When I was 7 years old, my family and I landed at JFK Airport in New York City with $90 in our pocket, a few suitcases stuffed with what little we could carry and no idea of what to expect next.
We came here because we were fleeing a totalitarian regime, because generations of our family had been oppressed simply for existing and because the United States was a beacon for our hopes and aspirations, as it has been for millions of others around the globe. [pullquote]
My paternal grandfather was sent to Soviet gulag in the prime of his life because he was a religious Jew who refused to work on Saturdays and, possibly, because some of his siblings had fled to France several years after the Russian revolution. He spent years working as a forced laborer on what was then called the Stalin White Sea-Baltic Canal, under primitive conditions. Thousands of his fellow inmates perished. He survived years of sadistic treatment but his health never recovered.
As a teenager, my father was drafted into the Soviet Army right before the Cuban Missile Crisis and sent to the Arctic, where he was forced to guard nuclear missiles aimed at the United States. He, too, survived three years in the military under brutal conditions.
In 1979, my parents and I were given permission by the Soviet authorities to immigrate but my elderly grandparents were denied an exit visa. They were told point blank that they would never see their only child and grandchild again. There was no reason given for why an old man and woman could not leave the country while their only caregivers could – other than to torture families who dared to question the Communist regime.
So six months later, when we disembarked at JFK, the United States owed my family nothing.
We had no money to support ourselves and my parents could not speak English well enough to immediately get a job commensurate with their education.
For a short time, we were on food stamps because we would not have been able to eat otherwise. In short, we were a burden until we were able to get on our feet and begin to give back.
Biannually, the month of November begins with divisive, partisan attacks and ends with a tradition of unity around the Thanksgiving table. Bombarded with negative campaign ads and depressing sound bites, it is no wonder that voters feel that our best days, as a nation, are behind us.
But take a moment, even as dissatisfaction with Washington crescendos, to consider this: which other nation on earth would allow penniless refugees, with nothing tangible to offer, unimpeded access to its national resources? Which other nation would ask its taxpayers to invest in immigrants without language skills or financial resources, with the tenuous hope that one day the taxpayers would earn a return on their investment?
Millions of people around the world don’t view the United States as dismally as we have learned to view ourselves. Despite our many challenges, this is still a nation to which immigrants flock because they want the United States to invest in their aspirations. Generation after generation has asked for that investment and time and again, that investment has paid off for them individually and for our nation as a whole.
The people literally dying to come here now do not believe that our best days are behind us.
Gratitude should not be saved for the Thanksgiving table. It should be acknowledged in the aftermath of a brutal election cycle.
Despite our differences – and there are many – there is still no other place on earth that provides this kind of opportunity to strangers who want nothing more than to be part of a national dream.