit in the form of WhatsApp updates. One of the families I helped over the summer to get out of Afghanistan are resettled in their new country and there is a new baby they wanted to introduce.

Her name is Sabrina.

Happy 2022 to you.

This time is different.

What do you wish to do differently this year?

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Sabrina Hersi Issa is a human rights technologist. She is committed to leveraging innovation as a tool to unlock opportunity and dignity for all. She does this through her work in technology, media and investments. This is her personal newsletter.