Olympian: This is what it means to be an American

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I am an American.  I’ve lived the American Dream — a life as a citizen of these United States, nurtured by parents who provided me opportunity and the freedom and courage to dream beyond boundaries.

As a child, I rode my bike in my neighborhood and played until bedtime. My family ate dinner at the table together, camped and vacationed at Disney World. The values that make me an American were instilled in me during those formative years: love, equality and a strong work ethic.

My parents saw Islam as way to bring those foundational values into all aspects of their lives. They made sure they were the bedrock of our family. A police officer and a public school teacher, my father and mother put in the work to make my childhood better than their own. It was their mutual appreciation for the power of athletics that led me into sports.

The modest dress of my faith made fencing an ideal choice, but took me on a path I couldn’t have imagined as a 12-year-old picking up a fencing sword for the first time. A black Muslim woman, I attended Duke University. It was only 150 years ago men, women and children who looked like me lived under the yoke of slavery in North Carolina, and here I found myself walking onto Duke’s campus because of my academic accomplishments and skill with a saber.

Years later, standing on an Olympic podium in Brazil, seeing my country’s flag rise above me, I felt an overwhelming sense of triumph, defying society’s limited expectations, breaking barriers placed in front of me because of the color of my skin and my faith. At the highest level of sport, I proudly represented, competed and medaled for my country.

I love my country, but I don’t recognize it today. Not in the Supreme Court ruling upholding the travel ban. Not in a Supreme Court nominee potentially engineered to undo reproductive choice, access to health care and the Russia investigation. Not in the family separation and detention policy. Not in our move to initiate trade wars and rally against breastfeeding and the World Health Organization. Not in the abandonment of allies and basic decency in how we treat other humans.

And, just as importantly, not in the lies and daily attacks on our constitutional rights that this administration carries out under the cover of Twitter fits.

When the travel ban directed at majority-Muslim countries was announced, I wrote a letter to President Donald Trump. Now that his administration has put its “zero-tolerance” policy on immigration into effect, I must speak out against trying to make immigrants the enemy of Americans.

I visited the border in California on July 1 and saw what was happening firsthand. It was a disturbing education into what the administration is doing to other human beings.

My time along the border, seeing the real-life outcome of this administration’s policies toward immigrants, has led me to this call. A nation that holds itself as the beacon of hope and freedom in the world to all those who yearn for a better life, for more opportunity, cannot tolerate the way this government is treating other human beings.

The challenge of any democracy is how it exercises its power. Today the scoreboard is scary: Trump administration: 0. Supreme Court: 0. Congress: 0.

The only check we have left is us. The people.

The idea of America is, in no small part, sustained by the way we delegate our day-to-day governance to people who have the integrity and knowledge to act in a way consistent with our values, interests and Constitution as they make policy. Here now, we are witnessing failures that seem almost too overwhelming to engage.

This administration does not believe in facts and obfuscates the truth — whether it’s the inauguration crowd size, the difference between would or wouldn’t, or Russian cyberwarfare. This administration has deemed athletesun-American for peacefully exercising their most fundamental freedoms. This administration has declared war on the media and decries the work of a free press as “fake news.”

Our democracy lies in the balance. And yet, like every epic sporting story, it is when it all seems lost that we mustn’t give up. The victory will not be one heroic maneuver but will be the sum of long hours of practice and injuries, discipline and attention to detail.

So, America, now is our time. We must stand together — not just on any one issue we feel affects our own families the most — but on the broader conviction about what it means to be an American. With solidarity we can hold this President — and his enabling Congress — to account.

Doing that means that we can’t be satisfied when we stop separating families only to hold them in jails. It means that a Muslim ban by any other name is still a Muslim ban and therefore unacceptable. It means that removing due process for anyone is a threat to us all. It means the power of our flag and our anthem is strengthened by protest, by athletes and others, and affirmed in our engagement in the conversations it drives.

It means that my Olympic story doesn’t begin on the medal stand but in the often painful work when no one is watching. So too, when it comes to our country.

We have to show up for the real work, and not just when the cameras are on: against the ban, at the border and more. We need to affirm that asylum is a fundamentally American idea, not a criminal act.

We have to stop family detention, and divest from contractors that participate in it. We have to show up for the work that leads to a reformed criminal justice system and investment in community policing.

And we have to carry with us an understanding that access to civic participation is unevenly distributed and under threat. We now have a Supreme Court whose decisions on voting rights suggest an intention to make it harder to vote.

We have to show up to ensure that America’s true voice can be heard — the voice that includes people for whom 15-hour workdays make voting a huge sacrifice and people who have paid their debts to society but are blocked from the ballot by their criminal records. Voter registration and voting have never been more important.

In doing that work in whatever way we can, as often as we can, we renew the truest and most vital American reality, that our community is bigger than our religion, national origin or race.

We have to show up for the real work — together. In solidarity. It is our civic duty, it is our moral duty and it’s the only way we win.

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