When, as a schoolchild, I first learned of the population of the United States and the world as a whole, I wondered how it was that I was so lucky to have been born here. In 1960, the United States (181 million) had about 6 percent of the world population (over 3 billion). I tried to envision myself in other less fortunate circumstances, but this was the only life I knew.
In 1984, Lee Greenwood wrote and sang the song “God Bless the U.S.A.,” which included the line “And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” Even though I love the song, whenever I hear it I think, “No, I am not proud to be an American. I am happy to be an American; I am fortunate to be an American.” But it is not something I earned or accomplished. It was just the luck of the draw. People who came here and worked for and earned their citizenship could rightly be proud of their accomplishment, and also happy to reap the benefits of citizenship.
Over the years, I have met, worked with, and become friends with many immigrants, most of whom became citizens. Some came here as refugees who had escaped Eastern Europe communist dictatorship. Some were from families that had escaped China in 1949 when Mao’s army took over the country. One escaped as a child at the fall of Saigon. Some came as students, or because there was an opportunity for work here. Some came from Europe, some from Africa, some from Southeast Asia some from Canada, and some came from Mexico, Central America or South America.
Some were Christian, some Jews, some Muslim, some Baha’i, some Hindu, some agnostic or atheist. All were happy to be here. For those who came from oppression, I sometimes ask whether, if circumstances were different, would they prefer to be back “home.” I ask this, because I always have the feeling that people have an inborn desire for their homeland. I can’t recall any wanting to leave, although some express a desire to visit relatives or see their place of origin.
The stories are all unique, sometimes sad or bittersweet. A close grad-school friend whose family had escaped China to Taiwan when he was four, went back to visit thirty-some years later after gaining citizenship here. He found out that he had an older sister his parents had left behind with relatives. They had never mentioned her. A couple that escaped Poland about 1980, had to get out separately, one at a time, and left behind a year-old daughter. Fortunately they were able to get her out after about a year.
An Armenian couple from Iran was fortunate to be working here before the Ayatollah took over. Another friend from Iran was a student in the U.S. at the time. He happened to be visiting there at the time of the takeover. An older brother of his was a police chief and was able to get him on a plane back to the U.S. He says other students were not so lucky. They were told they were welcome to come back. Those that did were never heard from again.
There were two co-workers and friends from work who were from Egypt. One I have come to know closely. He got his doctorate degree in Moscow before coming here. He knows more about American History than probably 99 percent of people born here. And if you ever think that all Muslims are evil, you should meet him. He is one of the gentlest and most reasonable people I know (and yes, we do talk about God, religion, and politics).
These and many more have reason to be proud to be Americans. And I am proud of them – and proud to be their friend.
The inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty says it:
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
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