Syrian Mohed Altrad has a remarkable life narrative. He has an inspiring story that offers a constructive counter-narrative to the anti-immigration fever in the United States, the anti-refugee venom in Europe and the anti-foreign worker toxicity in South Africa.
The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) told Altrad’s story. His father raped his mother, then a child-aged Bedouin living in the desert. When she died after his birth, he was raised by his grandmother, who aspired for him to be a shepherd.
He had other ideas. He saw “a light” at a school in Raqqa. He began walking barefoot for six miles to the school. His grandmother did not encourage him, but she finally relented. He finally was invited into the classroom and given books.
Altrad rose to the top of his class, was granted a scholarship to study in France and integrated himself into French society. He tossed away anti-Jewish attitudes from childhood and other cultural baggage. He earned a doctorate. He hustled. He was frugal.
As the WSJ points out, at each point, Altrad saw a glimmer of light and pursued it.
He is a billionaire today and was named in 2015 “World Entrepreneur of the Year.”
His is a story of an impoverished, disadvantaged immigrant who optimistically followed the light – opportunities.
Not every immigrant becomes wealthy or academically successful or a nationally recognized public servant.
Hard work, a good attitude, a “foreign accent” and living in a developed nation are no guaranteed passport to economic transformation.
Education is a door to transformation. Sunup-to-sundown work does afford opportunities. Realism, which says work to change what you can’t accept and accept what you can’t change, keeps one grounded. Those who pursue education, hard work and realism head to the light – opportunity.
Christians confess that they bear the light. 1 Thessalonians 5:5 reads: “You are children of light.”
But Luke 16:8 warns: “The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous book, “The Children of Light and The Children of Darkness,” looks at the unfortunately rootless optimism, the naivety, of the children of the light.
We fail to advance the common good because we fail to understand the power of sin – our own self-deception and the power of social systems. We naively assume we can bring about social change when we repeatedly do the same thing for the good.
We’ve done the morally right things on the immigration front. We rightly cite the biblical message about accepting the alien and seeking justice for them. We justly criticize the anti-immigrant talk in our society – and obsessively think we’ve done something good.
Well, constantly criticizing politicians hasn’t moved the dial. We’ve been naÃ¯ve about the power of our moral critique and Bible thumping.
What if we tried a different path? What if we told more stories about the abundant successes of immigrants like Mohed Altrad?
Telling positive stories may be the best strategy to counter the negative stories of illegality, dependency, immorality.
Let’s head toward the light, the opportunity, to change our cultural ethos with better narratives.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.
Editor’s note: “Gospel Without Borders,” EthicsDaily.com’s documentary on faith and immigration, brings more light and less heat to the conversation. Learn more about the film here and order a copy on DVD here.