We are immigrants. We are Americans. And we belong!
If we are lucky, we belong. I was lucky. I was born into a loving family, immediate and extended, and into a community where I was always welcome. There were no questions about who I was, where I was from, or why I was there. I just was. Life was simple. Simple was good.
But luck doesn’t always last. For that matter, we can’t always tell when our luck ends or when it’s just beginning. My luck changed when our government changed and my path in life took a turn unplanned and unexpected — a turn that eventually led to America.
Being the only son of a father involved with national events, I was aware of the news around me, local and global, for as long as I can remember. One day all the news was about the arrest of several men to prevent an overthrow of the government. An overthrow that seemed impossible at the time. Within days, the news was about their escape from prison. Within that same week, the men had taken control of the army and began taking over the government — a coup d’état. As a child not being aware of the meddling of foreign forces, all of these events seemed quite simple.
The night of the takeover is a night I will never forget. We could hear the sounds of the artillery attacks and could see the fireworks from the explosions. Tanks were rolling in the streets as we huddled in the corner of our living room while my father and others barricaded our doors. The news was blaring through the radio, warning everyone to stay inside and not interfere. We had no intention of interfering.
We were lucky and survived that night. In the days and weeks that passed, we experienced Communist propaganda first-hand. Soldiers were constantly in the streets putting fear into our parents’ hearts while entertaining children who were enamored with their military vehicles and equipment. Red leaflets fell from the sky — the twitter of the 70’s — intended to change hearts and minds while my cousins and I started contests to see who could collect the most leaflets.
Though I experienced all of this through the childish eyes of a seven year old, I could still feel the fear and pain in my parents’ eyes. It seemed every day another of their friends would disappear. Some were lucky and would later be found in prison. Others were never heard from again. My father was one of the luckiest ones. He found a job outside the country and we all left to join him. We left before the full turmoil of civil war ravaged our country into an unrecognizable state. And eventualy, we found our way to America.
I knew of America and loved America before I ever set foot in it — uniquely famous as a sanctuary open to all who needed refuge or sought opportunity. We needed refuge though we did not come as refugees. We came as immigrants — a technical difference without distinction.
As immigrants our backstories may differ but our hopes were the same. We came searching for peace and a new opportunity for life. Searching for a place where we could simply live even if life was different from before. A place where we could belong. Where we could love. Where we could seek our own opportunities.
But I learned at an early age that the belonging of our American dream would not always be the belonging of my American experience.
My first week in school, I could not wait to play with the other children and learn about all of the incredible playsets on the playground. I stood there waiting for an opportunity. One boy approached me. He asked my name. Taking it as an opportunity to play, I told him my name. He didn’t care about my name. He was there to put me in my place. As he made fun of my name, he punched me in the gut. I fell to the ground and looked up to see the other kids laughing and walking away.
This scene, in one way or another, has been repeated throughout my life here. Time passes and I feel like I belong. I feel like an American. I take another step towards normality. And I get punched back to reality.
But each time the belonging and normality last a bit longer. Feel a bit more real. Alleviate the pain of reality a bit more easily.
The past eight years of national politics have been a macrocosm of this cyclical and personal American experience. Just as I will never forget the night of the revolution in the country of my childhood, I will never forget election night 2008. Or now election night 2016.
I started November 4, 2008, by voting. I voted early in the morning and proudly wore my “I voted” badge late into the night. In between, my friends and I drove to Chicago in hopes of being present as the first black president gave his victory speech. Our hopes became reality.
We stood in Grant Park watching the big screens around us as the final results came in. The contrast between this night of peaceful transition and the night of my first country’s revolution could not be more stark. We were surrounded by the sea of diversity that is America. But that night was not about our diversity. We were all proud to be American no matter how we became American.
Practically everyone around us was in tears. We were hugging each other. High-fives. An utter feeling of elation that maybe, just maybe anything was truly possible in this unique and incredible nation. I barely slept that night. And for the next seven years, though not always agreeing with President Obama’s decisions, his presence in the White House made everything in my life seem more possible and more attainable. The American promise had been kept at the highest level.
And then came the 2016 election cycle. Like that punch in the gut, this past campaign and election has knocked some of us to the ground. And through the rallies and in many other ways, we are looking up to see our fellow Americans laugh and walk away.
President Trump has taken every opportunity to remind us we are different. We do not really belong. We are not welcome. Sure there have been nuances and corrections for some of these messages, but the message itself has always been clear. As have the celebrations by white supremacists who have long hoped for a way to clear us from their path.
But like the cyclical experience of my personal life, the American dream must remain. We are starting to stand back up. We are starting to dust ourselves off. We are rekindling our hopes and dreams. And we are reminding ourselves of the promises of this land.
All of us are created equal, even if some around us pursue a denial of that equality. All of us are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, even if others seek to trample on those rights. And all of us will pursue our lives, liberty, and happiness no matter the detours put in our path.
We do so because we know in our hearts that we must. Because we know that only by doing so will this cycle also come to an end. It is up to us to keep the promise that is America.
And so we will speak. We will listen. We will resist. We will vote. And we will prevail.
We will make our own luck. We are Americans. And we belong.