“Land of the free, home of the brave” – growing up, the United States was always this far away land in which people can live freely, thrive on a personal, academic, and professional level, and achieve their full potential. The first time I heard the phrase, “American Dream”, I was probably in middle school, right when I received a USAID scholarship to transfer from a very monolithic Lebanese school to American Community School in Beirut (ACS), a diverse American school. At ACS, I got to travel to different countries twice a year for competitions and camps, had teachers and classmates from various backgrounds, nationalities, and religions, and worked on community service projects throughout the year. This experience allowed me to see the raw humanity in others, broadened my perspective, deepened my empathy, and created a spark in me to always strive to become the best version of myself. It made me want to continue my educational career in the US. I was certain that regardless of my background, religion, social class, and gender, I will be far more valued there than back in Lebanon, where nepotism, corruption, and misogyny would define my growth.
And indeed, that’s what happened during my four years at Swarthmore where I attended on a full merit scholarship. I was given the tools to develop and thrive on every level, and I had a strong support network that boosted my emotional and mental wellbeing. This is why I am so incredibly grateful to the United States – I would have never reached the level of deep compassion, personal awareness, intellectual curiosity, professional success, etc., if it were not for my time in ACS and in this country, which was only possible with the financial contributions of the US government and institutions. Not only did my government never offer me anything to reach my potential, but it also does not really value my worth as an individual since I don’t come from a wealthy family nor one with political ties and influence, and it does not care if my basic human rights are violated.
The field trips this past week, despite their focus on gun and gang violence, reminded me why I wanted to come here so bad when graduating high school. Don’t get me wrong – there are so many flaws in American governance and institutions, there is deep structural and institutionalized racism, the government is driven by the desires of interest groups, and many minority groups are economically, socially, and politically disenfranchised. However, when I saw different members of the Salinas community, including district attorneys, the chief police, multiple NGOs, and religious leaders, coming together during the CASP meeting to address violence in the city, I felt some sort of warmth in my heart. When we spoke to Mr. José (the program manager) in the city’s administration and the mayor (who gets paid so little!) about their efforts to move the city forward and ensure protection for all, I felt benign jealousy that most leaders in Lebanese communities would never be so giving and genuine. Instead, they only steal and deceive the population for their own interests. When we went to the prison, and I saw all the different rehab programs, the medical center, the attention afforded to persons with special needs and the policies instituted to protect the rights of prisoners, I was impressed that the system was trying hard to care for the prisoners, rather than one that completely dismisses their humanity and violates their basic rights.
While I don’t want to constantly compare the situation in the US to that in other countries since it is also definitely imperative to address and fix the flaws here, I can’t help but acknowledge the tremendous privilege that comes with living here and being American. People are born entitled to rights that are way beyond the frame of reference for others in different countries, and that is a standard that Americans should celebrate and be proud of in their work to keep improving the system.