Columns » Semi-Native

Not-born in the USA




Two people meet while working for a local software development company. As they get to know each other, they discover similarities: She's born just 11 days before him. And they both served in the military — him in the Army, her in the Air Force.

However, this isn't what film critic Roger Ebert used to call a "meet cute," that moment when two people (future lovers) first connect. This is the story of a friendship, one that reveals a dark divide in today's America.

While 42-year-olds Joy Garscadden and Mohammed Hassan Rage have so much in common, rewind to when they were 17 and that wasn't the case.

As Joy recalls, at that age she was living on a Marine Corps base, thinking about graduating from high school. But Hassan was just coming to the United States, working with the United Nations refugee agency, seeking asylum. He was born in Somalia, one of seven countries targeted by the Donald Trump administration's controversial travel ban.

Hassan had family in Arizona, and thanks to the aid of the Tolstoy Foundation (a nonprofit organization started in 1939 by one of canonized Russian author Leo Tolstoy's daughters), his family's entry into the U.S. was expedited. After a year, he was able to apply for a green card, and after the five-year waiting period required of refugees, he was able to become a citizen.

It's likely, had he tried today, the bans that purport to protect Americans would have prevented him from coming into the country.

Speaking with Hassan, it's clear that he's thankful for every opportunity he has been afforded. Yet it's unclear whether his joining the Army was fate or an incredibly clever recruitment method.

He was working at a rental car agency in Phoenix cleaning cars when he found a box that belonged to the Army. When he called, they asked him to bring it to the recruiting office — where they asked him to join. He served six years, which enabled him to see more of the U.S., and Korea. Leaving the Army, he started taking tech classes at Pikes Peak Community College and used every opportunity to learn and broaden his skills. Even now, he continues to take online classes via the free university platform edX.

He still works at Colorado Technology Consultants Inc. and in his free time, he's developed an app called Informed American — a slick program that allows you to easily look up and contact congressional representatives, plus view their voting records, campaign financing and more.

Here's someone who today might not be allowed into our country, but knows more than most citizens about our legislative process. (The app is available in Windows and on Windows mobile devices only at this point.)

Joy no longer works at the software company; today she's the operations manager for Citizens Project, a local nonprofit devoted to equal rights and community education around local government.

While she and Hassan no longer work together, their friendship remains strong. She laughs as she says, "I converted him to being a civics junkie." She also convinced him to share his story with us.

While he's aware that many judge him by the color of his skin and by the sound of his name, the soft-spoken man is getting more involved and more vocal.

"I'm going to protest this guy," he says, never once stating the president's name in our two-hour conversation — his insight and thoughts on the president could fill another column.

"The least I can do is participate."

And push back: An article posted by a senior editor of The Atlantic suggested coming to America would benefit millions, but policymakers aren't asking if the United States benefits from their arrival.

In response, Hassan tweeted out his photo from basic training, and asked, "I put my life on the line for this country by serving in the U.S. Army, why isn't that enough for your ilk?"

Hassan believes there are two types of people. The first, when they see someone in need, says "Get a job." The second person gives them a sandwich.

"He's my sandwich-giving friend," Joy says, though she worries for him. She worries that people who don't know him will say hateful things to him, or worse, physically harm him.

Hassan shrugs off her concern.

"I've been black long enough," he says. "I know how to act."

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