Nine years ago this month I arrived in the United States to attend Union College in Schenectady, NY, where I finished my undergraduate studies. I still remember the very first thing I noticed the day I landed in Newark and took the train to New York City where I spent my first night in America. The one thing that stood out to me the most was how diverse the city was: different faces, different colors, different languages, different religions. And for the first time in my life, I felt welcomed.
As someone who was born and raised in Baghdad, Iraq, I talk about my experiences living there quite often. And although it’s never easy to re-live those moments and then put them into words, my past is what motivates me to live a better life, work harder, and to give back to and empower those in need.
After an unknown terrorist group kidnapped and presumably killed my father in November 2006, I thought that was it for me and my family. Everything became numb and I felt defeated and helpless, as if extremism had won and the rest just did not matter anymore. And when we were forced to flee Iraq and seek refuge in Syria, I lost my sense of belonging and, quite frankly, I lost everything. We left our home in the middle of the night, fully furnished, and only had two suitcases on us with whatever clothes we were able to pack.
However, coming to the United States and living here for the past nine years has given me a new purpose in life: to become an American citizen and to give back to the people of this country who sheltered me from all the war and violence and gave me the tools I need to succeed in life.
Watching the hateful neo-Nazis and white supremacists rally and commit violence in Charlottesville was heartbreaking. Reading about the man who drove his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring 19 others, reminded me of those exact same extremists who destroyed my country and shattered my family. Violent extremists do not have one race or religion, but they all know hatred and they all seek power by attempting to terrorize others.
Unfortunately, I was not surprised. Since the beginning of his presidential campaign and political career, President Trump has successfully given white supremacists everything they need to justify their hateful and extreme rhetoric. He continues to fuel their bigotry and although he did not start these groups, he has amplified their voices and normalized their actions.
That does not represent the America I saw on my first day here. Elected officials from across the United States need to step up and denounce white supremacy and neo-Nazism. We are stronger together, and we cannot let hate and bigotry define who we are as a nation.
Taif Jany is the policy coordinator for the Young Elected Officials Network at People For the American Way Foundation.