Studs Terkel on hope and activism

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I often publish pieces at Tomdispatch by authors I’ve worked with in the course of a long career as a book editor, but I seldom write about my relationship to any of them. Studs Terkel is the exception to any rule, though. I edited Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, his oral history on death (and life). He was then almost 90. It was magnificent. Certain of his interviews filled me with such emotion that I found myself crying even as I was editing. Death, it seemed, was the perfect capstone for an authorial life which included oral histories of his hometown, Chicago, of work, of American dreaming, of “the Good War” (a phrase he put into the vocabulary with those quote marks that have since largely been removed). But with Studs you can’t assume anything. It turned out that death wasn’t to be the end for him. With his next book, he taught me that after death in the roster of human subjects comes the greatest of them all — and one well-timed to our moment — hope. And so he went back to the well yet again and in his newest book, Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times, he offers us a legacy: his testament to American activism from the Great Depression to the present moment, from Victor Reuther and the strikes of the 1930s to Kathy Kelly and Voices in the Wilderness.

With Studs, I’m mainly a fan. It’s no more complicated than that. When he left his incomparable messages on our phone machine in that distinctive voice of his, the last on earth from which a cigar protrudes, my wife always exclaimed, “We’ve got to keep this tape!” I can do a pretty fair imitation of Studs calling — it’s a treasured experience, after all. Unfortunately, this website won’t take audio, so you’ll have to live without that. But what I can say is the man has aura. He makes you want to resort to mixed metaphors as with the voicemail cigar above. (After all, he’s the guy who in his 1940s TV — yes TV! — show, Stud’s Place, summed up the opera Carmen, if memory serves me, this way: “Better a hot tomato than a cold potato.”) He’s small in stature but distinctly larger than life and that largeness, a kind of generosity, rubs off. Hang around him for a while and you feel a little larger than life yourself. Just a tad maybe, but it’s a good feeling, the kind of feeling that goes with hope.

Hope Dies Last is a reminder that in good times, you can do nothing and still have hopes, but in bad times, you have to act, take that first small step, in order to hope. Though the new book has wonderful interviews with well-known activists, I’ve chosen three interviews from it by people you aren’t likely to know by name, but which catch, to my mind, something of the legacy and inspirational history he’s offering us all. I’ve preceded them with a cut-down version of his introduction. Have fun. Take heart. Take a hopeful step. This is not a book to be missed. Tom

Hope Dies Last
By Studs Terkel

Hope has never trickled down. It has always sprung up. That’s what Jessie de la Cruz meant when she said, “I feel there’s gonna be a change, but we’re the ones gonna do it, not the government. With us, there’s a saying, ‘La esperanza muere última. Hope dies last.’ You can’t lose hope. If you lose hope, you lose everything.”

She, a retired farm worker, was recounting the days before Cesar Chavez and his stoop-labor colleagues founded the United Farm Workers (UFW). It was a metaphor for much of the twentieth century.

As we enter the new millennium, hope appears to be an American attribute that has vanished for many, no matter what their class or condition in life. The official word has never been more arrogantly imposed. Passivity, in the face of such a bold, unabashed show of power from above, appears to be the order of the day. But it ain’t necessarily so.

Hope has never trickled down. It has always sprung up. That’s what Jessie de la Cruz meant when she said, “I feel there’s gonna be a change, but we’re the ones gonna do it, not the government. With us, there’s a saying, ‘La esperanza muere última. Hope dies last.’ You can’t lose hope. If you lose hope, you lose everything.”

She, a retired farm worker, was recounting the days before Cesar Chavez and his stoop-labor colleagues founded the United Farm Workers (UFW). It was a metaphor for much of the twentieth century.

As we enter the new millennium, hope appears to be an American attribute that has vanished for many, no matter what their class or condition in life. The official word has never been more arrogantly imposed. Passivity, in the face of such a bold, unabashed show of power from above, appears to be the order of the day. But it ain’t necessarily so.

Letters to the editors of even our more conservative papers indicate something else, something that does not make the six o’clock news: a stirring show of discontent in the fields, a growing disbelief in the official word.

This is not a new story. It is a strain that has run through the century past, though not as in extremis as in this one There was always pressure from below: from beleaguered and embattled farmers coming out of the woods; from big-city neighborhood alliances, defying evicting bailiffs; from a threatened march on Washington by black trade unionists, leading to the passage of the Fair Employment Practices Act; and even from some forgotten man who swung from a chandelier during a Waldorf-Astoria dinner of baffled industrialists, shouting “Social security!” It was the very first time I had ever heard that phrase. Naturally, he was subjected to psychiatric care. Of course, that loner didn’t cause social security to come to be, but he did help it along. At least I knew what it meant when, during the New Deal, it came to pass.

These troublemakers were, by definition, activists (active: 1. In action, moving. 2. Causing or initiating change. 3. Engaging, contributing, participating). They felt that what they did counted and that they themselves counted…

In the following pages are portraits of the inheritors of the legacy of those past. They range in age from nonagenarians to young ones in their twenties. Activism need not be a profession in itself, as it is in many cases here. It can be in the writing of a letter to the editor or to your congressperson; it can be in taking part in a local action or a national one or, for that matter, a worldwide one; it can be in attending a rally or marching in a parade; it can be in any form, freely expressing your grievance or your hope.

In all epochs, there were at first doubts and the fear of stepping forth and speaking out, but the attribute that spurred the warriors on was hope. And the act. Seldom was there a despair or a sense of hopelessness. Some of those on the sidelines, the spectators, feeling helpless and impotent, had by the very nature of the passionate act of others become imbued with hope themselves.

Today, from unexpected sources, comes a growing challenge to the official word. Not only among peace advocates, the silent as well as the outspoken, or among environmentalists, or among feminists, but also among small investors cheated by corporate Enronism, as well as those involved in other causes too numerous to recount. It may not be the stuff that makes a TV sound bite, but it’s the stuff of neighborhood. It’s the stuff set off by those who stepped forth and made the word activist a common noun in our vocabulary; a new vocation

Activists have always battled the odds. But it’s not a matter of Sisyphus rolling that stone up the hill. It’s not Beckett’s blind Pozzo staggering on. It’s more like a legion of Davids, with all sorts of slingshots. It’s not one slingshot that will do it. Nor will it happen at once. It’s a long haul. It’s step by step. As Mahalia Jackson sang out, “We’re on our way”–not to Canaanland, perhaps, but to the world as a better place than it has been before.

Elaine Jones

She is the director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. She has an air of ebullience and bonhomie that makes you feel immediately “at home.”

I’m an activist, from Norfolk, Virginia, one of three children, the middle child. Older brother, younger sister. My father was a Pullman porter, a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black trade union. The porters sometimes would come off the runs and sit around my kitchen table, talking about issues. This was back in the fifties. My father got to travel. He got railroad passes to take his three kids to Chicago. That was our first trip out of Virginia. When you’re traveling, you have to plan everything, especially if you were black in America. This is 1951, ’52. He takes us to the YMCA, because he thinks we can sleep there. A woman at the desk looks at us, three little kids and my father, and says, “We don’t have any rooms,” without even checking the books! Daddy was crestfallen. He had it all figured out; he knew the Y would take us. So he ended up calling one of his Pullman car buddies, who put us up. I knew I wanted to be a lawyer then.

My mother was a schoolteacher, my father was a country boy who came up out of the south side of Virginia. My mother had come down from the north; she was from New Jersey. So the Yankee and the southerner met. My mother had a college degree. My father was self-taught. My mother’s father was a big minister in Norfolk. When he died, they closed the schools.

I knew things were not as they should be. Black people were relegated to the back door, and I had a problem with that. I saw the white and colored water fountains. I would get on a crosstown bus and we had to sit in the back, all of that. I couldn’t understand why. Meanwhile, I had self-esteem from my parents. They made me think I could do anything. My father was the cook in the family. He could really cook. At that kitchen table we talked about the world, and we would have to defend ourselves. Our parents would throw out something at one of us, and all of us would jump on that one for that evening. I always wanted to be a lawyer. I was about eight. First, I would see Perry Mason and other lawyers on television using the court to right societal wrongs. The lawyer riding in on the white horse, changing the world. [Laughs]

People would say, “What do you want to be?” “I want to be a lawyer because I can change some of these things through the law.” As I got older, I learned more about Thurgood Marshall. My high school teacher was one of his plaintiffs in the teacher equalization case. When he came to the South in his thirties, Thurgood tried to equalize salaries. My high school chemistry teacher, in the fifties, had been one of his clients. She told us about him in chemistry class.

I ended up in court one day. I was in junior high school. I had a toothache, and I went to the dentist with no permission from my parents. He did full-mouth X rays and fixed my teeth. He sent a huge bill to my parents. A black dentist. My parents said, “We’re not gonna pay this! We did not give her permission to go, and you’ve done more work than was required.” So they came to the door and served the summons. My father said, “I have to go on the railroad. I’m not going to miss my money messing around with this.” My mother said, “I have to go to school. You, Elaine, have to go to court.” I was about thirteen.

I went to the court with a neighbor, an adult. The case is called up. The dentist is not there, but his lawyer is. So the judge asks me, “Did you go to the dentist?” And I said yes. He said, “Did you have the permission of your parents?” I didn’t know whether to say yes or no. If I said yes, that would make me look good. If I said no, it would make me look like a bad girl. I thought, Elaine, tell the truth. So I said no, I didn’t have their permission. And the judge turned to the lawyer for the dentist and said: “Case dismissed.” I won my first case! [Laughs] I won it, I won it. Oh, I knew that I was going to be a lawyer then, I knew it, yes!

I went to Howard for undergraduate school. My mother wrote me in college: Elaine, I know you want to be a lawyer one day, but I want you to take some education courses, so you have something to fall back on. You might have to teach. I said, “Mother, thank you, but…” I graduated, and guess who gave my commencement talk? Lyndon Johnson. It was a Great Society speech.

Stokely Carmichael was in my undergraduate class. My class was a cauldron at Howard. All the Freedom Riding going on. That’s why Lyndon came to Howard for the Great Society speech. On civil rights and social justice, LBJ was the right person at the right time. He knew more than Kennedy on that, he knew who he was dealing with. He understood those southern senators, he had spent time with them. Vietnam, that’s a whole different thing. So I finished Howard, and then I realized I didn’t know anything about any people other than black people. My world was too small.

I was twenty, coming out of college, and I don’t know anything about the bigger world. When I realized that, I went to the Peace Corps. I didn’t want to go to Africa, because I knew I would go to Africa later in life, on my own. I went to Turkey. For two years, I traveled all over. Turkey is situated so centrally. I spent a lot of time in a lot of the Arab countries. I was in Israel a few days before the Six-Day War. I went to Beirut when it was a place of beauty, in the mid-sixties. Different people, and nobody looking like me. I’m the only black person in my unit in the Peace Corps.
Then I decided to go to law school. I applied to Howard and to the University of Virginia. Virginia hadn’t had black people, and I am from Virginia. I’ll be the first case, the first black woman. They had had three black men. If they don’t admit me, we’ll sue. It was in 1967. The university is in Charlottesville, a closed community. If I had gone to Charlottesville from Howard, I wouldn’t have made it, because it was intense. There were some real racial issues in Charlottesville. People mistook me for the cleaning lady when I arrived in law school. I was in the ladies’ room during my first week, and an older white lady came through. She saw me sitting on the sofa and she said, “I know you’re taking your rest break now, but when you finish, would you clean the refrigerator?” There were hardly any women in the law school. Seven women total, and me–the black one. We had one place to congregate, that was in the bathroom downstairs. We bonded over the years. Oh, yes. ‘Cause we got to know one another. We would meet in that ladies’ room. They were having a hard time, too, because of gender issues. I was having a hard time because of gender and race. I was double-duty. I tried to figure out, was whatever I was experiencing because of gender or race? At the end of the day I would listen to them, and when I heard their experience, I knew that was gender, and when I subtracted it, the rest was race.

I have some lifetime friends from UVA, a few, a handful. For the most part, they were Virginia gentlemen: civil, and kept their distance. But I wore my Afro, my Nehru jacket, and my sandals from Turkey as I walked through the school. It was an adjustment for everybody. Virginia took a chance, and I took a chance.

I finished law school in 1970 and I did very well. I was in the upper quarter of my class. For more than twenty years I didn’t go back to class reunions or anything. But two years ago, the University of Virginia called me back and gave me the highest honor: the Thomas Jefferson Medallion of Law at Monticello. Monticello!

Here’s the hope. I got a job offer on Wall Street. Nixon’s law firm! [Laughs] Woodrow, Guthrie, and Alexander. Wall Street was paying eighteen thousand dollars a year in 1970. They came to me my third year of law school. I accepted the offer ’cause the money looked so good. But before I graduated, I said, “This is not what I want to do. I don’t want to go to Wall Street. I did not come to law school to go to Wall Street. I came to law school to practice civil rights law.” After accepting the job, I turned it down. I went to the dean of the law school and said, “I do not have a job.” He said, “Go to New York. See my friend Jack Greenberg”–of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. I came to New York and sat down with Jack, who hired me on the spot. Offered me a job as an assistant council to the Legal Defense Fund when I graduated!

When I first arrived, the offices were empty. There was a bomb scare. I spent the first four or five years litigating death penalty cases throughout the South. This was ’70 to ’74. I had some good successes. I worked with the lawyers in Alabama. The Ku Klux Klan would come out and surround the courthouse in full dress regalia. This was Cullman, Alabama. It had a reputation. The hope was the law. I felt that we could use the law to get some justice. I believed that. So I was feeling optimistic because I was winning some of these cases. I thought the law is the way to go, that we’re a nation of laws. I felt all this.

I went into government for two years. Bill Coleman was secretary of transportation, the second black cabinet officer. I was his special assistant. My project was to get women in the Coast Guard, and so we did: women, white and black. When I left, Jack Greenberg came back into my life. He was the general counsel, the position I hold now. It continues to be a struggle for a nonprofit law firm, because people don’t like lawyers. [Laughs] For fourteen years, I stayed in Washington with the Legal Defense Fund. We were monitoring Congress, looking at judicial appointments, getting civil rights laws passed. Using the political clout of African Americans to make congress more responsible. In 1993, I came to New York as head of the Legal Defense Fund.

The counterattacks started in the eighties, with Reagan as president. Mr. Bush’s policies aren’t very different from Mr. Reagan’s. We’ve got problems with the civil rights division. It’s very important that the government enforce the civil rights laws that people have died and bled to put on the books. The government is not doing the job. There are African Americans in positions of authority, but the policies remain the same. I’m talking about the Department of Justice.

Now, the basic question is, how much can the law alone do? I still believe in the power of law. We can’t ignore the courts. We have to fight. But you have to have community pressure and involvement. There must be public pressure to make people respond. There has to be mobilization. Grassroots. Law is vitally important, but it alone is not the answer. [Sighs] It’s a struggle, because we’re coming up now on the fiftieth anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, and we have not lived up to the promise of that decision. This is fifty years later. But I’m still hopeful, because I’m in the courts. We are making some of the same mistakes we’ve made in the past. Consider the criminal justice system. It’s an abomination, the way we are taking these nonviolent black and brown people and penning them up in prison and giving them these horrendous sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. And it’s a mistake, it’s a mistake, it’s a mistake. I believe the system can change, but it’s only if those of us who understand these issues stay involved in them. That’s the only way change comes.

There’s a Swahili warrior song that I like: “Life has meaning only in the struggle / Triumph and defeats are up to the gods / So let us celebrate the struggle.” I think we can eventually win. Otherwise, otherwise I would not get up in the morning. [Laughs]

Eliseo Medina

I first met him thirty years ago when he was an organizer for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW). “I am the executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union SEIU, the fastest-growing union in America.”

I was born in Mexico. My father used to come to the United States in the forties and fifties. First as an undocumented worker, then as a bracero, and then again as an undocumented worker. Finally, in 1954, my whole family decided we’d move to the United States. We sold everything we had back in my hometown. We moved to Tijuana, right on the border. My father came across to the U.S. as an undocumented worker who’d work in the fields while we stayed behind processing our immigration papers. In 1956 we got the immigration papers, and all of us, the whole family, moved to Delano, which is a very small farmworkers’ town. My father and my mother and my older two sisters went to work picking grapes, peaches, oranges, peas, cotton, whatever there was. The three youngest kids, they put us in school. We’d go to work in the fields on weekends and on school vacations until I graduated from the eighth grade. Then I also went to work in the fields. I was a grape and orange picker until the farmworkers strike began in 1965. I joined in that. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen. I was nineteen years old and it was great.

Everybody came to the U.S. because they saw hope and an opportunity to make a new life for themselves. I remember my father and my mother kept saying they wanted their kids to do better than they did. They saw it as sacrificing for their children. So when I went to work in the fields, I was fifteen, I just thought, This is the way things are, and if we don’t like a particular grower, the only thing that we can do is quit and go somewhere else. I never thought we could do anything other than quit and keep moving on. Until the union began.

I remember going to the first strike meeting of the UFW, which was held on September sixteenth, Mexican Independence Day. This was 1965, when they took a strike vote to actually go out. It was at a Catholic church hall, and the place was packed. There were people on the sides, on the walls, everywhere, electricity in the air. Anger, but also mixed in with a sense of hope and power. Oh, it was a wonderful, hopeful moment. I’ll tell you, I left that meeting two hours later and I was on a high. I had actually not been working for about six months because I had broken my leg. I had about, like, fifteen bucks in a little piggy bank. I’d throw in whatever pennies I had. I broke it the next morning, I went into the union and paid three months’ worth of dues, which was three-fifty a month at the time. I was sold, I was ready to go. Two days later, I was at home watching I Love Lucy and my mother and my sister came running in. “We’re on strike, we’re on strike!” I’d never seen my mother so excited as I did that day.

This was unbelievable. My mother grew up in a very sheltered small town, a typical Mexican upbringing, very conservative. But I tell you, there was a light in her eyes. And up until the day that she died, she was solid union.

A lot of us, particularly people who were bilingual like myself, saw on television what was going on in the South, and we thought, God, if they can do it, we can, too. So that’s how I got involved with the labor movement.

A friend of mine and I went down to the Filipino Hall, which was the headquarters for the union. We understood that there were jobs picketing. Some of the big AFL-CIO unions gave us some money. We had no idea what picketing meant at all. So this old man, I guess he must have been in his sixties, he says, “Come on with me.” We get in this car with him, and about four police cars start following us. I said, “Oh, my God.” I’d never been in trouble. When I came to this country, they told us to raise our right hand and swear we’d never do anything to violate the laws because they’d deport us. I was scared to death. We get out to this field, and the old man jumps out of the car with his sign, and he starts yelling at the crew of strikebreakers. So we follow, kind of sheepish, looking at all the deputy sheriffs with the guns. For all I knew, they were going to jump us at any moment. Next thing I know, this crew packs up and leaves. And I said, “Whoa.” There was just this guy and me and my friend, standing around. He says, “OK, we’re done, let’s get in the car and go find another crew.” We weren’t arrested, we weren’t beaten up, and the crew left. I thought, Boy, there’s power to this thing. It was the first time I actually challenged authority in this country. And nothing had happened. Not only that, we had been successful in chasing off the strikebreakers. So I kept coming back, day in and day out, and then I became an organizer and I started working for the union. It became my life. I continued working with the Farm Workers Union until 1978. When I left, I went to work for about two years with AFSCME American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees organizing the University of California.

When I started working in the fields, I was making ninety cents an hour. At the end, we actually got the wages in some of those places up to seven, eight, nine dollars an hour. People had health insurance, they had a pension plan, they had paid holidays, not to mention the basics, such as toilets in the fields and cold drinking water. The growers, for the first time, started treating people with respect which I thought was a tremendous change. Prior to that, you couldn’t challenge the growers, they were all-powerful. We just didn’t think there was anything we could do. For the first time, people actually felt we have some rights, we can stand up for ourselves, we can fight, and we can win. That, to me, was the single most important accomplishment of the union.

There are anywhere between eight and eleven million undocumented workers in the U.S. Some industries are as much as fifty to seventy-five percent undocumented workers. If some administration would decide to deport every undocumented worker in agriculture, hotels, restaurants, and building service, you would wipe out those industries; there would not be anybody left to do that work. All of these stores where we get all the vegetables and all of these things, these hotels, they would be wiped out because that workforce is critical to them.

