To My Fellow "Shitholers"

Last April, I had the profound honor to be asked by United States District Judge James E. Boasberg to give a short speech at a naturalization ceremony over which he was presiding. As an immigrant myself (I moved to the US from Israel in my early 20s), I had participated in a similar ceremony when I became a citizen in the fall of 2000. I am also the granddaughter of refugees from Nazi Germany (on my mother’s side) and those fleeing pogroms in Belarus and Ukraine (on my father’s side) who ended up and made a life for themselves in Israel (then Palestine).

What made it even more special was that I got to share the podium with Judge Merrick Garland, who had been asked to read the Pledge of Allegiance and was there to honor his longtime housekeeper who was being sworn in that day.

But the day was really less about me and more about the immigrants in the room, many of whom were dressed up for the occasion, some bringing friends and family members to witness this great day, cameras at the ready. Many of the people in the room came from places our president describes as “shithole countries”. His words today took me back to that day last year, when I nervously spoke to a roomful of excited, almost giddy fellow immigrants and soon-to-be naturalized US citizens.

I think of these folks often and wonder what they are thinking about the current state of affairs in this country and how such words are affecting their daily lives, their families, their sense of pride at being Americans.

Here’s what I said that day.

Congratulations everyone on becoming American citizens!

Some of you are here today because of hate: perhaps it was too unsafe at home; there was war or persecution.

Others, like me, are here because of love. Your special mate happened to be an American and you decided to build your home together here.

Still others are here today because of the many opportunities this country provides: a job; an education, reuniting with family members.

Regardless of what brought you here, we now all have at least one thing in common. We are all Americans.

And that means a few things.

Whether you like it or not (and I don’t) baseball is now our national sport;

Whether you can recite the words or not (I still get some of them wrong) the Star Spangled Banner is our national anthem.

Hotdogs and hamburgers are a staple of our diet (don’t ask me how I feel about that as a doctor!)

But it also means that we are now citizens of a country that values, and offers, freedom, safety (for many but not all), and a chance to reinvent yourself.

Where I came from nobody goes to medical school at 30. Here, I could. And I did.

But becoming an American does not mean that who and what you were before, gets erased. Or that you forget about the place you came from.

Mahmoud Darwish – a famous Palestinian poet - captured it well.

“I am from there. I am from here. I am not there and I am not here. I have two names, which meet and part, and I have two languages. I forget which of them I dream in.” Being an immigrant means sometimes having a split personality.

It is the weird feeling when you have to fill out a form that asks for your nationality. Even after 16 years of officially being an American, it feels strange to put U.S on these forms.

There are days when you are not sure what you really are. Am I more of an American or more of an Israeli? When you go home for a visit – assuming you can go home – you feel you are no longer exactly like them – “oh, that’s so American of you” friends and relatives will say.

There are daily reminders that will make feel you are not “fully American” – whatever that means. Daily reminders of this ‘not here/not there’ situation.

This can happen when you see the puzzled looks on people’s faces when they read or try to pronounce your name;

When they ask – what’s your accent from? –

When they can’t understand why it is so hard to understand what happens on the baseball field;

When you mess up holiday songs;

When your colleagues joke about a character from a famous TV show from their childhood and your blank look betrays a cultural ignorance and you apologize: “sorry, I didn’t grow up here” for ruining their punch line and making their joke fall flat.

It is that awkward feeling when on a day your friends or relatives back home celebrate a national or religious holiday – everybody here goes about their business, schools are open, people go to work.

It is the sadness you might feel when your American born children’s childhood is NOTHING like the one you had.

And when you have to learn new nursery songs along with them.

Some days you will ask yourself, what does it take to be a “true” American and should I try harder? Take additional English language courses? Perfect that accent? Dress the part? Change my name to a more American sounding one?

But you ARE – as of today -- True Americans. And ‘true’ Americans come in all shapes, sizes, colors, religions and accents.

Do you know what really makes America great? Diversity. And Inclusion. Our differences and heterogeneity. Getting to know, and living alongside people from all over the world.

As an Israeli I never had an opportunity to meet, let alone work alongside or befriend people from Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.

“No, they don’t all want to kill us” I can now tell friends back home. How do you I know? Because they are my colleagues, patients and friends.

As a family doctor working in DC I work with immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers every day. Not just colleagues. Patients. And while our differences may be vast, there is also a lot that unites us. The immigrant experience does. I hear stories not just about disease but also about the difficulties of assimilation.

As a fellow immigrant I get it.

It is not easy feeling like an outsider.

So here is what I say to my patients, and what I would like to say to you today.

You can celebrate both your background and heritage AND be an American.

You have an accent when you speak English? Be proud! That means that unlike most Americans you speak at least two languages.

You bring different perspectives, resilience; ingenuity; New and delicious foods.

Amazing beats, rhythms and music.

You love soccer (that’s now becoming a very American thing! Except that as we all know…it is the REAL football)

Your fabrics and traditional clothing are beautiful.

These are all gifts to be celebrated. Savor them. And teach us about them.

You may not be a stockbroker but you are – whether you realize it or not – a cultural broker.

And now for one of my biggest pet peeves: Don’t let anyone – teachers, doctors, neighbors, family members -- tell you you should only speak English to your children! {Assuming English is not your native language}

The science backs it up – there are amazing benefits to being bilingual and you will be doing them a favor.

Speaking more than one language – being bilingual – enhances intellectual growth, mental, linguistic and emotional development.

Researchers are even finding that the benefits include recovering faster from a stroke and delaying the onset of dementia.

Yes, your kids will -- at some point -- roll their eyes and seem embarrassed, but they will realize one day that you have given them a gift. One that will also allow them to navigate other cultures more easily.

Being new Americans, being immigrants, also means we have a civic duty to this country.

We live in interesting times these days. To put it mildly.

This is a time when sometimes even the act of celebrating our diversity and heritage can be a political statement.

Voting is one important civic duty. My first time voting was amazing, and even more so when the final decision went to the Supreme Court, which picked George Bush over Al Gore. Now THAT was a lesson in the intricacies of the Constitution. Fortunately, that was only a one-time event.

But as immigrants our even bigger duty is to make our voices heard. Loud and proud.

Just as we were welcomed here….we need to continue to welcome others. Regardless of where they come from.

Just as we want our cultures to be acknowledged and celebrated….we need to make sure everyone’s culture is celebrated and appreciated.

It may mean standing up for others -- like us -- in public spaces -- on the street; on public transportation; at work; at a rally.

but also at the ballot.

We work. We pay taxes. We vote. We can run for office; we can lead; America is the land of opportunity for everyone.

As Lin Manuel Miranda – the actor and composer – wrote in his epic musical Hamilton

“Immigrants, we get the job done.”

The work continues with each and every one of you.

Let this new chapter and your future as an American citizen be shaped by the your rich heritage and all that this country has to offer.


Speaking at the ceremony
Speaking at the ceremony
With Judge Garland (L) and Judge Boasberg (R) after the ceremony.
With Judge Garland (L) and Judge Boasberg (R) after the ceremony.
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