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Khizr Khan: Why I Love America
On why Americans should keep faith with the country’s founding values of liberty, equality and dignity.
By Khizr Khan
Khizr Khan is a Gold Star parent of U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan and founder of the Constitution Literacy Center. On July 7, he will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. He resides in Charlottesville, Virginia.
As they are for most Americans, the Fourth of July and Memorial Day are sacred to my family and me. We commemorate both days with the most solemn tribute to our nation, its founding values, and those who gave their lives to defend them.
Let me explain why: About 40 years ago, when I was 30 years old, I immigrated to the United States from Pakistan. For my entire life up to that point, Pakistan had been a place of brutal military regimes and political turmoil.
One afternoon, during my second year of law school in Pakistan, I was standing in my dorm room next to the study table on which I had placed a pile of course materials. My eyes fell on the top page of the materials titled “Declaration of Independence – July 4, 1776.” That was when I read the entire Declaration of Independence for the first time. I was spell-bound—captivated by the spirit of those fourteen hundred words and the signatures of our forefathers who had risked their wealth, families, and personal safety by endorsing this radical document.
After declaring independence, the Americans crafted the Constitution and then the Bill of Rights. Together, these three documents are the guiding lights of the nation we live in today. The genius of these documents was to place the power of decision-making in the hands of the people while protecting the fundamental human rights of the minority. These foundational values and ideals are why the United States has, throughout its history, been a beacon of hope for the world.
Of course, no nation or people is without flaws. After immigrating to the United States in 1980, I learned more about the dark parts of American history: slavery and segregation, the millions of Native Americans who lost their lives and their land, the women relegated to second-class citizenship, the McCarthy hearings, and the war in Vietnam. But I also learned about the bright spots: the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, the valorous struggle for Civil Rights, and so on. All this history, the good and the bad, has shaped my understanding of what America is, and showed me that the journey towards a more perfect union is an ongoing struggle.
Having lived under Pakistan’s authoritarian rule and corrupt democracy, I know that America’s democratic values remain a beacon for people around the world. This is proven by the fact that so much of the world’s population wishes to immigrate here and make the United States a home for them and their children, as I have done.
So the Fourth of July is a time for my family and me to remember those founding values of liberty, equality, and dignity that define the American nation. This yearly reminder took on even greater meaning to us 18 years ago, after the death of my middle son, U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan. Humayun moved to the United States with me as a toddler. He grew into a young man and American patriot, fully aware of our country’s foundational values. We often spoke of the incomplete American promise of equality and freedom for all—both at home and abroad. He was an avid reader of our country’s history. At a very early age, he had come to realize that service to country, in whatever form or level one can fulfill, is the highest calling and duty of every American. It was this idea of service that led him—a young man from a grateful family—to join the military with the aim of defending American liberty and freedom.
I remember our last phone call with Humayun, on Mother’s Day. He was in Iraq, and during the brief call, his mother reminded him, “Don’t be a hero, just make sure you are safe and come back to me safe.” To this he responded, “I will make sure I am safe, but I am here to protect my soldiers, and their well-being is my priority.”
He must have been holding this value of service to others high in his heart and mind on June 8, 2004, when his camp in Baquba, Iraq, was attacked. He was inspecting the entry gate where his unit was deployed while the other soldiers stationed at the camp were eating breakfast. When he saw a car driving towards the gate of the military camp, he ordered everyone to “hit the dirt,” but he himself stepped forward to stop the car.
We are told that he took ten steps forward, which caused the terrorists to prematurely detonate the car bomb. His actions saved scores of local Iraqis who had gathered at the gate of the camp to take part in a program he had initiated to employ local workers—an effort to demonstrate the goodwill of America and American soldiers. He must have been aware of the danger, but he wanted to make sure he was true to his oath of protecting the soldiers and local civilians under his responsibility.
My son was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, alongside thousands of other patriots who, throughout our nation’s history, gave their all to protect our nation, our democracy, our foundational values, and our freedoms.
In 2016, my family was invited to the Democratic National Convention to participate in a tribute to our son’s sacrifice in service. After we spoke at the convention, Americans wrote us thousands of letters without knowing our address by simply writing down our name, city, and state. The mail—which, in addition to the letters, included flowers, packages containing prayer books of different faiths, and rosaries and mezuzahs to keep us safe—was delivered in plastic bags by the local post office. Fellow Americans gave us hugs at airports, shopping malls, and on the street. During flights, we received solidarity notes written on napkins and airline staff offered us extra cups of coffee or tea. Strangers bought coffee at coffee shops or paid for our meals at restaurants. All of these kind acts expressed the same sentiment: Thank you for telling your story and reminding us of our family’s story of coming to America.
Over the years, I have continued to tell my family’s story—to challenge intolerance, and to speak about the equal dignity of all human beings. But I am just one of the millions of Americans who work every day on behalf of tolerance, diversity, freedom of thought, equality, human dignity, and self-determination. For these are the foundational ideas of America—and as long as this country exists, Americans shall continue to teach and remind the world of them.