When we came from Mexico, driven by poverty, most of us went into the fields. Many other Mexicans started going into the cities and began working in hotels and restaurants and in janitorial and construction. Going into the seventies, when there was war in Central America and death, and hurricanes, a lot of people left those countries and also came to the U.S., some of them because of what was going on in the country, some of them, like us, because of poverty. They came, like any immigrant, took whatever job they could, regardless of wages and conditions, anything to be able to survive. But as they began to live here, they also began to assert their rights. I think you’ve seen over the last ten years an explosion of organizing by Latinos and immigrants. And that’s injected a whole new sense of hope and new blood into the American labor movement. Women, Asiatics, they’re the new lifeblood of this movement. And young. The people that leave the countries are young. In my old home state, Zacatecas, it’s very small. You go to whole towns and the only people in these towns that are left are the old and the little kids. Anybody else that’s in between is in the U.S. So you’ve got all these young people coming to this country, and they have this energy and enthusiasm and they want to move forward. And they also have learned because of the struggles like the farmworkers, and they’ve heard of Cesar Chavez, and then they help drive movements like the Justice for Janitors movement in the U.S. Mexico, right now, the remittances from people here are the second or third largest source of income for Mexico. In Central American countries, it’s number one. Those countries back home, their economies would collapse without the contributions and remittances of people here, but I would submit this country’s economy would collapse without the immigrants.

If it hadn’t been for the Farm Workers Union, I would still be in Delano. Maybe, if I had been lucky, I might be a foreman at a ranch. Otherwise, I’d still be picking grapes. I got an eighth-grade education. Yet here I am now, working with people who are attorneys and doctors.

Thirty-something years ago, when I was first here as a young farmworker, I heard a labor song, and it talked about how freedom is a hard-won thing, and it said that every generation has to win it again. In the Justice for Janitors campaign we learned from the lessons of the farmworkers and they learned from the civil rights movement, and the civil rights movement learned from what happened in India with Gandhi. It will probably be beyond my lifetime, but if all we’ve done is to inspire other people to continue with the struggle, that will have been enough.

Usama Alshaibi

He is a sound engineer at the Chicago Historical Society, as well as an independent filmmaker. He is thirty-two years old. He had been sworn in as an American citizen a few days before this conversation.

Throughout my whole childhood, it was from school to school, country to country, language to language, learning Arabic one year, English the next, then Arabic, then English. I was born in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1969. My father is Iraqi, my mother Palestinian.

My father went to the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, working on his Ph.D. in business administration on a scholarship he received from the Iraqi government. I didn’t speak any English; I was just at kindergarten age. I ended up adapting to an American sensibility by the time I was in third grade. That’s when we went back to Iraq. A lot of families from the Middle East will come to the United States, study, and return home. My father was going to teach and practice what he learned here.

We had a nice house in Baghdad. I have a lot of fond memories of sitting on my grandfather’s lap. He was a tall man. He had many daughters. One of them was my mother. My grandfather was Palestinian; he was very proud of that. School was very tough because I had forgotten all my Arabic. We lived in Baghdad for roughly a year. Then we moved to southern Iraq, to a town on the sea called Basra, very close to the Gulf, very close to Iran. During this time, I was in fourth grade. My sisters and I had to have a tutor help us at home, but we were very happy. My parents bought a house, and I had a dog. Then the war started, the Iran-Iraq War. I remember hearing the sirens. When I was a kid, I would always go out in the street to watch the ambulances. But this siren never got closer. It just went on and on and on, this droning sound.

I remember my father came rushing in with all this food. I said, “What’s going on?” He said, “We’re in a war now.” That night was the first time I experienced the bombing, where the ground would literally shake. They would turn off the electricity every night. That’s when I started to fear for my life, to think I was going to die. I was probably eleven. I started to not believe my parents anymore. I would rush to the bathroom to try to take cover. We all had to sleep in my parents’ bedroom because it was on the first floor. Life suddenly got very, very hard. Eventually we ended up leaving.

