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In D.C. taxis, thanks for what U.S. offers

I’m back from an exhilarating week in Washington, D.C., still savoring the stories, the spirit, the shared conviviality of residents and visitors celebrating a milestone in our nation’s history.

But the most profound message I’ve brought home comes from the cabdrivers who ferried me through the city’s clogged streets.

Abass from Afghanistan. Mohammed from Israel. Kofi from Ghana. Abdel from Morocco.

Their stories were a window into the kind of hardship, pain and suffering most Americans will never see. Their success owes much to our country’s generosity.

And they left me thinking not about politics or race or what’s happening on Wall Street, but about how blessed I am to have been born at this time, in this nation.

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It was a long cab ride from Dulles International Airport to my hotel near the National Mall. The river of brake lights on the freeway gave me a comfortable sense of familiarity and a chance to talk to Abass Murshaidi, a refugee from Afghanistan.

Like millions of his countrymen, he fled to Pakistan in the 1980s during the Soviet miliary occupation of his country. He was 19 and would spend the next seven years as a refugee, trying to get to America. “I kept getting turned down, again and again. But I would not stop trying,” he said.

He learned English and penned long letters of appeal, and was finally allowed to immigrate. Now he is married, has a house in suburban Virginia and arranges his hours driving a cab so he can be home in the mornings with his two young children.

He still broods over the years he lost in Pakistan -- unable to work, attend school, see his family. But he has a citizen’s pride in his adopted country. Barack Obama’s victory is “a gift to my children,” he said. “They can grow up to be anything they want to be. Here, now, I really believe it.”

The next night I rode with Mohammed, a tough-talking native of Jerusalem. He’s been here 20 years and was amazed at how many foreign visitors came to witness our inauguration.

He let me know how battered our reputation abroad has been. “Outside of the U.S, you were hated. . . . for your arrogance and bullying. Now, I’m picking up people at the airport from Europe and they are smiling, celebrating.

“This is more important to them than to you,” he told me. This is America redeemed. “All over the world. It changes everything.”

I flagged Kofi down on a frigid night when I got lost on a walk from our newsroom to my hotel. He came here from Ghana 30 years ago and spent a decade working in a government office before quitting to drive a cab.

Back home, he said, survival depended on connections. “Here, you can work as hard as you want, make as much money as you want and not be bossed by anybody,” he said with a booming laugh.

Abdel Lamar drove me on inauguration night -- a long trip through streets choked with partygoers and security barricades, when he was tired and eager to get home, to watch the inaugural balls on television.

He landed in Washington unexpectedly seven years ago, one of 5,000 Moroccan applicants chosen by lottery to come to the United States. He spoke no English, had no friends or family here. “All I knew of America was what I saw in magazines,” he said.

He told me sobering stories of his country, where a tiny ruling class lives in palatial estates and families like his forage for food in the streets. I shared my family’s history -- my parents’ life in the South under Jim Crow laws, my own experiences on family vacations with hotels that were off-limits to us and restaurants where we were not allowed to eat.

He understood then why Obama’s victory means so much to blacks like me. And he wanted me to understand what he hopes the change will mean for immigrants like him.

“I hear all the stories from people who came to this country 30 years ago, when it was easy to make a success,” he said. “Now, you work hard but don’t seem to make any progress.

“But I am lucky to be here. . . . I love America. She has given me the chance to survive.”

::

Here in California, we have our versions of these immigrant stories, though they’re often accompanied by a native’s coda -- too many signs in Korean or Spanish, overcrowded schools and emergency rooms.

Sometimes I find myself joining the chorus of complaints, like when I’m having trouble understanding the accented voice at a fast-food drive-through.

Mostly, though, I have felt detached, one-upped by the immigrant saga. Most black Americans are not a part of the Ellis Island drama. Unlike almost everybody else in this melting pot, our ancestors did not come here willingly.

That makes it easy to see America through a prism of injustice. And it sweetens the taste of an Obama victory.

But there’s another way to see the outcome, one that binds my dreams to these immigrants’ stories.

Our new president had an immigrant father. He came here as a college student from a dirt-poor village in Kenya, earned a master’s degree at Harvard, then returned to Africa.

He left behind a son who would grow up to lead this country and make the audacity of hope a worldwide mantra -- and our calling card again.

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sandy.banks@latimes.com


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