Not a Country of Immigrants

Citizens of the USA are almost all immigrants and their descendants. Were this not so, only Native Americans would hold citizenship here.

The United Arab Emirates is not a country of immigrants. For the most part, only the descendants of native Emiratis may hold citizenship. Those who move there will never fully belong, and neither will their children, no matter now many generations their ancestors have been there. As a result, about 80% of the population of the UAE consists of expats (and non-citizen residents who are the descendants of expats). The 20% who are citizens benefit from a wide variety of benefits involving land, housing, healthcare, and education, among other things. They run the country.

The UAE is a modern nation, newly built out of an almost uninhabited desert. Over the past sixty years, oil wealth and air conditioning have allowed thriving cities to spring up where only a few thousand people once huddled along the coast.

Visitors can’t help but be impressed with how clean and safe Dubai and Abu Dhabi are. Everything seems new and shiny, and helpful people abound.

Yet, if you begin to ask questions (something I have a habit of doing) you will find that most if not all of the friendly people serving your coffee and carting your luggage are not Emiratis. They are from Indonesia and the Philippines, or from India or Pakistan. Most (but not all) are Muslim, and they are in the UAE seeking a better life, just like your Uber driver in most US cities. The big difference for them is that they know they and their children will never belong.

So, why do they come to an Arab nation that is so determined not to be a country of immigrants? Well, the UAE is arguably the richest land of opportunity near their original homes. They appreciate the clean and safe environment, too. For many, the common religion is a big factor. They like the lack of income tax on money made here. In short, it is the best alternative for them.

Expats are held to a high standard of good behavior, here, and if deported they can never come back. Our guide brags about how the UAE led the development of retina scanning. Ours have been scanned and recorded when we entered the country, we are told. I find the fact chilling. They have the right to do this? I guess they do.

The point of the retina scanning is that no fake passports will work for those who are not welcome to come back. The UAE makes sure all expats know this.

I’m from a nation that has a horrible history of having overrun those who originally lived there. It’s something to be ashamed of, but after its ignoble start, the USA did become a land of welcoming opportunity to many and I was raised to be proud of that. So, I find the clearly articulated nativism of the UAE disconcerting.

I remind myself that one travels to learn about other lands, and other lands do not have to have the same philosophy as my own homeland.  Of course they don’t.

I look up the definition of “nativism” to make sure I am using it correctly. It is the policy of protecting the interests of native-born or established inhabitants against those of immigrants. Yup, I’m using it right.

The UAE is full of wonderful sights and wonderful people. I’m so glad I visited, and I’d recommend the trip to others. However, I prefer the messy but welcoming enthusiasm with which my own homeland once greeted others seeking a better life, and I look forward to the day when the USA returns to being that sort of country.

 

Still a Sunrise?

Going for a stroll in Kenya

I arrived back from Africa on Saturday, and the first thing I encountered was more people from Africa. Specifically, I had two Uber drivers. One, from Ghana, took me to where I was staying overnight en route and the second, from Sierra Leone, took me back to the airport at 6 am to catch my final flight home.
I had been visiting Kenya, which sets about 3500 miles away across a continent from both of these men’s homes, yet their faces lit up when they heard where I had been. Both had been in the US for years, trying, in their own words, to make a better life.

My travels had added a new layer of understanding to what they meant.

Sun on the horizon in Kenya

I had spent some time talking to my Kenyan guide, learning about his life and his hopes for his four-year-old daughter as she grows. He is determined to see her become well educated, even though such an opportunity was beyond his reach.

What would you have studied?
“I wanted to become a lawyer,” he laughed. “Obviously that was impossible in my situation.”
As we traveled, I couldn’t help but notice the way he negotiated his way through the problems we encountered. Your instincts were good, I thought. You’d have made a fine lawyer. But I kept my thoughts to myself.
“What do you hope your daughter studies?” I asked.
The question seemed to make him sad.

The U.S. presence in Kenya

“She won’t have so many options to choose from,” he told me. He’d been careful to keep most of his opinions to himself as we traveled, and this is probably a wise thing for any travel guide, anywhere, to do. But for just a moment he spoke from his heart.

“It doesn’t bother me that you don’t appreciate all the opportunities that you have in your country. What bothers me is that you don’t even recognize that you have them.”

He’s right, I thought. We don’t recognize it. Most of us have done little to nothing to create those opportunities and yet we not only see them as normal, we act as though they are our birthright.
Perspective is one of the many and better benefits of travel.
This week, it introduced to me three men. One is working hard to provide his daughter a better life. Two have left their families, friends and cultures behind to seek better lives for themselves.

George Washington’s chair

Stop me if I’m wrong here, but isn’t this sort of hard work and goals that we are so proud of in the United States; the very thing we believe built this nation?

I ask because while I was doing all this listening and thinking, white supremacist groups in my country were carrying on to a frightening degree. Others are still clamoring to cut immigration way back to keep all these “undesirables” from coming in.

I once heard a story that George Washington had a chair decorated with a sun along the horizon and that Benjamin Franklin said “I have often looked at that behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now I… know that it is a rising…sun.

Sunrise at Dulles

I thought of that story as the cab driver from Sierra Leone dropped me off at the airport and I was treated to the sight of the sun rising over Washington D.C.

Hey America, do  you think that it is still a rising sun on that chair? I think it can be, but only if we are smart enough to recognize the things we take for granted and strong enough to refuse to let fear and bigotry be our guide.