I was waiting at the King Khalid Airport in Riyadh to board the Swiss Air flight that would take me on the first leg from The Magic Kingdom to America. Among the usual crowd of well-heeled Saudis and bewejelled expats I noticed a young, comparatively poorly-dressed dark-skinned girl waiting to board the plane. In Zurich we went to the same gate to catch the onward flight to Washington, and I struck up a conversation with her. Her family was from Guinea in West Africa, but she had been born in Saudi Arabia and lived there her entire life. Her father was one of millions of foreign workers who did the jobs Saudis were unwilling or unable to do, and her family was far from rich. They had saved enough money, however, to send their oldest daughter to America to study where she had been accepted at the University of Washington.
She said she had never really felt at home in Saudi Arabia or welcomed there, even though it was the only country she had known. She had returned to Guinea for a few months after graduating from high school, but felt even more of a stranger there. Like millions of others have done for centuries, she was coming to America to start a new life.
I was behind her as she put her suitcase on the conveyor belt to go through security, and it set off enough alarms to raise the dead. Security officials quickly opened the suitcase to reveal the metal sauce pans and silverware, along with bags of rice and beans, that her mother had packed for her so she would be able to survive in America. I realized that if she was having that hard a time getting out of Europe she might have a real hard time getting in America, so I made sure to keep her in sight to vouch for her if necessary after we reached DC. They let her into the country, and at the luggage carousel I saw her for the last time.
When I shook her hand to say farewell I handed her a crisp 100 dollar bill. "Life's not always easy in America," I told her. "You are going to meet people who mistreat you, and some who try to take advantage of you. No matter what happens, I want you to remember that the first person you met in America welcomed you here."
As she looked at my gift her eyes got large and her mouth dropped open. She could only say three words, but they were more than enough. "Oh my God!"
A few weeks ago I learned that a young Egyptian couple was making their first trip to America to interview in hopes of being accepted at a university in New York City. At the last moment the person who had said they could stay in her apartment backed out of the invitation. Determined to make the trip anyhow, the couple sold their car in Cairo to be able to afford the cheapest hotel they could find in Brooklyn.
After they finished the interviews, I offered to host them for a few days in the DC area. I took a day off from work, and we walked around the White House and the Mall. I introduced them to the Lincoln Memorial and explained why Abraham Lincoln was such an important President that he merited his own temple. We visited the Vietnam Memorial, and watched the veterans who after all these years still shed tears as they touch the engraved names of fallen comrades. And I said to them, "This is America."
Like most of us, I continue to make New Year's Resolutions even though I usually fail to keep them. My resolution for 2011 is to be more active in welcoming newcomers to our country. Many refugees have recently arrived from war torn countries such as Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan. I've just filled out the application forms to serve as a volunteer teaching English as a Second Language to some of them. It's only a two-hour per week commitment, and even I can handle that. Hopefully I'll do a good job and will be able to say to them, along with the many others involved in their resettlement, "Welcome to America!"