"Halima" hid under the bed and tried not to watch as the soldiers slit her brother's throat. It was 1999 in Sierra Leone and the country was in the middle of a bloody civil war. Halima waited until the killers left, then crawled out and ran to her brother Salim, who was not breathing. She held him, prayed for a moment, then ran from the house. Two days later, with a false passport, she flew to the United States. She was granted asylum and now lives here with her family, including four U.S. citizen children.
I had known Halima's story for almost a decade since I was her immigration attorney. She is just one of the many people I've met during a twenty-year career practicing the type of law that exposes me to people who come from countries where politics is not as simple and sanitized as a panel discussion on CNN.
There was Muhammad, who had once been a member of the Nawaz party in Pakistan and made the mistake of being a vocal district officer and opponent of the Taliban when they took over his northern town and ordered medical workers to stop dispensing free vaccines. He was beaten, his father was shot and he was forced to flee the only home he'd ever known. The Taliban are still there.
There was "Javier" from Guatemala, whose family had been attacked by rebels during the Civil War in the mid-80s because they refused to provide assistance, and then were persecuted by the government when, ironically, they wrongly thought his family had provided that guerrilla aid.
There was Brahim from the Ivory Coast, who had been a vocal coordinator for college students in favor of a political candidate named Ouattara, and who had been imprisoned and tortured when the president's men maintained their power by essentially putting the challenger under house arrest and disrupting the election.
There was Ousmane, from Algeria, who had marched against the Armed Islamic Forces in his hometown of Medea, trying to protect the democratically elected president from an Islamic insurgency. His sister was raped, he was beaten, and the police were too afraid to arrest any of the attackers.
There were more. Mohan from the Sudan. Isaias from El Salvador. Lassana from Guinea. Emanuel from the Congo. Every single one fled a country that was mired in a political maelstrom because one group of people could not accept the peaceful relinquishment of power.
I tell you these stories as a reminder, this particular day. It is a reminder that even though you might not celebrate the man and the message in the ascendant in Washington, you have to honor the process.
We transition from one person to the next, one party to the next, one mission to the next, without guns. We do it without force. We do it with votes and voices.
The angry feminist marches in the streets, but is not forced to hide under her bed.
The impassioned college student writes op-eds against the administration, but does not do it from a prison cell.
The doctor who thinks birth control is a right, not a privilege, writes that prescription from an office and doesn't fear that police will break down his door and haul him away.
To those who are angry, mournful, anxious and disgusted today I say: celebrate the country you live in, that gives you the freedom to oppose the Trump administration.
To those who do celebrate unreservedly, remember that those on the other side of the divide are your fellow citizens.
And to all, embrace the process that perpetuates a freedom and an individual dignity that, believe me, is the exception to a universal rule.