My name is Zena Meyer. Meyer is a pretty common name, so my parents decided to balance that out by finding an obscure and semi-unpronounceable first name. Though Meyer is a traditionally German last name, the Romanian side of the family has it because in their travels searching for safety, they dropped a Jewish surname to take the equivalent of “Smith.”
The Russian side of my family had a similar story of persecution. One by one, they made their way to New York City to pursue a better life.
Zeena was their daughter, and she came to New York in the early 1920’s. She got a job in a sweatshop making hats, and worked hard enough so her two daughters (my grandmother and grand-aunt) could get a college education. I was named after her, which is why my name is Zena– my parents decided to throw out the extra “e.”
As I grew older, I learned how to politely correct people who misspelled my name, and I learned about my roots and became proud of them. I also learned more about America, and became proud of my country. With the Junior State of America and the U.S. Senate Youth Program, I learned the history of our great country. A speaker I heard in Washington D.C. summed it up best when he observed that “America is not a flawless country, but it is a great country.”
I know about America’s scars– our genocides of Native Americans, our colonialism and imperialism, our military-industrial complex, our oppression of minorities, our systemic racism. But I believe that that we were formed on a basis of hope, freedom, and equality. I knew that our nation was built on stories like my great-grandmother’s– the story of 17-year-old girls who fled oppression and worked hard and to participate in shaping the country.
Because of this faith, I became passionate about serving this nation, in any or all ways possible. I focused my efforts on public policy that would benefit the people who our nation had oppressed. I strive toward doing all the good I can, for all the people I can, in all the ways I can, as long as I ever can.
Even on election night, when a man so contrary to our nation’s ideals became president, I had faith that our democracy would persist. The Founding Fathers crafted a system so genius it would withstand anything. Even through Cabinet appointments I saw as horrendous, I marveled at the peaceful transition of power that defined our country.
I came to doubt our nation’s greatness last night. On Jan. 29, President Trump signed an Executive Order that blocks citizens from seven nations from entering the United States for the next 120 days and stops Syrian refugees from entering the country indefinitely.
In this act, I see a country turning its back on the values that define us. When the president takes illogical, racist steps like these that tear apart families, kill dreams, and destroy hope, that’s not the America I know and love and want to serve.
When my great grandmother sailed into New York, she saw the Statue of Liberty shining bright on the horizon. On the pedestal of the Statue, there is a poem by a Emma Lazarus, a child of immigrants. This poem reads,
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
We can’t “Make America Great Again” if we toss aside the values that made America great. America is the place for stories like the story of my family. It’s a place where “even orphan immigrants can make a difference and rise up,” as “Hamilton” quotes. It’s a place where somehow, freedom and justice can prevail.
To so many, America is a golden door. It’s a place of safety. It’s a place where someone can get an education. It’s a place where families can grow. It’s a place where we can all contribute. That is what makes America great. So why, President Trump, are you slamming the golden door on people who want to make this country great, simply because of where they’re from? It’s not where we’re from, it’s where we’re going. And I hope we’re going somewhere that our great-grandchildren will be proud of.