En español | Former President George W. Bush, 74, has found a post-politics passion: painting. You can see his latest work in a new book, Out of Many, One: Portraits of America's Immigrants, which features 43 portraits of remarkable people who have come to the U.S. from 35 countries around the world, accompanied by his descriptions of their unique challenges and valuable contributions to American life. The paintings will be displayed in an exhibit at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas through Jan. 3, 2022.
The president's hope? To “help focus our collective attention on the positive impacts that immigrants are making on our country,” he writes in the book. (A portion of its sales will benefit organizations that help immigrants resettle, as well as the Bush Institute and its work to reform immigration policy.)
Here are five of his paintings, with his comments, adapted from the book.
I met Annika at a 2011 clinic we hosted for young golfers with First Tee, a nonprofit organization that introduces children to golf and builds character by teaching the “nine core values” associated with the sport: honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy, and judgment. Annika was the perfect person to inspire the 125 inner-city kids who had shown up for that clinic. Born in Stockholm, Annika came to the U.S. in the 1980s, and she would go on to dominate women's professional golf. After Annika retired in 2008, she created the Annika Foundation, which provides golf opportunities for girls in America and around the world, teaching them skills that will help prepare them for the next chapter of life. Annika's example and commitment to young people add to the character of our nation, and I am proud that this world champion chose America as the place to hang her visor.
Carlos and I met just as I was beginning to work on Out of Many, One. Carlos had emigrated from El Salvador during a civil war that displaced more than a million people; prior to the war, he had never considered leaving his culture, his family and his childhood memories. Fearing for his safety, Carlos arrived in the U.S. on a student visa, but he was terribly homesick and unprepared for life in America — and deeply worried for his family back in El Salvador. He began to question his identity and found himself at the First Presbyterian Church in Wichita, Kansas. Through the church's kindness, Carlos was able to gain citizenship, not just for himself but also for his family.
Now, 40 years later, Carlos has had a prestigious career as a college professor — he teaches federal and Texas government to first- and second-year college students at Tarrant County College South in Fort Worth, Texas, and he is the first Hispanic individual to do so. Speaking with Carlos about his experience, I find that his gratitude and admiration for America and the opportunities provided to him always stand out.
Roya was born in Afghanistan, but she and her family fled to Iran to escape the oppression of the Taliban. In 2003, with al-Qaeda and the Taliban in retreat, Roya and her family returned to Afghanistan, where she immersed herself in her studies and developed an affinity for computers and technology. After graduating from university, Roya started a software company, making her one of the first female tech CEOs in the country. Roya's business was dedicated to building free internet-enabled classrooms across Afghanistan, which allowed more than 160,000 female students to connect to the world; Sheryl Sandberg highlighted Roya's efforts in Time magazine's “100 Most Influential People in the World.” Unfortunately, in 2013 the Taliban still loomed large in Afghanistan, and Roya's success and efforts caught their attention. Roya knew it was time to leave. She was able to secure a work visa and arrived in New York to begin her business again — without the overwhelming fear that it could all be taken away from her.
As the United States and our allies make decisions about our future in Afghanistan, it's important to remember stories like Roya's and what life was like for them prior to 2001. Only five thousand Afghan girls were enrolled in primary schools at that time; today, there are more than 3.5 million. We all benefit when women and girls are empowered to realize their full potential and become contributing members of society.
Gilbert is from a tiny village in southern Burundi, where he ran everywhere. His family gave him the nickname “Tumagu,” which roughly translates to “fast wind.” When he started going to school, he would run more than six miles each way, and by his junior year of high school, Gilbert became Burundi's national champion in the four hundred- and eight hundred-meter runs. The next year, Gilbert was running for his life. Violence between the Hutu and Tutsi people broke out in the region, including in neighboring Rwanda. A group of Hutus — including one of Gilbert's best friends and track teammates — came to Gilbert's high school, roped all the Tutsi they could find together, forced them into a building, and set it on fire. Somehow Gilbert was able to survive, emerging from the building that now housed his dead classmates with third-, fourth- and fifth-degree burns on 30 percent of his body, including his legs. Not knowing what else to do, Gilbert did what he did best: He started running. He found his way to a hospital, where doctors told Gilbert he would never run again. It would take him three months of painful recovery, but Gilbert defied the odds. He trained for his country for the Olympic Games and ran for an NCAA school, and in 1999, he won the Division II national championship in the eight hundred meters. He graduated from Abilene Christian University with a business degree and began training local runners under his racing company, Gilbert's Gazelles.
I met Gilbert through one of his students, my daughter Jenna. Today, Gilbert runs his charitable organization, the Gazelle Foundation, and thanks to his efforts, more than one hundred thousand people, both Hutus and Tutsis, now have access to clean water.
Thear was born in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, during the Khmer Rouge, a Communist regime led by Pol Pot. By year four of his time in power, Pol Pot had presided over the deaths of 2 million of his people. Thear's family somehow managed to survive the genocide, escaping to a Thai refugee camp before moving to America under the sponsorship of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services. Thear's mother and father worked minimum-wage jobs to support their family, and the five kids pitched in by rooting through trash and redeeming cans for a nickel and bottles for a dime. They wore donated clothing and initially lived in housing projects in West Dallas, where they often received calls telling them to “go back” to their country; they feared for their safety. With the support of a local church and two individuals — Ron Colwart, a local police officer who got Thear involved in a scouting group he had started for Southeast Asian students, and John Gallagher, Thear's third-grade teacher, who advocated for her education — her life was transformed.
Today, Thear works with more community organizations than there's room to list, including the boards of directors of the Texas Women's Foundation, the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, and the Boy Scouts of America. As a Presidential Leadership Scholar in the 2019 class, Thear took on a personal leadership project, engaging men in the conversation about invisible gender differences and how women and men can work together to solve the gender equality issue. When I talk to Thear, she will say, “We have come full circle, from receiving help from others when we were in need to now serving others in need."
Adapted from OUT OF MANY, ONE, by George W. Bush. Copyright © 2021 by George W. Bush. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Christina Ianzito is the travel and books editor for aarp.org and AARP The Magazine, and also edits and writes health, entertainment and other stories for aarp.org. She received a 2020 Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing.