THE BLOG

A Canadian's Appeal To American Voters

12/04/2008 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

Relax - I'm not telling you who to vote for. That's your business. Rather, this blog is about what it means to be connected to the common good. It's an expanded version of my Oct. 31 op-ed in The New York Times, posted here with their permission. As someone who loves America's ideals, I hope you take the spirit of this story to the polls...

For me and my family, the first week of November has always signified renewal. It's the week we came as refugees to a free part of the world: Canada. Although I was only four years old and couldn't have imagined the gift we received upon arriving, I now appreciate why this is the moment to tell Americans that story.

Starting in August 1972, thousands of Asian entrepreneurs fled the East African country of Uganda. Its dictator, General Idi Amin Dada, declared us to be "bloodsuckers," seized our property, and gave us three months to leave or die.

Owning no other passport, my family couldn't escape to Britain or India like many of our neighbors. We'd been in Uganda for two generations; we didn't know where else to go. But neither did we have the choice to stay: Idi Amin viciously enforced his 90-day deadline.

By the final week of October, nations that would otherwise accept the Ugandan exiles had exceeded their quotas. My parents heard that Canada might be willing to make room because it had inaugurated a policy called "multiculturalism," for which we refugees would be perfect poster children. The politics worked, even if our timing - at the tail end of the exodus - stunk.

It turns out that we arrived just in time to meet an extraordinary immigration agent. After several weeks of navigating the refugees who came before us, she could have waived us through - or turned us back - with the indifference brought on by burnout. Instead, the agent engaged with my mother. "Why do you want to live in Montreal?" she asked en francais.

Mercifully, mother grew up in the Belgian Congo and could respond in French. "Why do we want to live in Montreal?" Mum repeated, buying a few seconds to think. "Well, Montreal begins with the letter 'M,' and our family's name begins with the letter 'M,' so maybe God believes we will fit nicely together."

Sensing my mother's fear, the immigration agent assured her that this wasn't an interrogation. "It's just that I'm looking at your daughters," she explained, "and I realize that they're all dressed for tropical weather. Madame Manji, have you ever seen snow?"

Terrified at the prospect of being booted out, my mother blurted out, "No, but I can't wait to!"

"Then you've come to the right country," the agent assured Mum. "With your permission, however, I'd like to send you and your children to Canada's version of a mild climate." Several stamps of the paperwork later, we boarded a plane to Vancouver, where I learned to make peace with rain.

Some would reduce this immigration agent to a shrewd gatekeeper of cheap labor, carting us off to a city that would get rich from the Asian work ethic. And yet she was more complex than a caricature. Instead of simply unloading us on local authorities, the agent cared enough to ask what we might need more of -- peace, yes, but also fleece. Her small act of empathy bucked an ice-cold system.

As an adult, I've come to understand why I'm so blessed to have immigrated to an open society. Here, the individual -- and the choices she makes -- matter. The agent chose to give a damn, then acted on that choice.

In closed societies, where the narrative has already been decided, the individual must adapt or face retaliation. No wonder Mum immediately sought to appease the woman in uniform. In my mother's experience, individuals were the subjects, not the authors, of our grander story.

She and her daughters would learn that open societies are under constant renovation, the conclusion not yet known if ever it will be. That's why individual choices shape who we collectively become. Is there a more meaningful truth for Americans to grasp in these precious hours before they vote?

And whoever gets elected, may he embrace the example of the immigration agent. Quietly, perhaps inadvertently, she practiced the cardinal lesson of the common good: that just because a problem doesn't affect you personally doesn't mean it ceases to exist. After all, she wasn't the one who needed a winter sans snow. We were. Still, she stepped out of her skin to wonder how she could help future citizens get it.

Mum tells me that she tried to track down the lovely lady who let us into Canada. Having never found the agent, we don't know if she's alive. Regardless, she isn't forgotten. As Madame Manji reminded her children in 2002, on the thirtieth anniversary of our arrival, "When we touched this soil, we won the lottery of life."

Idi Amin died in Saudi Arabia the next year. As the news of his passing broke, several friends wrote to say that I must be cursing his corpse. They didn't know about the lottery of life, but they deserved to. "Actually," I confessed to each friend, "I'm putting in a silent prayer of thanks. His hatred introduced my family to the gift of choices."

On Nov. 4, it's not Idi Amin who will dominate my thoughts. It's the immigration agent. Her spirit crossed the border with me when I moved to New York City this past year. As a Canadian, I can't pull the lever for any presidential ticket, yet that won't stop me from voting. I've already cast my ballot for gratitude.