The Power of a Plastic Card

“Abstract” is defined as existing in thought or as an idea that does not have a physical or concrete existence. One of the most impressive and unique things about humans is the power to conceive abstract things or concepts. Laws, beliefs, and authority are all abstract and depend on the single understanding of a person. This understanding, though, depends on concepts such as culture, nationality, and social ranking, which are themselves abstract. We are born with abstract qualities such as our nationality, which is given to us, but when we grow up, others like religion, education and culture are taught to us. For me living in Africa, laws and rules were concepts more abstract than in other places, because they were not effectively materialized. The poor judicial system did not give laws or official documents as much concrete power as they have in western countries. Laws existed in Africa, but simply on paper. I remember a time when I could buy a collection of movies copied from the Internet for one dollar because, despite the copyright, nobody cared about it. I also remember times when I was a young kid and could buy cigarettes and alcohol without an ID despite the fact that laws restricted the purchase for minors under 18 years. I remember that I was living in a country supposed to be a republic founded on democracy where the president was in power for more than 40 years and where your rights are worth your wealth.

I still remember the day when my father came to my house to give me this piece of plastic. The card was in a cover made of paper and aluminum. On the cover was written in Spanish and English, “We recommend use of this envelope to protect your new card and to prevent wireless communication with it.” A stamp on the cover said “US Department of Homeland Security.” This small card had more numbers and information about me that I didn’t know myself at the time. The shiny green color coming from it was intriguing. So many details on it. I could see my name, nationality, date of birth and many numbers that did not make sense to me. In the back on the left was the head of the Statue of Liberty. This statue often came back to my mind later. Each time I remember the face of the Statue of Liberty on the card, I have these words coming in my ears: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” This extract of the poem “New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus sounds so true for my life.  On the back of the card, I could barely see with my young eyes of the time that all the 50 states’ flags were there and all American presidents since Washington to Obama.

The first impression that I had was that this greenish card was a resume of me, as if someone could look at it and know most of what I am. Soon after remembering this impression, I recall the work that it took to have this card: all the travels and information that I needed to provide, but also the five long years that it took to have everything done. US government officials asked me for records from all the countries that I lived in. I needed to be crime and disease free. I spent hours being interrogated at the American embassy on my life and what I would do once I got there. After so many years seeking the card, I had even forgotten about it, and I did not realize the importance that this card would later have. This card would soon be my best friend and the most important thing that I ever had.

But it was much later that I really understood the incredible and almost magic power contained in it. A year later, after I received this card and came to the US, I was struggling to get to college. Fortunately my uncle was here and revealed to me the hidden powers contained in this card. The card allowed me to work, but moreover it allowed me to pay for my college. One of the most incredible powers my uncle revealed to me was the power of citizenship. This card will allow me after five years, if I don’t commit any crime or felony, to become an American citizen and change my name which means that this card allows me to have a second chance in life. For someone who lived in Africa like me and never had any social security, I soon realized the power surrounding this object. This insignificant, small, green plastic card did have a power on my life far beyond its physical limits. I now realize what difference it can make, because I encounter people who came to the US without it. Those people have struggled because they couldn’t work legally or have social security and financial aid. They live with a perpetual fear of being deported. I suddenly feel very lucky, but I also realize the power of abstract qualities. The single difference between those who live with the fear of deportation and struggle to make a living was this green card.

Mark Twain said in his book The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” He was right! I had the chance to travel on four continents and by the age of 19 years, I have been in more than 12 countries. My travels have given me a certitude that we often forget. Most of what we have is due to chance: the chance that we have to be born in a place where opportunities exist, and the chance that we have people who worked and sometimes sacrificed their lives for us to have liberties often believed to be granted and not earned. I realized that I could have been one of the smartest people, but in Africa I would have been nothing. I lived 15 years there and nobody realized that I was able to do something. I did not believe I could do something with my life because the environment was as arid in opportunity for me as the desert is in water. Once I came to the US, in less than a year, I could see myself going to one of the greatest universities in America: the University of Michigan. I still remember how this country took me from a poor young man who didn’t know if he could go to college, and even if he could, he would just have done it as a requirement to the young man who saw himself being able to reach the elite. I am today certain that my success will not have been possible anywhere else.

I am telling you this story for you to understand the extreme chance that you have to be born American citizens, because you will never need to pass by all these steps and tests. You will never have the need to prove that you deserved it as I did. You will always be able to see your future and do as you wish. You were granted something insuring your life in terms of opportunity, security and prestige. It is good to remember every time when you feel angry about what life offers you that you were born with something that others see as a life accomplishment.

~Ali Kahil