“Together, we are a nation united not by any one culture, or ethnicity, or ideology, but by the principles of opportunity, equality, and liberty that are enshrined in our founding documents.”
When President Obama read those words at my ceremony to become a naturalized American citizen, I was 30 years old. Still, I wept. Becoming an American citizen was important to me in ways I had not imagined. Though I was born in Liberia, I was never allowed to become a Liberian citizen because Liberia’s constitution requires you to be of Black African origin.
I grew up pulled by the two identities that shaped me — a child of Liberia and a citizen of India, my parents’ country of origin — but never fully belonging to either. When I turned nine years old, Liberia’s civil war erupted. Like thousands of others, my family fled leaving everything behind. Resettled in America, I spent the second half of my childhood growing up in North Carolina.
I wept at my naturalization ceremony because for the first time in my life I realized where I was born or where my parents come from had less to do with who I am or where I belong than what principles I believed in. America, I learned that day, helps make immigrants into citizens based on their belief in these principles — “opportunity, equality, and liberty” — and, in turn, these immigrants help make America.
Now, with the increasing risks, threats and actions taken against refugees and immigrants, I find myself asking what can I do to express solidarity with these communities?
Becoming an American citizen was important to me in ways I had not imagined.
As an American, I will donate to refugee and immigrant-focused charities like Refuge Point and Welcoming America. And as a refugee and immigrant, I will share my story. When refugees and immigrants share their stories, I believe we offer hope not only to other immigrants, as the journalist Jorge Ramos told me recently. By collectively sharing our individual immigrant experiences, we can also inspire actions other Americans can take in their every-day lives to assist refugees and immigrants.
Two years ago, I shared my story. In my 2015 commencement speech (see excerpt below) to the graduates at Harvard Medical School, I reflected on how the selfless acts of individual Americans transformed my life. I am a refugee. But today, I am also a doctor who teaches American medical students at Harvard Medical School and leads a medical non-profit organization serving rural communities in Liberia.
Many of the American medical students I have mentored in rural Liberia over the past decade have used the lessons they’ve learned not only to treat patients in West Africa but to improve health care for Americans back home. I have been proud to serve communities in the country where I was born and in the country that adopted me.
Like many other refugees and immigrants, my journey has not been ”self-made.” As I share below, I believe the Americans who acted selflessly — providing my family with shelter, helping my parents secure jobs, sponsoring our green card applications, and mentoring me as a teenager — helped make my journey possible. I believe the selfless acts that shaped my life matter, as ever, for the lives of refugees and immigrants across America. And I believe no person, no policy, and no institution can strip the power we each have to act selflessly.
The following is an excerpt from my speech - “The Power of Selfless Acts” - at the 2015 Harvard Medical School Graduation. The full transcript of this speech, delivered on May 28, 2015, is available here.
“Thank you Aaron. Thank you Dean Flier, Dean Donoff, Dean Oriol, fellow faculty, graduates and loved ones. I am honored to share in this special day with you. I’m honored to be chosen by your class to speak. But before we go on I have to make a confession.
When I applied to medical school 13 years ago every one of the 15 schools I applied to rejected me – every single one – including Harvard Medical School. Harvard is ultra competitive to gain admission to. The acceptance rate is only around 3 percent. So, if after failing to get in, I ended up on this stage just think about how far you’re going to go. Congratulations again on reaching an extraordinary milestone.
I did finally make it off the wait list and into medical school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and as I thought about what inspired me back then to choose medicine it’s the same thing that inspires me about it today: the power of selfless acts.
As a caregiver, you see selfless acts everyday. The wife who puts all on hold to prepare daily meals for her husband who suffers from terminal brain cancer. The hospital cleaner – tired from working two other jobs – who goes the extra mile to wipe spills near the patient’s bedside. And you experience it, when your pager goes off during family dinner and you drop everything to return the call.
Selfless acts have power. As you step into the sleep-deprived world of after-hour pages, night call, and the stress of the clinic these selfless acts can become an antidote to the pressures of caregiving and a source of inspiration. So today, I want to talk about those selfless acts. And I want to talk about why I believe selfless acts give us caregivers the power to change the world. I believe this so strongly because selfless acts have transformed my own life.
I had privilege of being born in Liberia after my parents emigrated there from India. You know Liberia from the horrific media images of West Africa’s Ebola epidemic. To me, Liberia was and still is one of the most beautiful countries on earth. But, when I was nine years old civil war erupted. The rebels launch the war in the countryside and eventually they surrounded our town.
Our school shut down, and when the international airport was captured people started fleeing – leaving everything behind. My mother came knocking one morning. “Raj, pack your things. We have to go.” We were rushed to a landing strip in the center of town, and there on the tarmac, we were split into two lines.
I stood in one line with my mother and sister. We were stuffed into cargo hatch of plane. But, in another, much longer line stood hundreds of poor Liberian mothers, children strapped to their backs. When they tried to jump in hatch with us, I watched soldiers restrain them. They were not allowed to flee.
We were the lucky ones. We were resettled in North Carolina. And here in America, I learned the power of selfless acts. A family took us in and sponsored our application to become naturalized citizens. My mother put her dream to become lab technician on hold, taking a job as an Avon lady to help us make ends meet. My father became an apprentice to a friend who ran a small clothing shop and then he started his own. And an American woman I now call Aunty Leessa, a long-time volunteer at the Boys and Girls Club, showed me the power of serving others –and said four words I’d never forget: “I believe in you.”
These people, these caregivers, all paused their own lives to help me restart mine. Because of them, in 15 years, I went from having my hopes crushed in a war to pursuing my dream of becoming a doctor. And a few years later, Harvard finally took a chance on me – when I started residency at Massachusetts General Hospital. I now have the privilege of teaching here in the Brigham & Women’s Hospital Division of Global Health Equity and Harvard Medical School Department of Global Health and Social Medicine.
Selfless acts can heal us. Selfless acts can even feed our soul. Some of the caregivers who acted selflessly in my life – my mother and my wife – are here today along with our two boys. I’ve counted and they’ve already attended five of my own graduations – but they can’t get enough of graduation. So they’ve come to celebrate yours too. And your caregivers are also here. The people with you under this tent – your parents, your partners, your relatives, your mentors – one way or another, have acted selflessly to help you reach this point. And I want to take a moment with you to celebrate and honor them.
The selflessness of these caregivers doesn’t only transform us; selflessness is also contagious. And selfless acts give us – caregivers –the power to change the world.”
The full transcript of this speech, delivered on May 28, 2015, is available here.