The most patriotic American I know isn't Ollie North or John
McCain or even Pat Boone. The most patriotic American is not
even an American yet.
He's a tiny former Brooklyn dishwasher from Morocco who would
like nothing more than to burn his green card. His name is Khalid
Khannouchi, and he loves the U.S. so much that he's willing to
pass up a shot at winning an Olympic gold medal if he can't run
for the Stars and Stripes. Too bad America doesn't seem to give
two Fig Newtons about him.
Khannouchi is the world-record holder in the marathon--by about
a Macy's parade. His time of 2:05:42 at this year's Chicago
Marathon lopped 23 seconds off the old mark, which is like
outeating John Madden by a meat loaf and a half.
Khannouchi desperately wants to run the Sydney Olympic marathon
next October in a U.S. jersey. He jumped through all the proper
naturalization hoops and should have been on track to become an
American citizen by next spring. But the Immigration and
Naturalization Service so bungled his case that he's not going
to make it for the start of the race.
Here's the sad thing: Khannouchi says if he can't run for
America, he's not going to run in Sydney at all. He refuses to
run for Morocco, despite great and sparkling baubles laid before
him by the country's minister of sports. "He offered me anything
I want," says Khannouchi. "Cars, houses, money." But Khannouchi
turns his back on all of it. Years ago he asked the Moroccan
track federation for financial assistance and was refused.
That's why he went to Brooklyn in 1993, started washing dishes
in a restaurant for $120 a week, shared a crummy apartment with
three friends and began training again. He then lived off his
race winnings until Reebok became his first sponsor in early '96.
"America made me better," says the achingly polite Khannouchi,
who stands only 5'5" and weighs less than a pogo stick but runs
like a Humvee on a full tank of gas. "The people, they're so
good to me. Just a thank you is not near enough. I want to show
Just a thank you is not near enough? Gee, we'd hate to have a
citizen like this.
Khannouchi married an American woman, Sandra Inoa, in September
1996 and applied for his green card two months later. Problem
was, he didn't get his interview with the INS until September
1997. O.K., that was slow, but it still shouldn't have kept
Khannouchi from becoming a citizen in time for the Sydney Games.
The INS caseworker told Khannouchi his green card application
was approved, but, remembers Sandra, "We thought it was funny
that he didn't stamp Khalid's passport." Six months went by. No
green card. Suddenly, the caseworker, Abdul Latif Abdul Salam,
showed up in the New York papers, indicted on several charges
including conspiracy to defraud the U.S. On Nov. 4 he was
convicted on one count of conspiracy and two counts of bribery.
Khannouchi's paperwork--and that of who knows how many
others--went back into the pile. (The current backlog is 1.36
million cases.) The INS finally gave Khannouchi a green card,
but it's dated August 1998, which means he can't be a citizen
until August 2001. He could be the first marathoner to lose an
Olympic gold medal to red tape.
The INS isn't budging. Then again, not budging is what the INS
does best. If the INS were a person, it would be Norm from
Cheers. According to INS director of communications Maria
Cardona, the agency won't expedite cases for nonemergency
reasons. When contacted by SI, INS commissioner Doris Meissner
would not comment.
It stinks, is what it does. It's like the meter maid towing your
car into a NO PARKING zone and then writing you a ticket.
Khannouchi isn't asking for special treatment, just the U.S.
passport he deserves.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and Rep. Sue Kelly (R., N.Y.) have
just about sprained their index fingers trying to get through to
actual human beings at the INS. Very little luck so far. "But
I'm going to take it as high as I possibly can," says Schumer.
He's talking nosebleed high. Schumer and Kelly are trying to get
The First Jogger, President Clinton, to take a run with Khalid
and see if the Prez might not have Doris's home number. "I might
even let him win," says Khannouchi.
If nothing works, he will run in the London Marathon in April
instead. It would pay him $300,000 minimum, but he'd rather skip
the money. "I want to run for my country," Khannouchi says sadly.
Hey, Doris. Do the right thing.
COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA
The world-record marathoner wants to run for the U.S. in Sydney,
but the INS bungled his citizenship case.