Millions of people like me have a story of why we left our homeland, how we got here and what we are doing to contribute to the American dream. “The New Colossus,” the poem by Emma Lazarus that adorns the Statue of Liberty, remains powerful precisely because it is an explicit declaration of our aspiration as a nation. More than just a poem, it is a statement of hospitality that not only holds the door open for us but shines a light to show us the way in. Recent attempts to rewrite her words, or restrict their meaning, are a direct attack on people like my family, who were “tempest-tost” by war, “poor,” and “yearning to breathe free.”
Let me tell you my own story about the many times someone told me to “go back to where you came from.” It happened in the lunchroom in elementary school, on a checkout line in a retail store and even on the basketball court in Washington, DC. Some version of “go back to your country” is not a new insult—nor the exclusive resort of bigots with Twitter accounts. But I would be lying to you if I said it did not hurt to hear it. My identity as an American has often been questioned by others—and yours might be, too. The terrifying thing for the millions of immigrants who live in America—or even for those born here who somehow look “different”—is that we do not need help fueling our identity crisis.
The questions are always in my head. If there was not a war in Lebanon, would I be here? If my parents decided to take us back, would I fit in over there? How do I bridge the values of my culture and place of birth with the norms of here and now? What do I tell you about the sacrifices and hardships my family endured to get us here? How do I answer when people ask me why I am so tan in the summer? Why do people look at me sideways if I haven’t shaved in a few days? America is supposed to be a “melting pot” of peoples, but why are there times when I still feel isolated and lonely? These are common questions and insecurities shared by immigrants and minorities from all places and walks of life.
A core lesson from this perpetual quest to “fit in” and “assimilate” is that when you are faced with hurtful insults, you shouldn’t try to prove something to those who will simply keep changing the rules to keep you down. The only person you have to prove anything to is yourself. This will not be easy.
Insulting words will still hurt, but anchor your mind in those American phrases that still mean something real: “land of the free” and “home of the brave.” That you are free and welcome to be here is a founding principle of our country. You are free to take comfort in the fact that there are people who will accept and support you for who you are. You are free to plant your feet firmly on this land and stand up for American values. Do not quit, because you have to believe that America is a home of the brave—not only the men and women who fight for it in or out of uniform, but those who are brave enough to leave elsewhere to seek shelter in it, and especially those who question it.
This true definition of America is why I ended up in one of the most “American” industries—professional sports. But don’t be fooled into thinking that there is an escape from the way others will want to define you. No amount of money you earn, no sport that you play, no safe neighborhood you live in can protect you from that.