My father got a job in Saudi Arabia. My mother decided to take all us kids back to Basra to try to sell the house, and then things just got worse. They wouldn’t let anyone out of the country. All of a sudden, my father was in Saudi Arabia, and we were stuck in the south of Iraq. I remember that because the regime of Saddam Hussein was becoming so fascist that they were watching everybody. To discuss the war over the telephone my parents would use the metaphor. They would say, “Our aunt, she’s becoming more and more ill. I don’t think our aunt is going to make it.” That’s how they communicated. We had to escape. Finally my mom says we’re gonna go to Kuwait, which is south of Iraq. They were not letting anyone out of the country. My mother hid all her jewelry inside the diapers of my younger sister. I remember my mom said, “If the guards, the soldiers, ask you anything, just say `I don’t know.”‘ She was afraid that they would trick me into admitting where we were going. We took a bus to the border. I remember seeing tanks, remember seeing the desert. I remember the soldiers with guns. They took me aside, away from my mom, and they said, “Where are you going?” I said, “I don’t know.” They said, “Are you leaving Iraq?” I said, “I don’t know.” They said, “Are you a dumb kid?” I said, “I don’t know.” So they laughed at me. My younger sister was crying so much they let us go. My mom swore she was going for medical reasons and would return in a week. We never came back. Months later, half of our house was bombed.

I didn’t understand politics at the time. I became very fearful of war. In Saudi Arabia–it’s a very religious country–I was going to an all-boys school. I was constantly terrified of nuclear war. I became very religious. Every night I would pray to God not to allow World War Three to happen. That thought consumed me. I was suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. I would sit in class and hear planes overhead and I would want to duck. My heart would race.

The thing that I missed the most when I left Iraq was my dog. We had to leave him. I would cry every night for my dog, but really, I was crying, I think, for a lot of things. I felt safe in Saudi Arabia, but I was dealing with something else, which is religion. I was going to a very strict Muslim school, where I would have to memorize ten to twenty pages of the Koran. If you screwed up a word or two, you would be beaten on your hand. Eventually, my parents lost everything, so we returned to the United States, and all of a sudden I was in seventh grade. It was very hard for me to relate to my peers after what I had been through. I pretended I was coming from a very neutral experience. I would have to say I was embarrassed about being an Arab or from the Middle East.

I remember once in global studies in seventh grade in Iowa City, the teacher made me stand up in front of the whole class and tell everyone where I was from and what it was like. When you’re in seventh grade, it’s such an awkward age. You don’t want to stand out, you want to fit in. I was very shy, just trying to be like everyone else. Not until years later have I become more open in discussing, and very proud of who I am.

My father tried getting work in the United States. We ended up returning to the Middle East. We lived in Jordan. We lived in the United Arab Emirates. Finally, my father bought a house in Iowa City. We were going back and forth, very nomadic. I finished high school in America.

I stopped trying to fit in so much and found a more political and artistic crowd. We had kids from different countries. We had some Jewish kids that hung out with us. The majority of our high school was all white. I would stand out in a class just because my skin was a little dark, or my name was unusual.

Then things didn’t work out with my parents and they got divorced. I took off. By the time I was eighteen, I had become even more nomadic, just traveling around the United States, working here, going to school there. I ended up back in Iowa City, and my immigration status ran out. Then the Gulf War started. I had no visa, no right to work in this country. I was working under the table at these very low-paying jobs.

[Sighs] It was a scary time. When people would ask me where I’m from, I would say Jordan, not Iraq. I would go out to bars and overhear people saying things about how we gotta kill all the sand niggers. People can’t really look at me and tell where I’m from or who I am. It’s kind of like I was a voyeur. I was a part of this culture, but I was quiet, because I was afraid.

This was a very scary time. I had no visa. I had no status. I had to go to Omaha, Nebraska, hire a lawyer, and fight to be in this country. My father, who was working in the United Arab Emirates, was contacted by the Iraqi army. They wanted me for the draft, and this country wanted me out! I was twenty years old. I went in front of a judge and fought my case, stating that if I returned to my country, I would die. I got political asylum. Thank God. I will always be thankful for this country because they gave me political asylum to stay here.

Eventually I got my green card, and more of my family from Iraq and the Middle East have emigrated here. A lot of them had to escape or bribe people to get out. They wouldn’t let my grandfather out of Iraq. Keep in mind, he was from Palestine, left in 1948, during the exodus, and ended up in Iraq. Here is a man who has been kicked out of his own country, placed in another country, not even his, and he’s not allowed to leave. They say he died of a broken heart. He gave me my name. Usama was a great Islamic warrior. It means “son of a lion.”

