I was on a Swiss Air jet, flying back to America. For a moment, I felt a bit unsafe. Invisible turbulence, a ghostly intruder, pounded the walls of our winged world. Our plates of Moroccan lentil polenta and fish, our dark chocolate tortes and sparkling wine could have fallen from our carefully balanced trays. Down the row, beyond my other two kids and husband, my eleven-year-old sat with a long scar down his chest. His red line marked the day when his heart was carved and patched in a New York City operating room. After all of the struggling in the U.S. for his life, then his health, then his mental health, then his education and community and support — I’ve found that the life of my child, of any child, is inherently resilient, but also it is fragile. So invisible threats like turbulence sometimes make me worry.
But onward we soared. My rational mind knew we were fine. We’re Americans, for heaven’s sake. We are expats who’d recently moved to Switzerland. We were traveling in a carefully inspected jumbo jet that could easily handle a little turbulence. We had passports and access to medical care, education and jobs.
I pondered our privilege because I’d just finished reading Jennifer Gonnerman’s New Yorker article in the June 26 issue. She reminded me that there are other kids, like my boy, who aren’t so blessed. She told the (incredibly detailed) and unbiased story about an American immigrant boy named Mahoor. According to her piece, like my son, Mahoor was born with a life-threatening congenital heart defect. But his first breath was taken in Islamabad, Pakistan twenty-two years ago. His father, Khan, then a bank manager, left his job and country with his son and wife. (As a new expat, I can tell you that leaving a country for any reason is no small ordeal.) They headed to America so that Mahoor could have the open-heart surgery he needed, just like my boy, in New York City.
What if that were my boy? I wondered, trying to imagine handling a baby’s survival, surgery, and moving countries all at once. It seems to me Mahoor’s parents had the kind of guts we all need— the kind that built America.
And like my son, after surgery, according to Gonnerman’s details, Mahoor suffered serious complications. I can guess a little of what Khan and his wife must have felt. Having seen my baby suffer, I learned that parents feel pain in places unimaginable when their children are in danger. But when my son had his surgery, his hospitalizations, his continued complications (much less severe than Mahoor’s,) my husband and I weren’t vulnerable foreigners who had left everything. We weren’t Muslims.
Mahoor’s complications left him with severe difficulties eating, walking and talking. Over the years, through the help of immigration lawyers and the Council of Peoples Organization, the family stayed in America so that Mahoor could receive proper medical treatment. At one point Khan was even arrested because of his immigration status, and Newsday ran a story on him. Eventually Khan and his family were allowed to stay but had to check-in regularly with immigration authorities. Meanwhile Khan worked hard to pay the bills, and eventually Mahoor gained the ability to swallow, to speak and to walk.
Swallow, speak, walk. Isn’t that something? (And I’m afraid of turbulence.) In some respects, they were proving that the American dream still exists.
But according to Gonnerman’s article, Mahoor is at risk of deportation to Pakistan this month. Actually, today, the day I post this, he’s scheduled to learn whether he can stay in America. The U.S. has allowed Khan to work in the U.S. for twenty years, to raise a child through incredible challenges— though they haven’t been able to become citizens. If Mahoor and his parents are deported, the article explains, according to medical professionals at Mt. Sinai, he won’t be able to receive necessary medical treatment.
And as I read this, I got so frustrated that I put down my magazine, I tore up a barf bag, and start writing on it.
How can we remain “America, land of the free,” if we rip apart families, deport parents, children who have spent their lives here — if we threaten the lives of the disabled, like Mahoor?
If that were your child, would you have done anything different than Khan and his wife? I wonder. Anything?
Mahoor has lived in the U.S. for 20 years. He has parents whom, from what I can gather, have only improved America. Mahoor’s father sacrificed his career, endured imprisonment, sold his land in Pakistan, and has worked to pay for medical expenses — for the survival of his son. He has earned a living in construction and transported people for a living. Why spend the time, the bookkeeping, the manpower to round up a family, to ship them away from a nation that could benefit from more families like Mahoor’s? Courageous. Resourceful. Resilient. Compassionate.
You and I know there are many like Mahoor and his family— the nameless, faceless ones whom the New Yorker hasn’t had the millions of pages and writers to feature. These are the people who are like me, like my son, but they’ve had to fight to become part of America. They pose no threat but are the ones who recognize the value of freedom and healthcare and equal opportunity perhaps more than many of us do. More than I do. They remind us why we celebrate America this month.
I hear Trump’s corporation is starting a hotel chain called American Idea. Perhaps this idea could provide affordable safe shelter and affordable healthcare to house all of the families, of all socio-economic status, of all nationalities, who have worked for America, who have contributed to our nation in a positive way. Maybe, then, these people could continue to build up America. (I’m a dreamer, I know. But so was Khan when he decided to come to the U.S.)
Our jet soared onward along its path back toward New York City. The threat below was invisible. I saw only fluff. Heads around me tipped backward, snoring, dreaming while I imagined Mahoor and the millions of vulnerable immigrant kids and their families worrying about what will happen to them today, tomorrow.
It seems we do need a new American Idea. So what’s yours?