William McKenzie: Common ground can be found in a new America

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A new American citizen holds a U.S. flag after a naturalization ceremony last month.

William McKenzie
Published: 04 November 2013 09:13 PM
Updated: 04 November 2013 09:13 PM

Wiry John Hammond speaks fast and greets a stranger with a broad smile. He watches his computer while listening to a conversation but answers quickly when asked a question. The energy is what you would expect from an entrepreneur whose career involves multitasking.

Hammond owns FunAsia, a collection of entertainment centers and banquet halls that primarily cater to Asians in Richardson and Houston. The certified public accountant also owns a radio station. And he has started remodeling an abandoned office tower he bought in North Dallas. The entryway to Hammond’s office displays pictures of him with prominent members of both political parties, including President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State James Baker.

Dr. Jari Khan practices medicine in Collin County, where he and his family have resided for the last decade. The soft-spoken internist did his training in New York after arriving from Pakistan in 1999.

Hammond came from Pakistan, too. Except his name was not John Hammond. He changed it about the time he became an American citizen. He knows Anglicizing his name, and those of his children, is controversial among some fellow Muslims. But he has no regrets. “A name connects you to a place,” says Hammond.

Mike Ghouse spends almost every waking hour promoting tolerance and diversity. He heads the Dallas-based Foundation for Pluralism. (Ghouse also contributes regularly to The Dallas Morning News’ Texas Faith blog.) A native of India, Ghouse came to the United States through the sponsorship of a Mormon he worked with on a business project in Saudi Arabia. Now he heads an organization whose goal is inclusion of all Americans.

“I feel it is important to be part of the place where we live and are sustained,” he says.

The four of us talked recently in Hammond’s office about what it takes to assimilate into America. This country is engaged in one of its great periodic demographic shifts, where we are once again refashioning the face of America. I wanted to hear from them what it is like for immigrants from countries with significant Muslim populations. How do they make it in America?

Interestingly, each of them said it made a difference if you came here by yourself as opposed to coming as part of an extended family. If you came here alone, they agreed, you are likely to be much more motivated to get out, join groups, volunteer your time and create associations.

By contrast, if you arrived as part of a larger family, you are less likely to get out into the larger community. You have your own affiliations already in place.

As I listened to them talk, I thought of my own family’s experience. The McKenzie side of my family came to Galveston from Scotland in the 1880s. The first generation mostly stayed close to the island and maintained its clan. The second and third generations ventured farther out, moving away from Galveston and becoming part of their new communities.

That takes time, however. Meanwhile, some immigrants with extended families live in parallel universes, especially if they don’t speak the language or understand many customs. The challenge for social and cultural institutions, such as civic groups, religious organizations and business associations, is to reach out and bring them into the whole.

Khan certainly is involved in finding common ground. Along with his medical practice, he works with an annual Muslim for Life blood drive to support North Texas. He is active in Plano’s Multicultural Outreach Roundtable. And through his volunteer work, he has met the mayors of most North Texas cities. His faith, he says, teaches him to contribute to the community where you live.

The lives of Hammond, Khan and Ghouse are just three of many successful stories of integration. As debate continues in Washington about immigration reform, it’s important that we all remember that such stories exist, whether they involve émigrés from primarily Muslim nations or from Mexico.

A more open immigration system will change the face of the country. Still, common ground can be found amid our diversity. It will just take hard work.

Dallas Morning News editorial columnist William McKenzie’s email address is wmckenzie

@dallasnews.com. He moderates the Texas Faith blog at dallasnews.com/texasfaith and contributes to the Education blog. Follow him on Twitter at @bill_mckenzie.

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