It was 1968. I was working at my second adult job. My position involved working as a computerized inventory control clerk at a food warehouse. Shortly after I began working for the company another guy started working with us. His name was Sam. He was very different from the rest of us.
He was an intern which as a concept with which I had no previous experience. Sam was the only intern working with our company while I was there. He was in the process of obtaining an advanced degree and he was working on completing his thesis. Sam was a black man from South Africa. He was the first South African any of us had ever met. He also was the only black man working in the office.
Physically, he was also exceptionally short man which gave him an almost childlike appearance. Sam was definitely less than five feet tall. Because he looked so young I was surprised to learn he was a married man and that his wife was still in South Africa. Although he spoke English, he spoke it with a heavy accent that made him difficult for us to understand. He came from a tribal background (Zulu). He had a last name that none of us had any hope of pronouncing properly so we didn’t even try. Sam was here legally but he was a refugee from his own country. The South African government had refused him permission to leave. During the short time that we worked together Sam told me the story of how and why he ended up in the United States.
He had been a student in South Africa. When the time came, Sam had applied for an advanced degree in the United States. He was accepted to study at a prestigious university in the Boston area. In spite of that, the government in South Africa refused to let him leave the country. He indicated that it was because of his tribal affiliation. His tribe had a record of opposition to the government’s policies of apartheid and the government responded with bureaucratic animosity.
Sam considered their refusal and made his own decision. He determined that his government wasn’t going to tell him how to live his life. With a commitment to continue his college career in the United States, his first goal was to exit South Africa. He made his plans and then started his trek towards the border. He said it took him about two weeks to get to the frontier. At that point, his journey became much more difficult and dangerous. The South African border was militarized and heavily patrolled. In order for him to cross the border he had to hide during the day and slowly work his way across no-man’s land under the cover of darkness. Sam said that it took him two days to get across the border while constantly being on the watch for military patrols.
Fortunately, for him, Sam had a plan in place once he got across the border. He contacted his sponsor in the U.S. With their assistance he was able to obtain a plane ticket and a student visa. With this help, he was able to legally enter the United States and pursue his studies.
While life in this country held better opportunities for him than South Africa, living here was still a difficult transition. Sam came here without friends or family and his wife was still in South Africa.
Racial prejudice and discrimination were a troubling, and accepted, undercurrent in this country even in our northern city. I still remember hearing one of our employees repeatedly yelling out to him “Hey Sam, you little speaar chucker, get on over here!” Eventually, management shut him up but that didn’t happen right away.
In spite of such challenges, Sam endured his adversities with dignity. I don’t remember Sam ever complaining. He was a humble and patient man. He had faith. He knew that all this too would pass. He’d seen worse. Sam knew his life would just continue to get better.
Sam was no ordinary individual. He was an exceptional both intellectually and in terms of character. He was the kind of guy with whom any one of us would be pleased to have as a neighbor or a friend. If he stayed in our country after apartheid, I’m sure that he became a model citizen and a patriot. He knew the price of freedom personally.
Many of our immigrants could tell you similar stories of sacrifice, deprivation or persecution. One way or the other, they pay a price for coming and staying here. Most of them are humble people who are looking for better opportunities for themselves and their families. I’ve known quite a number of them personally.
Based on my own experiences, I know that they contribute far more to our country than the cost that we pay for their presence here. As a group, immigrants are misunderstood and certainly under-appreciated. It’s sad and ironic since, like our own ancestors, many of whom came here under similar adverse circumstances, they are the strength of our nation.
It had been years since I last thought about Sam. Our current immigration debate reminded me of him. Immigrants from all countries and living in every possible set of circumstances (documented or not) are one of the greatest assets that our nation can draw upon. We gain the full advantage of their presence here to the extent that we weave them into the fabric of our society. Excluding and persecuting them hurts us as much as it troubles them. When we exclude them, we weaken the foundation of our society and we deny the very principles upon which our nation was founded.