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'We must stand up and fight' for America

Reshma Saujani
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Reshma Saujani

Forty years ago, my parents were forced to flee their home in Uganda when the dictator Idi Amin came to power. Pushing nationalist "Uganda First" policies, Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of all people of Indian descent from the country within 90 days or risk being shot on spot. The dictator baselessly blamed ethnic Indians – many of whom were Ugandan citizens – of stealing jobs during a time of economic uncertainty. Even though two generations of my family had lived in Uganda, my parents' religion and national origin put them at risk.

My parents applied to several nations for refugee status, but received one heartbreaking rejection letter after another. Then, with the dictator's ninety day window drawing near, a letter came that literally saved their lives. "You've been accepted," it said, "to the United States of America."

Upon reaching America's shores, my parents did what so many generations of immigrants and political refugees had done before them. They worked hard day and night, saved every extra dollar, and helped their daughters seize every opportunity afforded to them by this great nation. They saw me grasp tightly to the American dream and serve my country as a lawyer, an activist, as the Deputy Public Advocate in New York City, and now as the CEO of Girls Who Code, a national nonprofit dedicated to closing the gender gap in technology.

Their journey affirms the central promise of America – that this is a place where if you work hard, you can have a fair shot at success and give back to the nation that gave you a chance. It's this promise of America that Mr. Trump, through his executive orders last Friday, has put at risk.

It's frightening to consider the parallels of what's unfolding in America right now and what my parents faced in Uganda four decades ago. Just like then, people today are being told that closing our borders and closing our hearts to those struggling and striving abroad is the only way. We're being told that America is a zero sum game – that the dreams of immigrants come at the expense of those native born and that the religious freedom of some threatens the security of others.

"We're being told that the dreams of immigrants come at the expense of those native born and that the religious freedom of some threatens the security of others. But we know this is a lie."

But we know this is a lie. We know it because we see the contributions of refugees and immigrants in our everyday lives as our neighbors, teachers, doctors, and police officers. We know it because we see it in immigrant-founded companies like Google or Intel that have created new jobs for all Americans. I know it because I saw it in my parents putting in extra work hours every night so that my sister and I could have a chance. When Mr. Trump shuts people out, he robs all Americas of the boundless potential and opportunity core to every refugee's imagination.

I love this country for saving my parents lives. My pursuit of public service only exists because this nation gave my parents political asylum and a shot at a new life. I never take for granted how lucky I am to be an American and what a privilege it is to spend each day at a nonprofit dedicated to helping the next generation of girls achieve their dreams. My journey, as the daughter of refugees, shows what refugees and the children of refugees can create for all Americans.

Today, many Americans are understandably worried about how they will find their way in a world that is undoubtedly changing faster than ever before. There is a seductive simplicity in Donald Trump's vision to build walls and ban refugees to protect American interests. But we must always remember that we create far greater opportunity for all Americans when we enable the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of people globally to take root here.

If Donald Trump were president in 1973 when the dictator Idi Amin expelled my parents from Uganda, I would never have gotten the chance to make an impact right here in America. I am not alone. There are countless refugees who have been allowed to come to this country, and their children and their children's children have made enormous contributions to the fabric of American society. Yet, Mr. Trump would deny us this chance.

We must stand up and fight for an America that welcomes young doers and dreamers, instead of categorically denying entry to so many simply based on their religion or country of origin. The very promise of America that saved my parents' lives is at stake and we cannot afford to lose it now.

Commentary by Reshma Saujani, CEO and founder, Girls Who Code. Follow her on Twitter @reshmasaujani.

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