Land of freedom and opportunity

14Oct10

I’m finally plowing through the newspapers that piled up while I was out of town last weekend.

Of all the articles I’ve read over the past few days, the one that has most stuck with me is an editorial by Andrew M. Borene titled “Think about what’s going right with America.”

My visceral reaction to the title was annoyance. With all the problems our country is facing—from a horribly divisive political climate to flagging education and global warming—I couldn’t stomach such a Pollyanna perspective.

But I’m glad I read the editorial anyway. There were three sentences that resonated in particular:

The best way to measure the value of American citizenship is to look at what people who don’t have it are willing to do to obtain it. People from all over the world want to be Americans. Some risk their lives for it in attempting to cross our borders.”

Within the past week, I’ve met two of those people first-hand. Both of them happened to be taxi drivers who were shuttling me to and from the airport.

The first was a gentleman from Somalia who came to the U.S. about 15 years ago. He fled the war in Somalia in the early 1990s and worked in several countries until he finally won the lottery for a U.S. work permit.

His education is in chemical engineering, but he hasn’t been able to find work in his field. So he drives a cab to provide for his family. His main priority is to help his sons get through college. (The oldest is already a student at the U, following in his father’s scientific footsteps.)

I asked him whether he found it difficult to be an immigrant in the U.S., and whether he’d experienced discrimination. “Oh, no,” he replied. “In the United States there is tremendous opportunity if you work hard.”

He went on to extol the many virtues of the U.S.: Everyone is friendly, companies still care about customer service, consumer goods are affordable. “And Americans have freedom that other countries don’t imagine,” he added. I could tell that he spoke from personal experience.

Then there was the cabbie who brought me home from the airport on Sunday night. I felt sorry for him at first. He was older than the other fellow—maybe in his early 60s—and it was late. He seemed tired, but he made small talk anyway.

I learned that he was originally from Ethiopia. We talked about the political changes that had forced him and his family to flee. I asked him what he thought of the U.S. political system. “It’s very good,” he said, smiling broadly. I expressed my frustration at the partisan impasses that have so often blocked progress.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Even if Obama does nothing else in the rest of his term, he has already created a legacy.” “How’s that?” I asked. “Obama has taught millions of minorities that, in America, anything is possible,” said my driver.

I believed him when he said he’d been trained as a political scientist and economist. The guy was brilliant.

As we neared my house, he talked about his daughter. She’s an excellent student and he’s optimistic about her future. He’s happy that she’s growing up in a country where she can become anything she wants. “A country of opportunity,” as he put it.

Several days later, I’m still struck by my conversations with these two men. They could have complained about the harsh winters or the long hours or the low wages. They could have whined about their demanding bosses or their rude fares. But instead they both talked about the sense of optimism and opportunity they feel in the U.S.

I know I’m as guilty as the next person of occasionally forgetting how incredibly lucky I am to have been born an American.

I’m grateful to my Somali and Ethiopian friends for reminding me—and I’m especially grateful to Mr. Borene for driving the point home.



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