The morning after President Donald Trump was impeached, I got in a car to go to the airport. The driver was a man I have known for some time. His name is Walid. He is always upbeat when he greets me, in a navy sports coat, a tie and a vest, his brown eyes twinkling.
“Today is a big day for me,” he declared, his accent thick from his earlier life in Lebanon.
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Today I go for interview to become an American citizen.”
It took me by surprise. I knew Walid had been here for a while — since 2001 — when he was offered a job with a human resources company in Dearborn. Back in Lebanon, Walid had run an HR department of more than 100 people, he says.
“But my family was here. And I had kids. I wanted to make a better life for them.”
So he came to this country like so many of us did, like my grandparents did, like maybe your grandparents did, for the promise of an existence without war and random death like the one experienced as a youth in Beirut, when he said, “We had to run to get bread and hope we did not get the bombs or the bullets.”
I had assumed Walid was either a citizen already, or didn’t need to be, given he had the proper visa and green card. But here he was, at age 65, excited about his test, excited about becoming, officially, an American.
On a day when the country could not have been more divided.
‘I love United States from my heart’
They say if you look at the sun too long you’ll go blind. Well, if you look at the top of the country too long, you lose the ability to see what’s holding it up.
What’s holding it up is people who still believe in basic American ideals, who tell basic American stories of determination and doggedness and hope for something better.
Walid Al Houssami is more like the average American than one would suspect. He built a decent life here in Michigan, purchased a house in Dearborn, had a car and kids in school.
And then, in 2007, during the economic recession, his company went out of business.
He lost his job.
He lost his house when the bank, he says, refused to refinance.
He had to scramble to find work.
So scramble he did. Walid had a bachelor’s degree from the American University of Beirut, and decades of business experience, but he took jobs at gas stations, sometimes two or three at the same time, to make sure he fed his family.
“I don’t care,” he said. “I never was shamed. I would be shamed if I open my hand — if I say, ‘Give me something’ or I hold a sign ‘give me money to eat’ — then I will be shamed. I am never shamed to work.”
During that time, when things were hardest for him, he followed the events in the Middle East. He saw the potential threats to America from Iraq and Afghanistan. One day, at age 53, he drove himself to a U.S. Army recruiter’s office, he says, and told them he wanted to sign up.
“I told them I want to serve this country because I eat from this land. I drink from this land. I have to fight for this land. This is my country, too. If I am citizen or not, I’m living here. I love United States from my heart, you know?
“What happened?” I asked.
“They refuse me for my age,” he said. “But they say they were proud of me. One woman there, she give me a hug.”
The American dream lives on
In 2013, Walid began driving to make a living. He worked for Metro Cars. As time passed, his business instincts told him he could be more efficient – and earn more – if he had his own small company.
So he saved his money and purchased a black Chevy Suburban. He formed Weeda Cars, after his grandson’s nickname.
And today, thanks to his industriousness, he has purchased another home. His kids are grown and doing well. He has four grandchildren whom he adores.
He is back on his feet.
And, at 65, walking towards citizenship. He said he wanted to do it now because he feels American, he wants to travel as an American, he wants to vote as an American.
I called him the next day to see how the test had gone.
“Excellent,” Walid said. He passed the English language part, he passed all the background parts. When it came to civics portion, he had 10 chances to get six questions right. He didn’t need them, he said. He got six of six.
“They ask about George Washington, about the 13 original states, about what states border Canada, about Ben Franklin, what he invent. I get the six right. After that they ask will I serve United States if needed, I say ‘Of course.’ They ask if I will take an oath, I say, ‘Of course. I love the United States.’”
There was such pride in his voice. At the age when most of us retire, Walid was about to take a life leap.
You can stare at the sun, you can yell into the dark, and you can look to find American inspiration away from cable news cacophony. On one of the worst weeks in U.S. political history, there were still countless small examples of why this country is a beautiful place.
“They told me I will get a paper telling me when the ceremony is, and I can bring people to watch me get sworn in,” Walid said, proudly.
I’d like to go to that. It beats staring at a TV full of screaming politicians. And, in truth, it’s a lot more of what America is about.