I arrived in the United States as a refugee in May 1985. I was 19. I came with only a backpack and little English. Making matters worse, I had come of age during the Iranian revolution of 1979 and its aftermath; in school, we had chanted “Death to America” every morning before the start of class. I had no love for the regime in Tehran, but I was also plenty uneasy about America.
I wonder what the Trump administration would have made of me. The president last year proposed a “merit based” immigration system, and on Monday the administration announced that in the fiscal year starting next month it would slash the number of refugees allowed into the country, from 45,000 to 30,000.
In the first weeks after my arrival, I received all manner of public assistance. For having to depend on the help of others and so much else, I was full of despair and self-loathing. When people spoke English to me, all I heard were long strings of uninterrupted speech. I found a job in a dental prosthetics office – answering the phones. I was quickly fired.
Like most other immigrants, I eventually learned the language, went to college, found work and made a life. But no passage I have ever experienced – not the passage from girlhood into womanhood, or citizen to a stateless person – has continued to awe me like my passage from a teen suspicious of the United States to the patriotic American that I became.
Time, that ubiquitous healer, cannot be credited with this particular metamorphosis. The American spirit can. What progress I made, where I studied or the people who ushered me along ultimately didn’t matter nearly as much as this: the dissolution of one narrative and the shaping of another that transformed me.
Over the bullhorn in the schoolyard in Tehran, the principal said the same thing the Friday imam preached at his public prayers, which was the same as what Iran’s leaders repeated in every speech: America had no heart. America’s god was the god of commerce. America worshiped only at the altar of money and did not care for those who had nothing to exchange.
Time and again, I have wondered what caused a narrative that had been so powerful, so ingrained, to crumble. It surely was not mere forgetting, or some inevitable shift from heady adolescence into tempered adulthood. It was not a philosophical or scholarly exercise that exposed the lies I had harbored. It was the example of the very life I had led here that rebutted the old narrative.
America had not taken me in because I had the “merit” of possessing valuable skills. I was taken in simply as I was. Would the toxic narrative of my adolescence have dissipated had I been granted a visa because I was a gifted computer programmer, or was working on a medical breakthrough, or had some other economically desirable talent? I doubt it.
Had I been admitted into the United States under those circumstances, I would have entered into a transaction – the only thing America cared about, according to the mullahs. I would have felt today as I do in a shopping mall, a client with a coveted purse. I would not have felt indebted to America, as I felt years later, once the fog of homesickness and melancholy had lifted and I saw my new home clearly.
Those who advocate abolishing a fundamental characteristic of U.S. immigration – welcoming the tired, the poor, the huddled masses – are neglecting an essential point. When citizenship is purchased with the currency of a marketable skill, it can be cast aside and neglected, like any store-bought bauble that has lost its allure.
The United States did not become the most powerful country in the history of the world only by cherry-picking the best. Museums and art collections are built that way, not nations. America opened its doors even to those of us who, broken by displacement, were uncertain of our own worth. Our new home had more confidence in us than we possessed, a confidence that we would begin the process of blending into a single, imperfect people like no other. Loyalty, the essence of patriotism, is inspired when entry is granted like a lifeline to a drowning person.
Roya Hakakian is the author of the memoir “Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran” and two books of poetry in Persian.
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