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Khizr Khan: 'Democracy not only faces challenges domestically but globally as well'

For Charlottesville resident Khizr Khan, ‘freedom’ is the most important part of receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor granted to citizens.

He yearned for it growing up in Pakistan, learned of it in college, felt it when he and his family moved to the United States and paid its cost when his son, University of Virginia graduate and U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan, was killed in an Iraqi suicide bomber’s attack while deployed.

The 71-year-old lawyer is one of 17 people who received the medal from President Joe Biden on Thursday. He rose to the national and global scene in 2016 when he criticized in a speech at the Democratic National Convention then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s proposal to restrict entry into the U.S. for citizens from many majority Muslim countries.

“I was humbled when I was informed that I am the recipient of this highest civilian recognition of this nation,” Khan told the Daily Progress before getting his medal. “My life has been a testament to the goodness of this country, to the foundational values of equality, dignity and diversity that are at the foundation of this country.”

Biden nominated Khan to serve on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a body created in 1998 that tracks religious freedom and gives recommendations based on the findings.

But it was after their son’s death that Khan and his wife Ghazala became more active in the community. In 2015, Khan was asked to speak to local children being bullied at school after Trump’s campaign remarks in favor of temporarily banning citizens from certain countries that are predominantly Muslim.

Kids were being told they would be thrown out of the country and that they didn’t deserve to be here, Khan recalled. Despite his reassurances, the kids couldn’t eat or sleep properly and parents told him next week that the messages continued.

His efforts garnered attention as the presidential race heated up and prior to the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Hilary Clinton’s campaign reached out to Khans about speaking at the convention.

Khan’s most famous moment was the DNC speech that he almost didn’t deliver. Advice like “too much noise” and “loss of personal peace” made Khan reluctant to go.

The game-changer proved to be a small card missing a stamp that caught his attention while checking the morning mail. The card had four names on it, all from middle-schoolers. In the middle, the card said “Mr. Khan, would you make sure that Maria is not thrown out of the United States? She’s a good student. She’s our friend.”

He immediately went to Ghazala who reacted by saying, “We definitely will go and we will speak on behalf of these kids so when they see us speak, they will be heartened.”

In the speech, Khan criticized Trump and reflected on his son, Humayun.

“You’re asking Americans to trust you with their future. Let me ask you, have you even read the U.S. Constitution?” Khan said from the convention podium. “I will gladly lend you my copy. In this document, look for the words ‘liberty’ and ‘equal protection of law.’ Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities.”

The speech made quite a stir. Afterwards, support came from every direction with people sending letters, notes and signs that generally said “Mr. Khan, thank you for telling our story, your story. It’s our family’s story too.”

He admits that to this day people approach him in coffee shops, restaurants and supermarkets and greet him with kind words.

With thanks, all too often come the threats. They came not just to Khan, but to his children and grandchildren. In August 2016, Khan announced that he and his wife would make no more TV appearances.

“It really was overwhelming for us as ordinary citizens,” Khan said. “We are not politicians. We don’t have the support system built in where you can see it and talk and be encouraged and be inspired.”

Born in 1950 in Pakistan, Khan grew up under tough political regimes where, he said, “individuals did not matter unless they belonged to the military group or a corrupt politician.”

“I have lived in an environment where ordinary citizens did not have any dignity or rights or benefits,” he said. “When we are young, there is an idealism in us that we want to help others and life is worthier if you put yourself in a position to be able to help others.”

Studying to be a lawyer at the University of Punjab, Khan got his first introduction to the American concept of liberty. He took a course called “The Constitutions of the World” where four constitutions made up the course material. One of the constitutions was the Constitution of the United States.

He brought all of the materials to his room and placed them on the corner of the desk. While changing his clothes, he glanced over the top portion of the materials and was struck by a detail next to the Declaration of Independence. It was the date: July 4, 1776.

He considered that the Indian Independence Act that established India and Pakistan as separate countries no longer under British imperialist rule happened in 1947.

“I kind of struggled with the title and the date, because the subcontinent gained its independence in 1947. So late?” Khan said. “Who are these people that are declaring their independence in 1776?”

The similarities between the U.S. and India and Pakistan caught his eye.

“As I was reading, I felt the similarity of the experiences being a colony: how colonized people are treated; how they feel; what the level of freedom, or lack thereof, they have. And so I was very attracted,” Khan said. “I wanted to come to that nation that declared its independence in 1776. I wanted to see how these people have come together and how they have put their nation together.”

He did. The entire Khan family was naturalized in 1986. In front of the courthouse, Khan reflected on all of the adversities he faced.

“When I looked at that certificate, I was so teary-eyed that I could not read it,” Khan said. “I was just looking at it and through water that my eyes were overwhelmed with. I could see the certificate of dignity. That is how I cherish and value American citizenship. It wasn’t just a piece of paper or just the right to vote. Yes, all of that, but to me, it was a certificate of human dignity.”

Khan noted that the current state of the country is concerning, but he has faith in America. He believes that sooner or later the majority will realize that in unity lies the future, progress, well-being and peace.

“When the majority of the country realizes that the minority and their protest and their dissatisfaction would be answered in due course through different means because the DNA of America is resolving disputes through debates, resolutions and legislation,” Khan said, “Whatever the disputes are, I’m 100% certain that these disputes would be resolved through legislation. Through ups and downs as history tells us that America moves forward with lots of struggle.”

Khan also received the Terezin Legacy Award, dedicated to those devoted to fighting for human rights and peace and named after Terezin, the city in the present-day Czech Republic was a World War 2 concentration camp. During the ceremony in Boston, he asked two couples of survivors of the Holocaust for advice on speaking, especially during hard times.

They told him that his speech was important, and he shouldn’t underestimate the power of his voice. He said he took the advice to heart.

“I promise that as long as I am honored with being a citizen of this great nation, I will continue to speak. I will continue to alert, continue to allow disagreements, political disagreements, other disagreements,” Khan said.

“Our Constitution tells us how to resolve those disputes and differences. It’s just a matter of reminding and continuing to convince ourselves that that is the right way to go,” he said. “More of us need to stand up and speak of the goodness of democracy because democracy not only faces challenges domestically but globally as well.”


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