On the 4th of July, Americans celebrate our independence from Great Britain. We barbecue and light off fireworks and attend parades to commemorate the fact that . . . we are all immigrants. Well, unless you’re Native American, in which case your ancestors probably emigrated thousands of years ago, but in any case, most of our ancestors came from some other place. Yet, I think most of us seem to forget this. In light of the current debate on immigration, I think most of us definitely seem to forget this.
I guess we could debate whether this is what 4th of July is about. It’s not. It’s about all men are created equal. It’s about liberty for all. It’s about a how lot of things that come back to my original point: We are all immigrants.
Which is why I’d like to tell you a story. A true story. One about remembering what it really means to be an American.
Several years ago, I believe my daughter was a sophomore in high school, I attended one of her basketball games. It must have been the first home game of the season. I was sitting alone as my husband was home with Minion #3 who was only a baby at the time and I hadn’t really made a lot of friends in our new town even though we’d lived there for four years. (I’m a bit of a loner!) Anyway, I was sitting quietly, waiting for the game to start, observing the the people around me. There were quite a few parents I knew, said hello to, and continued to keep my own company.
Nearby, was a particular father I had seen on many occasions. His daughter, only one year younger than my own, had played soccer and basketball with Minion #1 for years. The girls were friends, and my husband and I sat by her parents during countless sporting events. I wouldn’t say we were friends, really, but they were very nice people and I believe they felt the same way about us.
This night, we were both alone, nodded our hellos, but honestly, I wasn’t in the mood to be social. I’m like that sometimes, er, a lot. So I was only too happy to hear the announcement, “Please stand for the National Anthem.” Like my fellow Americans, I stood, found the flag, and fixed my eyes upon it waiting for the music to start.
I’d like to say I make a point of always singing our National Anthem. Even when it means inflicting my less than stellar voice on those around me. Usually we have a recording that is in a key much too high for my voice, but this was different. The key was still too high, but the song was not a recording. It was sung by the young girl I had previously mentioned. Her name is Haleemah.
Haleemah’s clear, sweet voice rang through the gym. The words of the Star Spangled Banner have always brought tears to my eyes. I’m sentimental like that. But that night was even more poignant. You see, Haleemah’s parents were not born Americans. Palestinian I believe. I don’t know. I’ve never asked. Seems like a bit of a fail on my part right now. Though the children were all born here, and speak perfect English, their parents still have the heavy accent they brought from the home country. I’m not criticizing. I can’t speak Arabic after all.
The beauty of a first generation Palestinian-American singing the words to our National Anthem in a gym filled with predominantly white, Christian Americans whose families had been in not only America, but this very town, for generation after generation was not lost on me. Tears stinging my eyes, I glanced at Haleemah’s father, and there he was, proudly watching his youngest daughter. But he was also singing. Every word. Right along with her.
Looking around the bleachers at the people sitting near me, I took in my fellow white, Christian Americans. You know, the ones I mentioned whose families dated back 150 years in this very small town. The ones who had enjoyed the advantages of political and religious freedoms their whole lives. Who benefited from a free education, from a country not bombed, terrorized, or rent by warfare. I didn’t see a single lip moving. Not even lip-synching. Just me, Haleemah, and her Palestinian-born father.
It was a touching scene, though I felt like only a few of us were truly seeing it for what it was. We have an unbelievable gift in this country, and we need to appreciate it every day. Sing the anthem, say the pledge, honor the flag, honor our soldiers. It doesn’t take much. And maybe those things are superficial compared with the inner gratitude we should experience. I’m guessing many of the people around me that day do appreciate the freedoms we enjoy in this country. But I feel it is important to express that in meaningful ways. It’s not enough to just say to yourself, “I love my country.” Because there are people out there everyday who love it too, but they have something else to compare it to.
Haleemah went on to sing our National Anthem at nearly every boys and girls home basketball game for four seasons. She graduated this year, so we’ll probably go back to the recording, but I will always treasure hearing her sing. And I will always remember the sight of her father, hand on his heart, singing the words of a song he was not born to love, but came to love by choice, by hard work and by sacrifice.