Shall American Teenagers Dream Free?

Pain isn’t the first thing you remember about the policeman thwacking your arm with a bamboo cane.  First thing is the shock.  “What on earth just happened?”

Two weeks ago you’re riding with your father in a rickshaw along a jam-packed street in Dhaka, Bangladesh when you see a few street children half naked, starving, skeletons dressed in skin.  At once the rickshaws around you rustle with murmurs and shouts at the policeman beating the children on the head.

So you jump out of the rickshaw and say to the policeman, “Stop beating those children!”

You’re a foot behind the cop who turns to  demand that you stop speaking English.  “Speak Bangla!” commands the cop.  But you can’t speak Bangla or understand what else is being said all around you as the policeman harangues you while the crowd harangues the cop.

Then thwack.  That bamboo cane smacks a bruise on your arm, just below the left shoulder.  There is no time to sort anything out.  Your father tugs you by the arm and you run with him as fast as you can, escaping into the inexorable crowds of Dhaka.

If you are asked a question about why you did it, you reply with a question: “On what planet is it okay to beat children on the head because they are begging to stay alive?”  But mostly nobody asks.  You are an exile–a deportee–and you usually try to stay anonymous before the eyes that come near you.

As Ralph Isenberg tells you via cell phone from Dallas: “You may not be an American citizen yet, Saad Nabeel, but you are an American teenager.”  And who expects an American teenager to sit quietly when he sees a cop beating a starving child on the head?  None of the American teenagers you know.

And yet, how is it possible to make sense of all this?  Even now, two weeks after the cop caned Nabeel, and after he grabbed a tourist visa and fled from Bangladesh, he hesitates to tell people in his new place of residence that he lived as an exile in Bangladesh because he was deported from America for no crime whatsoever.

“There’s so many things that don’t compute,” says Nabeel, speaking into his headset through the beat-up Sony Vaio that he somehow put back together after it was tossed back to him by American immigration. “I’ve been trying to put it together in my head but it doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Patiently he tries to find the right words to express what it’s like to be two or three countries away from the life he grew up with and the dreams that keep flying away.

“My dream is to go to Stanford,” he explains.  “But there is no Stanford over here.   And how do I get to Stanford when I have been barred from America for the next ten years.”

Friends in America know the facts of Nabeel’s case.  How he was brought by his parents to America at the age of three or four.  How his parents applied for asylum because of politics in Bangladesh.  How asylum was denied to his family when he was six years old.

Nabeel’s parents were tenacious in their determination to stay in America.  They moved from L.A. to Texas.  By late 2009 they were finally within reach of approved green cards and legal residency.  Then the whole game board was thrown over.  One month the young Nabeel was working on becoming a straight-A freshman engineering student at the University of Texas at Arlington. The next month he was separated from his parents and locked up.  For what?  For nothing he did.  He was ordered to sign a ten year bar, then he was deported.

Friends of Saad Nabeel don’t think the facts make any sense.  “I probably feel just like everyone else does–hurt,” says Liberty High School student Samantha Jarrell of Frisco, Texas.  “Just look at it like this, one of your best friends is in a strange country he knows nothing about and the one place he wants to return to is the same place that put him where he is. His family paid taxes.  It’s not like they were out causing havoc on the streets of America.”

As Nabeel wrestles with so many dead-end traumas of life uprooted, another American college student Hector Lopez is working to keep hope alive.  The circumstances for Lopez don’t look too good at first glance.  He’s locked up by immigration authorities in Florence, AZ.  But his voice over the phone is upbeat, as if this student of marketing were showing you a pair of shoes back at the Nike store where he used to work in Portland, OR.

Like Nabeel, Lopez was pursuing a college degree when he was abruptly uprooted and tossed out of the country by American immigration authorities.  Like Nabeel, Lopez was brought to America at a very young age.  Like Nabeel, Lopez was deported first, before the father who brought him here.  Julianne Hing has covered the story nicely for Color Lines, and Lopez is looking forward to more press coverage this week.

What’s different for Lopez is that he was deported to the neighboring country of Mexico and was able to walk back up to the US border with letters and documents in hand, requesting readmission.  He’s in detention awaiting his interview for a “credible fear” hearing which he doesn’t want to discuss in detail yet.  Suffice it to say that Lopez feels safer in Arizona detention than he felt as an American deportee in a country far from home.

On scraps of paper in his pocket, Lopez keeps notes about his life, his memories, the things he recalls growing up as an American kid.  Like in 2008, he remembers the gold-edged packet that he received from the White House inviting him to a meeting of youth leaders.  There was no way he could afford the $5,000 expense at the time, so he passed on the opportunity.

“I just think it’s kind of funny,” says Lopez over the phone.  “One moment I’m invited to the White House for a leadership conference and the next moment they are kicking me out of the country.  Of course, looking back, I wish I would have gone to the White House back then.”

Lopez was picked up by immigration authorities on Aug. 23 of this year, a full two weeks after President Barack Obama famously declared in a speech at the University of Texas–backed up by a report in the New York Times–that his administration was not deporting college students who had lived in America most of their lives.  In Texas the White House got downright choosy about who they weren’t going to let the President see that day, so Dallas immigrant advocate Ralph Isenberg was handed back the $10,000 ticket he bought for the purpose of telling the President about Saad Nabeel.

On Thanksgiving Day, 2010 Nabeel was packing to flee Bangladesh.  At Facebook he scrolled through Thanksgiving pictures that he was not in. He had eaten with the Anderson family on Thanksgiving 2007.  In 2008 he had gone over to Shamir’s.  But in 2009, Thanksgiving Day arrived with the sound of his mother crying at a border station in New York.  He would spend the next 40 days and nights detained.  “Yeah, my friends knew that Thanksgiving was my one-year anniversary of going to jail.”

Nabeel has been out of Bangladesh for a week.  He has joined an exiled uncle who many years ago fled Bangladesh to avoid political detention.  For the time being, Nabeel is restarting his college education at a campus where 90 per cent of the students are from out of country.  But what should he tell them about where he is really from and all the places he can’t belong?  “The main difference between me and the other students here is that they can go home, but I can’t.”

Ralph Isenberg is not giving up on the idea that Nabeel can and should be allowed to come home to America.  Meanwhile, he is also helping Lopez.  “These two kids are showing all of us what the American Dream is all about,” says isenberg.  The sooner that Nabeel and Lopez can resume their college educations in America the better for everyone he says.

“Maybe it’s because I’m only a teenager, but I like to believe in people,” says Saad’s friend Samantha.  “I like to believe that when given the chance people will do the right thing. I don’t know much about how revising immigration errors goes, but whoever has the power to remove this bar should review Saad’s case and bring him home. He isn’t asking for anything more than to return to his real home in the United States. To me, at least, it doesn’t sound like that’s requesting too much.”

Is it too much to ask the President of the United States to do what he promised before the election?  To stop throwing good kids and their families out of America?  Surely the teenage test that Samantha applies to her friend Saad also applies to Hector.  Surely by the time Human Rights Day arrives on Dec. 10 it wouldn’t be too much to ask what Hector Lopez hopes for.  To be home in America with his family for the holidays.

On what planet is it okay to pretend that you haven’t got the power to help teenagers dream free?

GREG MOSES is editor of  He can be reached at


Greg Moses writes about peace and Texas, but not always at the same time. He is author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. As editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review he has written about racism faced by Black agriculturalists in Texas. Moses is a member of the Texas Civil Rights Collaborative. He can be reached at