On Becoming a Patriot

I remember the day I became a patriot.

Sitting in the living room on a Sunday evening with friends from Congo, I slowly nursed my cup of water and listened. Three years before this large family had moved to the United States in two shifts—first the older sons who could more easily be placed in jobs and then the parents with their eight school-aged children. Their youngest daughter and mine met one evening in our backyard and were instant friends. They did not speak the same language but smiles, gestures and giggles were enough to bond them together. This night I had asked if her father would tell me his story. What were the years before the United States like? What had brought them here?

His story spanned two generations of highs and lows and more than one move across man-made borders for safety. His father had once fought for a European nation and been given farmland as a reward for his loyalty. Years later the son had to flee the country due to ethnic turmoil. He rebuilt his life in that new country only to have to leave again because tribal divisions threatened his life. He and his wife are not from the same tribe and were targeted as a result. Leaving behind relatives and the only kind of life they had known, they fled to a refugee camp in a neighboring country.

After years of waiting, months of paperwork and tests and questions (generally 18 months for most refugee immigrants), they came to the United States. From my settled middle-class eyes looking in, those first years were hard for them. The sons lived in a basement apartment that flooded the first winter when the hot water furnace sprung a leak and it took a few days for them to let me know and get the landlord to respond. Mom did not leave the house much that first winter as she had never experienced such bitter cold and she could never seem to get warm. The rental houses were old and small for such a large family. The minimum wage jobs were hard on the body and barely filled a wallet. I wondered if they regretted coming to this country where life, from my perspective, seemed really, really hard.

The last question I asked my friend that evening went something like, “Do you like living in the U.S.?” My implied question was, “Do you regret coming here? Isn’t it hard?”

His lightning fast response was that he loved the United States.

Why?

His family was safe here.

That was it.

I left that evening a patriot. I was and am still fully aware that our country is far from perfect. And yet, my father is German descent and my mother is English descent and no one attacks them for being married. Growing up, we moved from a small town in Michigan to the big city of San Diego and then back to Michigan to the capital city. We didn’t have to leave behind our belongings and everything my father had worked for running in fear of our lives. We moved because there were other opportunities, new horizons to explore. I spent a semester in college studying public policy in Washington D.C. during President Clinton’s first inauguration and watched the peaceful transfer of power. Our government has been purposely set up to represent the people rather than ruled by the whims of whatever dictator has the biggest guns. Why do I now love my country in a way I never did before? Because an immigrant showed me a new understanding of safe.

In the last eight years, my life has been filled with friends from Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand, Congo, Tanzania, Burundi, and Sudan. Each of these friends have arrived at some point in the last eight years with nothing. I cannot count how many of them now own homes. The majority of them work in menial jobs like laundry facilities, hotel housekeeping, sewing, chicken farms, parts factories and warehouses. Many of those jobs nobody else wants. They get paid little and they save those pennies and buy cars and homes. With that money they are also growing gardens and starting businesses. They are giving back by helping newcomers. This last month, a new Congolese girl who had been here only one month gave birth to a baby. A family from Nepal and a family from Myanmar donated a crib and clothing to this new family they had never met. Though I haven’t officially counted, it may be safe to say that every home I have entered owns an American flag proudly displayed in the living room. Again, I have lost count of how many of them have become citizens overcoming major language barriers to answer the questions about this country so that they can say, “I am an American.”

They come because they want to be safe. They are tired of war, and fighting, and hatred. They already know what that is like and they don’t want any part of it. They want to be active participants in a country where they can marry, raise children, go to the store, and attend community events peacefully. They have taught me hospitality inviting me into their homes for tea and homemade food giving me more honor than I deserve. At one level they are the walking wounded, victims of division and greed. At another level they are simply people like me looking for a quiet, safe place to live and love.

They are my friends, my neighbors, my fellow Americans.

 By Joanna DeWolf at (Joannadewolf.wordpress.com)

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