The Best Way to Respond to 9/11? Help Realize the American Dream
The American Dream in its truest form is not an individual quest against the odds, but a community making sacrifices so that all can thrive.
On September 11, 2001, Samira*, a recent widow, was pregnant with her fourth child and living near Kabul, Afghanistan. In the chaotic months that followed, her family would escape to a refugee camp and then, from Afghanistan to America.
Twenty years later, her eldest child (a graduate of two public universities, earning Bachelor’s and Master’s of Science degrees) works at one of the largest tech companies in the world. Two other children work in financial services and biotechnology and her youngest is a senior at a competitive research university.
The origins of this story demonstrate the promise and failure of America in the post-9/11 era: a generous nation that holds its lamp beside the golden door for those seeking freedom and a better life, and a country unable, and indeed, unwillingness, to create an “opportunity nation” accessible to all.
In spite of that failure--the story is a hopeful one. It’s a tale of how individual and collective action (including major investments by government) can give children the building blocks to make the most of their talents, which in turn make our society stronger and more prosperous.
It’s a story Oregon can learn from.
So how did this story happen?
It started with a non-profit organization working in a nation besieged by conflict. The organization’s goal: get as much help to as many people as possible, including by relocating families, like Samira’s, to America.
And so, with four children (including a newborn) in tow, Samira made her way to the Boston area, where the pastor at my local congregational church had urged parishioners to take on the costs of supporting a refugee family. It was April 2002. The community rallied and cumulatively covered Samira’s housing costs, among other expenses.
This was not an inexpensive commitment--especially for small churches on a shoestring budget in the midst of an economic recession. So when our church reluctantly decided to stop paying Samira’s rent, people could have accepted it as a necessary cut during tough times. But someone stood up and said, “No.”
“I went crazy at that meeting,” my mother told me. She wouldn’t stop until she found a solution for Samira.
A fellow member of the church connected my mother to the local housing agency where Samira’s family had gone in search of a stable housing arrangement. The city where they lived happened to be one of the most diverse and welcoming communities in the Commonwealth--a working class town that nevertheless invested in a municipal refugee program that worked closely across local agencies to provide needed services for families.
My mother’s stubborn refusal to back down and the city’s collective commitment to refugees led Samira to secure an apartment--one she has to this day.
Of course, as a new American and single mother of four, Samira needed a heck of a lot more than a roof over her head. Once again, America provided. The young family made the most of the unique web of social institutions that surrounded them. They attended English lessons, found community within the Boys and Girls Club, and attended the local YMCA. The youngsters also received academic support through scholarships for immigrant students to seek higher education (often the first in their families to do so). Then there was also formal government support through the social safety net of SNAP benefits, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Beyond those collective informal and formal investments, individuals also made personal investments in the family’s success. My mother continued in her role as surrogate grandmother and pro bono tutor (I can personally attest to the effectiveness of her rigorous approach to math education). Other members of the church provided financial and emotional support. Still more members of the community welcomed Samira’s family, anxious to give what they could so that the family could achieve the American Dream.
And last, but by no means least, the kids worked incredibly hard to take advantage of the opportunities provided.
For all the talk about America as the Land of Opportunity, the lattice of public, private, and philanthropic efforts that supported Samira’s family remain elusive for millions. As a result, Americans have witnessed a consistent decline in opportunity, relative to their parents.
According to Opportunity Insights, the share of children earning more than their parents has been declining since 1940 (see chart below). While every state has suffered from a decline in what researchers call “absolute mobility,” Oregon has suffered more than most (see chart).
Furthermore, as of 2019, Oregon ranked 40th among the 50 states (plus D.C.) in Opportunity Nation’s “education score,” a combination of preschool enrollment, high school graduation, and postsecondary education.
There are nascent signs that Oregonians recognize the need for greater investment in our young people --from Multnomah County voters approving a new tax for Preschool for All (in the midst of the pandemic, no less), to the State Legislature increasing appropriations for the Oregon Opportunity Grant by over 20 percent compared to the last biennium--enough to support an additional 11,000 students over the course of the 2021-23 biennium.
But so much more is needed--not just from government, but from every one of us.
We need state level housing programs that support families moving to neighborhoods of opportunity and individual efforts to house refugees until they can get on their feet.
We need to study how to best equip our institutions of higher learning to act as engines of economic mobility and commitments from the private sector to hire, train, and promote people from historically disadvantaged backgrounds.
We need leaders who recognize that opportunity lies in preparing for the world as it is and will become, not those who seek to drag our economy and society against the tide of history.
And--as Jessica Gomez highlighted in a recent column--we need to make unequivocally clear to every young person in Oregon that we not only have high hopes for your future, we have high expectations as well.
I got a text the other night from Mom--Samira’s youngest had come to visit and, of course, to bake a batch of my mother’s famous chocolate chip cookies for her friends back at school.
A baby when the Towers fell, her life (as all of ours) has been shaped by factors well beyond her control, but also by the deliberate choices of people and institutions that nurtured the untapped potential of this family in need, and paved the way for her to be judged not by the place of her birth, but by the strength of her extraordinary work ethic and the content of her remarkable character.
It’s the American Dream in its truest form--not an individual quest against the odds, but a community making sacrifices so that all can thrive.
Samira’s family is exceptional, but their experience in America should not be the exception. Twenty years after 9/11, our greatest tribute to the fallen would be to make more available the opportunities and freedoms that our attackers tried to deny.
* Names and identifying information have been altered to preserve anonymity
I'm a proud Oregonian, the lucky spouse of @AdamsKalloch & father of two. Former: ACLU lawyer/Policy wonk. Current: Global Public Policy, Airbnb.
"World Trade Center Tower one(Freedom Tower) from Brooklyn | WTC Sunset" by MichaelTapp is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0