Earlier this year I was at my local gas station at 6 a.m. stocking up on caffeine for the daily commute. I joked with the young Ethiopian attendant about how haggard he looked and how happy he must be to get some rest after a graveyard shift.
He smiled at me, pointing out that he still had one more job before going home. He told me that he has three jobs in total and sleeps for a few hours in the afternoon.
“America!” he said, knowing that, as an immigrant from Egypt, I would understand what he meant: When you are lucky enough to come to America, you work as hard as you can to succeed. You sleep later.
Later in D.C., I stood on the street watching a group of Spanish-speaking window washers dangling off a building so that office workers could look out from their cubes.
That job looked like torture to me — but for them, this was how they were making sure they didn’t waste their shot at an American dream. They slept later.
All around me, for the past 18 years since I came here, I have seen and engaged with immigrants who are doing whatever it takes to (legitimately) succeed in America.
Stand in almost any major U.S. city (where most Americans live by the way) and you will see exactly what I am talking about. My immediate group of friends alone, most of them “off the boat” immigrants, includes a police detective, two lawyers, an economist and several entrepreneurs.
In fact, I strongly recommend you attend a naturalization ceremony if you want to be humbled by what it means to earn the privilege of becoming an American.
None of us — whether by dangling off buildings or running billion-dollar companies — come here to be lazy or fail. None of us come here to mooch off the state.
Instead, every single one of us has been building our own American Dream brick by brick, knowing that our ultimate success is generative — it manifests itself in those second, third and fourth generations, until you aren’t counting generations anymore.
That has always been the case throughout America’s history. Lazy people don’t immigrate — they stay home. Motivated, determined and desperate people do.
A Central American mother who walks thousands of miles with a child so they are not murdered by drug gangs. An Egyptian father who runs a New Jersey deli for 30 years so his daughters can graduate with law degrees. Even the draft-dodging young German hustler who built his American Dream one brothel at a time, and whose grandson became president.
None of these people came here to fail — they came here to succeed.
Some of the most xenophobic, narrow-minded, cynical nativists of today are themselves only three or four generations removed from coming off boats, from being refugees, illiterate, hungry, shoe-less.
We know that people with names like Lahern, O’Reilly and Hannity were being accused of “incessant childbearing” and “every species of outlawry,” by “real” Americans when they first came here in the 1800s.
We know that many white Europeans came here in the 1700s on convict transports (sending their worst people?), as religious refugees or in indentured servitude.
Despite the arrogant ignorance of the neo-know-nothings, barely any of us came prepackaged with the country.
I hope we can all take inspiration from the stories of how those who came before us never let anyone deflate their American Dream — even if some of their decedents are now purveyors of the very same hate they faced.
They knew, like we know, that America — and the opportunity it presents — transcends any obstacle, any slur, any symbol of hatred, be it a flag or a Chinese-made MAGA hat.
They knew, like we know, that we have been called worse things by better people.
And they knew, like every immigrant knows today: We have work to do, taxes to pay, elections to vote in, future generations of Americans to raise, and no time to waste on vitriol. After all, we have dreams to build.
Amgad Naguib is an Egyptian-American immigrant living in Maryland; he has been a U.S. citizen for seven years. This column was originally published by The Baltimore Sun.