Saddam is a bastard. What he’s done to his people, what he’s done to Iraq…but our interest over there is questionable. It was a very paranoid time for me. As an Arab, I felt my status here was shaky. I never felt grounded anywhere. My family tried to make a home in Iraq; that didn’t work. They tried to make a home here in the United States; that didn’t work.

After the divorce, our family just disintegrated. I had no sense of home or place. I felt vulnerable. I felt I had to be quiet. After I got my green card, however, I started to be more outspoken. I started to read more, to find out what’s really going on. I became active in politics, to try to end the sanctions against Iraq, to be outspoken about what’s happening in Palestine and Israel. When 9/11 happened, I wasn’t surprised. Already Osama bin Laden had been doing things. The tension with Israel and Palestine was getting worse. I started getting death threats over the Internet: “Die, sand nigger.” Anonymous.

There was this great ignorance in this country. Everyone kept on saying, “They’re envious because of our freedom, because of our democracy.” I said, “No, it has nothing to do with that.” “Our country did nothing wrong, our country doesn’t deserve this.” Of course nobody deserves this, but let’s not play innocent, let’s not pretend that a million dead Iraqi babies, dead from the UN sanctions against Iraqi citizens, don’t go unnoticed in the Middle East. A lot of people that I had developed bonds with through the Internet turned against me. I had anonymous death threats saying, “Go back to your land, we’re going to bomb the Middle East and turn it into a gas pump.”

I was very worried because the government took three thousand men and put them in detention centers. They weren’t officially charged. There was this great paranoia. I really didn’t know what was going to happen. I wouldn’t be surprised right now if they grabbed me and just started asking me a bunch of questions. Who knows? During the [first] Gulf War, my mother was contacted by the FBI and interviewed. I was being very vocal on the Internet. I started hearing politicians saying, “Just stop anyone with a diaper and a belt on his head.” I was hearing people say, “Let’s just nuke all of the Middle East and let God sort them out.” It felt like Here we go again. And then I got paranoid. My sisters were saying, “You should be careful with what you say. They can take your words and they could…” I said, “What do you mean, my words? All of a sudden, my words have become dangerous?” They said, “Well, you’re not a citizen.” [Whispers] “You’re right.” So again, I was quiet. Because if anything happens, they can put any case against me, they can ship us all out tomorrow. So I waited patiently, made sure I got my citizenship. I remember, I was sitting in court the day of your birthday, and the judge gave this impassioned speech. He said, “This country is a country of immigrants. We all came from somewhere else. It is your duty to speak out about your culture, about your race, about who you are.” This was the judge. It was a really great speech. I’m sitting with people from a hundred and three countries. I’m getting my citizenship. It’s like graduating. I just remember feeling, OK, I belong somewhere. I’m Arab, I’m American, and I’m on a mission.

My mission is to give voices to people who have been really afraid to talk. I think there’s a great silence among a lot of Arabs and Arab Americans in this country. There’s a lot of fear in this. I don’t know how many times I hear people on the radio and the TV news talk about the Islamists. It’s given an ominous meaning.

I got married to an American girl, and I got my citizenship. Kristie grew up Christian. We’re both not religious. For me, it’s actually easier to discuss politics when I keep religion out of it. The Koran is filled with contradictions and all sorts of stories. Al-Qaeda, bin Laden, all these guys, they don’t represent us. They don’t represent the religion, they don’t represent our community. I think sometimes of what happened to the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. I hope from this tragedy that there is an interest in what other people feel, instead of having anger and this lust for revenge.

I have hope that my generation of Arabs that grew up here can bridge the gap and incorporate our culture into this country without having to sacrifice our values and our sense of who we are. I think it’s a great country: freedom of religion, freedom of speech. These are the things that I’m defending. Civil liberties. When I see people screened for racial profiling, I say, “If you keep letting this happen, eventually it will come back to you.” How much of your rights are you willing to sacrifice for “safety”?

I’m thirty-two years old. For the first time, I feel like I belong somewhere. It’s here.

Copyright C2003 Studs Terkel. Used with the permission and assistance of The
New Press.