Much of the political commentary over this past week has been bleak and despairing for the future of our fragile republic. It has assumed the worst about Americans’ true character, our dedication to inclusiveness and diversity, and our ability to rein in our ugliest instincts. America has abandoned its values, we pundits fret in unison.
Iraqi-born immigrant Omar al-Khattab doesn’t buy it.
On Tuesday night, with a full heart and an open mind, al-Khattab recited the oath of allegiance to the United States. He became a newly minted U.S. citizen exactly one week to the day after Americans elected a president who said Muslim immigrants like himself don’t belong here.
Al-Khattab was joined by 14 other immigrants at a naturalization ceremony at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum . The museum, dedicated to telling the stories of generations of American immigrants, hosts this event every year; this year’s proceedings, though, took on a new sense of urgency and hopefulness.
As despondent native-born Americans muse about ditching their country for greener, Donald Trump-free pastures in Canada or New Zealand, these 15 immigrants instead pledged their commitment to stay and fight for the nation’s most fundamental values.
These émigrés swore — as no native-born American is ever legally required to do as a condition of their own citizenship — to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
Al-Khattab, 37, may have recited this oath aloud for the first time on Tuesday. But he has been walking the walk for years.
As a child, he was enamored of American culture. He taught himself English by watching Robert De Niro films and listening to Michael Jackson songs.
And as an adult, he repeatedly risked his life for Americans.
Al-Khattab is a surgeon by training. While working in an Iraqi hospital, he began liaising with local American hospitals and eventually became an interpreter for the U.S. Air Force.
“Yes, I worked several missions in the field,” he says. “They were very, very risky, and exposed me to almost assassination.”
Six years ago, he came to the United States on a special immigrant visa for Iraqi and Afghan interpreters. (The United States has pledged to help the 50,000 interpreters who heroically aided U.S. forces, but we have actually brought over shamefully small numbers of them.) He says his parents remain in Iraq and have been seeking refugee status.
Today al-Khattab works as a patient coordinator at New York-Presbyterian hospital while he studies for his medical licensure exams. He ultimately plans to redo his residency and practice as a doctor once again.
His new citizenship status offers him some additional legal protections, of course (well, maybe). More generally, though, he mostly shrugged off concerns about recent displays of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment. Including those from our new president-elect.
What matters are America’s enduring institutions and legacies, al-Khattab says. “The fear we are seeing is basically fear of the unknown,” he says, arguing that everyone has been unfairly “prejudging” Trump. If given the chance, al-Khattab says, he would have voted for Hillary Clinton, but he trusts that the candidate who won instead will take his new responsibilities seriously.
“The guy has not even been in the White House yet. He speaks strongly. He has. But remember his job entitles him to be the protector of the U.S. Constitution, no matter what,” al-Khattab says.
He notes that the United States has always been “a temple of immigrants”: “It’s the Constitution and the values you look at. It’s the values of the country as a whole, not what a person says or not.”
But what of Trump’s proposed Muslim immigrant ban, or the outbreak of anti-Muslim hate crimes?
“If you survive Iraq, you will survive anything,” he says with a smile.
He believes that journalists have been irresponsible in our portrayals both of Muslims and those who might fear Muslims. (Although a brand-new citizen, al-Khattab has already adopted Americans’ favorite pastime: media criticism.) Everyone he has come into contact with here in the United States has been kind and good to him, he says.
“I come from a country where fear from the other is tearing it apart right now,” he says, suggesting that Americans must engage with fellow citizens motivated by fear as well. “When somebody tries to impose that on me, I have to please understand where is he coming from. He probably doesn’t know who I am as a person, but once he knows who I am, I’m sure his attitude will definitely change.”
Welcome (more permanently) to the United States of America, Dr. al-Khattab. For your sake, and all of ours, may your countrymen be everything you believe us to be.