December 15, 1983, is a date indelibly etched in my memory. I was eight years old, it was my first day in America, and I was crossing the Delaware River into Philadelphia. On that chilly, cloudless evening, I caught my first glimpse of downtown Philadelphia, impressed by the cavalcade of lights radiating from its imposing skyscrapers jutting high into the sky. We were a motley crew—me, my two younger siblings, my father, and my mother, who was nine months pregnant with my sister, born a week later.
My family was on the final leg of a seven-thousand-mile trek that began two days before in our home in Kinshasa, Zaire, when we were rushed to the airport in the middle of the night to avoid any detection by the secret police. Our trip was only possible because, after my father’s release from his brief but brutal detention as a political prisoner, the United States had mercifully ended our nervous wait for a safe haven by granting us asylum.
I vividly recall the indescribable blend of wonder, trepidation, and anticipation I felt about what lay ahead: forging new friendships, settling in a new home, learning a new language, all a world apart from virtually everyone and everything I had ever known.
At first, things couldn’t have been worse. We lived in parts of North Philadelphia that had suffered the twin scourges of a raging crack-cocaine epidemic and senseless gangbanging. I often went to bed overwhelmed by hunger, even though my parents had swallowed their pride and reluctantly accepted welfare.
While our climb was steep, we eventually crafted a place for ourselves in Philadelphia, thanks to my parents’ steely determination and unrelenting faith in the promise of this city. After all, its public schools instilled in my siblings and me a thirst for knowledge that lifted each of us to college, and me to Harvard and Harvard Law School. Its hospitals supplied a new liver for my father; and, of course, from that sullen, wintry night until today, this city has been our sanctuary.
So, I believe in Philadelphia. Not just its people, thoroughfares, or parks, nor its sports teams, with their knack to frustrate and uplift their devoted fans in equal measure. I mean the spirit of a city that, beginning with the Quakers, has offered to heal the shattered lives of those escaping persecution. This belief is deeply rooted in the improbable arc of my family’s story and those of countless others like us.
Today, as I admire the mischievous smiles and wonderful babbles of my seven-month-old son Kiese, I know that this belief is real. And years from now, perhaps he, too, will embrace it and proudly and loudly proclaim, this, I believe.