As the plane left La Guardia airport, it circled around the familiar robed woman wearing a crown of seven spikes. She holds a torch above her head with her right hand. In her left hand she carries a tablet. A broken chain lies at her feet. She is an icon of freedom and of the United States….a welcoming sight for those arriving from abroad and seeking refuge.
I thought back to 43 years ago when, as a young girl, I landed in New York on a temporary visa, frightened yet anxious to carve out a new life. The voices of thousands of women, children and men who had come before me on boats (or planes) followed me through my journey while their courage challenged me and their dignity reminded me that citizenship is not found in a piece of paper. It is found in the integrity of character.
Somehow, today in America, we are being led falsely to assume that those who differ from our norms are wrong. That those who come from countries less fortunate are not welcome. Yet it is people from diverse roots who have come here as dreamers who mirror the spirit of tolerance, kinship, and nationalism. People like you and me who celebrate the values, traditions and history of our ancestry while embodying the values of the American way of life.
As Americans we have to do better than trying to demonstrate our strength internationally by antagonizing peace talks, competing in nuclear explosive powers, selling weapons of war, associating with tyrants, and being oblivious to environmental issues. To demonstrate our worth and strength, it is our obligation now more than ever to infuse the moral and ethical values of this great nation into the processes of governing. Because without morality we will soon lose our influence around the world. I firmly believe that as a nation we can be humble instead of arrogant and flagrant. As a nation we can assist others without the need to dominate. As a nation we know to feed the hungry and deprived because we have nurtured our way out of the depths of our own starvations. As a nation we can be rooted in sensitivity, and show an understanding of life that is filled with compassion, kindness, and a deep concern for all refugees and immigrants seeking the same freedoms we have. As a nation that sees innocence before guilt and dignity before lowliness we can be strong and influential by clinging to principles that form the foundation on which our lives are fashioned.
Events and comments that smear and harm the press remind me that these are usually the first freedoms to be attacked by oppressors and dictators. Events and comments that misconstrue our understanding of freedom of speech and divide us remind me of irrational prejudice and discrimination that stem from a lack of respect for human rights for all humans.
Our Lady of Liberty that welcomes all into her harbor makes no boast of color, race, religion or class. On the contrary, she accepts each of us into this country, as a displaced person. I came from abroad, as did thousands before and after me. There is not one person living in this great nation (except for the Native American, also displaced in this their homeland) who is not a descendant of a displaced person. I am the reclaimed remains of another land, and today I am an American of a proud nation. I may not look like a “real” American, but there actually is no guide as to what a real American should look like. Americans are made up of so many different races and ethnicities, that the American culture or identity would not be what it is today without all these different derivations. The common denominator is our hunger for freedom. Whether we came here driven by economic, political, or religious oppression, or to successfully start anew, we did so believing in the fundamental certainty of our human rights and in the upheld dignity of man.
At the airport, I wondered, could America have become who she is now if the founding fathers had used the concept of building walls that divide and separate instead of a system of government that places a person’s inalienable right to be free from coercion at the center of its concerns? I wondered.
On the 4th of July, I hope we can all turn to the deeper symbolism of this celebration. As you hold your flags up high, remember the true meaning of America which lies in the soul of all those yearning for freedom… engraved at the base of our Lady Liberty on Bedloe’s Island in New York Harbor:
“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!”