(On June 19th, I delivered the commencement address to the 2008 graduating class of the American University in Cairo. I wanted to share with you an edited version of my remarks.)
We are all the products of the relationships that shape us and the opportunities we are given. By relationships, of course, I mean the families that rear us, the mentors who guide us, the communities that sustain us, and those whom we love and who love us, and who ultimately define the persons we will be.
I would not be here were it not for the sacrifices and the commitments of others who made me the person I am. And this, of course, is true for you as well. This being true, always keep your life in perspective. And as you plot your careers, remember that the story you are writing is not only about you – it is also about those who have shaped you, and those whom you will shape, in turn.
Here, I want to share with you a bit of personal history – about my father and the risks he took. Because this story defines the trajectory of my life, it is always with me.
In the years following World War I, a wave of nativism spread across America. One result was a fear of foreigners that produced restrictive immigration quotas. Since Lebanese and Syrians were affected, my father was blocked from entry.
Leaving his small stone home in the hills of Lebanon, my father, at some risk, entered the U.S. illegally to join his family and build a better life. For a time there was the fear of deportation. But with amnesty, he became an American citizen who loved both his heritage and his new home which had provided him new freedom and new opportunities.
Because you are receiving a degree from the American University of Cairo and will carry this identification for the rest of your lives, I want to speak to you about America – what it means to me and what I hope it can mean to you.
Like every nation, there are two sides to American history. Our democracy was born with the original sins of slavery and oppression of the native born – and as we have struggled over the past two centuries to expand that democracy, we have had to face down our demons.
Great movements arose that changed and are still changing America. Each age has produced its champions. Abolitionists took risks to end slavery. Great mass social movements of organized labor and women, and civil rights, consumer, environmental and peace activists have fought to change the face of America. These movements have, in fact, expanded freedom and opportunity, and improved the quality of life for countless millions.
This came home to me in a very direct way in 1984. I was given the honor at that year’s Democratic National Convention of placing Jesse Jackson’s name in nomination for President of the United States.
As I walked to the podium and looked out over the 4,000 assembled delegates and the more than 15,000 observers and media in attendance, I thought of my father and his story, and mine. What came to me then, I share with you now: Here I was the son of an illegal immigrant, and I was about to nominate for President the great grandson of a slave. Where else but in America could that story be told?
We are still struggling in America and, like every generation before us, writing yet another chapter in our nation’s history. In this context, I cannot help but reflect on our ongoing Presidential election.
Regardless of the outcome in November – understand the significance of what has already occurred.
I saw a recent poll that had been conducted in Germany, France and the United Kingdom, which showed citizens in those three countries favoring Barack Obama over John McCain by margins of greater than three to one. I, of course, am pleased with this appreciation given to my Party’s choice for President – but I must ask, "Could the son of a Kenyan immigrant, who grew up in Indonesia, and has the middle name Hussein be in the position of competing to be head of state in Germany, France or the United Kingdom?"
So, be justifiably upset and even angered over U.S. policies; but also appreciate the changes we have made and are still making, and know that despite every generation’s hardships – millions of immigrants and children of immigrants from every corner of the globe have benefited from the expansion of freedom and opportunity made possible by the sacrifices and struggles of the generations who came before. And carry your degree from this American institution with pride.
Take the opportunity conferred upon you by this degree, and see it as a challenge.
Dramatic changes are taking place in this region: changes that must occur to provide greater economic opportunity for an expanding population:
- greater hope for women, the young, and the poor who have not benefited from the development that has occurred to date; and
- an expansion of freedom so that your generation can play a greater part in the change that is to come.
Leaders have responsibilities to face – and so do you. You who have been given the opportunities to succeed here should remember those who shaped you: your families, your community, your country and all its people.
Find ways before you to work for change, and the expansion of hope and opportunity.
Think always of those who came before you and what they have given, and those who will come after you and how they can benefit from the choices you make and the work that you do.