They arrive in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, stumbling through the airport gate as they gaze around at fellow travelers dressed in suits and carrying briefcases filled with important things. There's weariness in their shoulders, bewilderment and timidity in their eyes as they meet the open stares of curious passersby, but most of all, there's a quiet kind of relief that says, "Thank God I've made it."
To have left behind the tragedy and despair that is shared by all of those who have lost their homes and loved ones. To have journeyed from a place where ambitions don't extend beyond tomorrow's meal and people dare not dream for fear of having more to lose. It can only be a miracle when, after years of fervent prayer, their names were called and they feel as though they've won the lottery--no, as though they have been admitted through the pearly gates of Heaven and to eternal bliss.
But reality soon hits hard. America is certainly the land of the free, but it's not the land of free things.
"I have to work hard? Eight hours on my feet?"
"Maybe more if you want to pay your bills. And well, with the way things are, you'll be lucky to get any sort of job, my friend."
"But I'm blind and lost in this new land."
"You will gain new sight, though the world ain't pretty to look at when you're poor."
"I can't speak, you see."
"You will have to learn the language, unless you want to be the laughingstock of this town."
"What about the bullet in my thigh? The one that pains me through the night?"
"We have doctors for that. And if they can't cure you, you'll move on. 'No pain, no gain' is what we say here."
"My four young ones, who will raise them? Who will teach them my values, my mother tongue, my heritage?"
"They will do just fine without you. They don't need the stories of superstitious old men."
There is peace here, the streets quiet where gunshots once lulled their children to sleep, but their hearts are restless. Food is plentiful, but the scale at the doctor's office tells a sad story. Fear has been a constant companion their whole lives. It is here with them now, peeking over their shoulders with a ghastly grin. The future is the black sea looming in front of them, and they'll have to swim to stay afloat. The only other choice is to sink.
"My people back home, they think I live in paradise," they say with a bitter laugh.
"Why don't you tell them the truth?" I ask.
"They'll never believe it. They think I'm keeping all of the riches for myself. You just wait--they'll come to this land and know what I know. That there's no such thing as paradise on earth."
Contracts, applications, interviews, orientations, doctor's visits--"They've taken all my blood. I have no blood left in my body"--bills, bills, bills. Finally, a job working at a warehouse. "I used to carry firewood on my back day and night, though it's been over twenty years," the aging woman tells me. "These old bones don't move quite the way they used to. At least I can pay the bills now." Thank God for miracles.
Days and weeks turn into months and the months settle some of that old fear about the unknown as this new world becomes comfortably familiar. And then they begin to see the blessing for what it is. The stark disappointment gives way to blooming seeds of hope.
A woman sweeps the steps of her apartment building, her children chasing one another around cars. She gazes out at them, the contentment on her face shining through the worry lines, and says, "My husband and I are saving up for a minivan. I think it will help our family."
They are learning to dream.