Think about it, we are the only civilization on earth ever to be founded on this defiant worldview: that our individual differences don’t outweigh our common humanity. In many ways, America is still ahead of its time.
I love this country because it’s a place where the ultimate comeback stories are written — including my family’s own story. Only in America can the son of a Hispanic woman from the barrio and an Arab man from an occupied territory have the freedom to reimagine his life and pursue his dreams.
I spent my early years with my family under siege by American-made helicopters and F-16s that leveled entire buildings on the block where we lived. And then, just as surreally, I spent the second part of my life working for the U.S. government, entrusted with serving the American public. It’s not the perfect love story, but I know what I’ve witnessed in my life is nothing short of an American miracle.
My father, Yasser Najjar, saw both his parents gunned down right in front of him when he was only 11 years old. Orphaned and outlawed, my father moved across Egypt, Lebanon and Morocco in search of a new home. On his 18th birthday, he found himself at a critical crossroads: continue seeking refuge across the Middle East, or move westward to America.
He chose America, and America chose him. In 1986, on a sunny San Diego day, my father met my mother and they soon married. In 1993, my father asked the family to relocate to the Middle East for a few years so that he could help Yasser Arafat lead a secular unity government. Today, baba is a law-abiding, taxpaying, American Muslim who has devoted his life to promoting peace between Israel and the Palestinian people. His pain was turned into purpose, to make the world a better place for his children.
My mother, Abigail Campa, the modest Mexican Catholic daughter of an orphaned migrant farmworker, showed me through a divorce and financial difficulty that you can dust yourself off and start again, that there’s dignity in a hard day’s work, and that your work doesn’t define you, it reveals you. She went from working as a receptionist to applying to work in a Walmart in her 50s to a career in real estate.
She repeatedly inconvenienced her life for mine, whether it was choosing to live in a war zone just so her boys could have a father present or interrupting work to drive me home from school, to soccer games, to church. Her pain too was turned into purpose — to show her children all true love can do.
I’ll never forget watching my mother weep when I was 9 years old. My abuelita flew from San Diego all the way to Tel Aviv to visit, only to be turned away. The second intifada — a brutal war between Israel and the Palestinian people — broke out the hour she landed. Nobody could enter, and nobody could leave. My mom’s source of comfort was so close, yet so far.
I vowed to never show weakness or let her see me cry. So I didn’t cry when we said goodbye to our family in San Diego to live in the Palestinian territories for a few years. I didn’t cry when I watched a boy my age, Muhammad al-Durrah, get shot and killed while hiding behind a barrel. I didn’t cry the night they cut off the electricity to all of Gaza City, and I, my mom, stepmom, dad and younger brothers hid in the dark corner of a cold kitchen floor as they carpet bombed our neighborhood. I didn’t cry when we had to leave baba behind and finally return to the United States in August 2001.
I didn’t cry when war clung to our lives like a disease and followed us to America. I didn’t cry that September when 19 terrorist hijackers committed mass murder at the World Trade Center. I didn’t cry that week when the Islamic school I attended was vandalized and declared unsafe to study or pray in.
And then after working alongside hundreds of people who volunteered their labor and love to elect a man of color president of the United States, I left the only two people I’d never been separated from, my mom and younger brother, to pursue my dreams of working in Washington.
Just before the inauguration in January 2013, I stood gawking at my new workplace — that grand, glorious, mysterious structure on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where Lincoln still walks at night.
After not being considered Arab enough in Gaza, Latino enough for the barrio, or American enough in my own country, after so many shut doors, the door to all others finally opened. On that day, in those hallowed halls, I cried. The pain was given purpose: to live to tell you this story and to give others hope.
The morning after the election, I went to work for President Obama in a building where President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team had already begun settling in. There was no time to process anything. I felt sad, scared, angry, confused and numb, all at the same time.
I don’t know what’s going to happen next. All I can do is take things one day at a time and be ready to respond to what’s around the corner. We can take time to feel, but then we have to regroup and move forward as one nation. In 61 days, Obama will depart the White House and it will be up to all of us, ordinary citizens, to once again be the ones we’ve been waiting for.
Let’s not seek comfort in the easy traps of either normalizing or demonizing the decision half of America has made. We must do what is hard, what is necessary and what is right. We must hold our families and communities close with a firm grip, but also extend an open hand to those who reject us. We must take a stand but also find a way to understand.
America’s destiny has never been at the mercy of one person. It’s always been about all of us, placing our mortal hands on the arc of history and bending it slowly, sometimes too slowly, toward justice once again.
So even in our darkest hours as a nation, don’t let anyone tell you our differences are too vast to bridge, or that your individual struggles are too hard to overcome. Chase the American Dream, have faith in the alchemy of America, turn your pain into purpose and begin writing your own ultimate comeback story.
Ammar Campa-Najjar, the Hispanic-Arab American son of immigrants who was born in San Diego, works for the U.S. government in Washington.