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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

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Sunday, June 26, 2011

July 4th: A Birthday of Hope**

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey
Berbera, Somalia
Photo by Ralph Couey

*Somerset, PA Daily American
July 2, 2011
as "A Birthday for hope"

*Chicago Tribune
July 1, 2011
as "A birthday for hope"

Some thirty years ago, I was walking the dry, hot, dusty streets of Berbera, Somalia.  I was a young U.S. Navy sailor and our ship had pulled in to meet a destroyer tender for some essential repairs.  We had been given a few precious hours of liberty, a gift after 7 weeks at sea.

It was a brutally hot day, around 115 degrees.  Clad in my white doubleknit uniform, I was rapidly boiling over.  But the experience that awaited me quickly eliminated any thoughts of my personal discomfort. 

The signs of poverty and hunger were everywhere.  People lived in hovels I wouldn’t have stored my lawnmower in. And when we looked at each other, I saw in their eyes, the emptiness of despair. 

Americans who complain about being poor obviously haven't been to Africa yet.

I was approached by an old man who asked to have his picture taken.  I obliged him, after which he demanded five dollars.  Chuckling, I passed the money over.  The Somali government had just days before evicted the Soviet delegation, but this Somali had apparently picked up the essential elements of capitalism very quickly.

He spoke English surprisingly well, and we talked for a while.  I asked him about his life, and he in turn peppered me with endless questions about America.  He was amazed that I thought of myself as poor, yet I had a house, a car, electricity, and clean running water.  My description of a typical supermarket was dismissed as fiction.  I told him that he should visit and see for himself.  He replied...
"I dream of going to America someday. 
In Somalia, I was born ordinary, I lived ordinary,
I will die ordinary.
In America, all things are possible.
In America, I could never be ordinary."
The memory of that conversation has stayed with me ever since.  As a Navy enlisted man living in high cost areas like Honolulu and Los Angeles, there was never a time when we weren't struggling financially.  Pennies were pinched hard enough to leave dents in their copper surfaces.  Clothes were passed down, mended, and passed down again.  Our car was a beater, yet it got us where we needed to be.  Most times, anyway.  Our kids were taught the mantra of self-denial, "We can't afford it."  Yet, as I walked the streets of any of the 26 countries the Navy took me to, I gained a sober realization of just how fortunate we truly were.

Americans complain.  A lot.  In many ways, it's our national past time.  Yet walking among us are immigrants from places like Mogadishu, Somalia; Yomoussoukro, Côte d'Ivoire; Conakry, Guinea; Kabala, Sierra Leone, all of whom must listen and wonder why a people who have so much moan and groan so.

The thing is, they know the horrors that they left behind.  The desperate poverty, a thoroughly corrupted government, rampant violence, hunger, no education, and a life utterly bereft of hope.  People have come to the United States from places like that for one principal reason.  Here, hope still exists.

I remember the words of a young man from Vietnam, one of the thousands of boat people who fled the country after the war.  He and his family had done very well for themselves, despite arriving here with little more than the clothes on their back.  I asked him what his secret was.  He responded,
"My family was always willing to work 12 to 18 hours a day,
sometimes seven days a week.  
Our parents made sure we took our education seriously,
so we'd be prepared to access any opportunity that came along. 
And they never allowed us to forget what we left behind in Vietnam.
This is only one of many such accounts from people who came here with dreams and a willingness to work.  Their track record reveals that, even today, America remains a place for dreamers.

This July 4th, remember that it's not just about the birthday of our country.  It's also a celebration of us; her people and the country we've created.  Take a step back this weekend and instead of moaning about what you lack, think about what you do have.  Remember the freedoms you enjoy, and the power that our right to vote gives us over our government.

We've had a remarkable journey, but we're not done yet.

America still has a story to write.

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