x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

‘America has many problems with its system’

Jordanian tourists visiting New York during the US government shutdown say they are surprised by the physical and economic state of the country. Taimur Khan reports

A sign informs visitors that the Statue of Liberty is closed due to the government shutdown in Battery Park. Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP
A sign informs visitors that the Statue of Liberty is closed due to the government shutdown in Battery Park. Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP

NEW YORK // When Suhair Jaber left Amman to visit her sister in New York, one of her first stops was the Statue of Liberty.

The towering copper woman holding aloft a guiding flame greeted ships of immigrants from around the world during the country’s immigrant boom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For Ms Jaber, the statue has been a symbol of America’s diversity and opportunity.

But on Wednesday when she and her sister, Wafaa, arrived at the historic docks in lower Manhattan to catch a ferry to Liberty Island, the statue’s home in New York harbour, they were greeted by a sign that read: “The government has temporarily shut down both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island”.

The statue is one of the hundreds of monuments and national parks that have closed as a result of the budget battle in Washington that has forced a partial closure of the federal government. But perhaps no landmark in the United States offers more poignant symbol of the failures of the country’s hyper-polarised and increasingly dysfuntional political system.

Ms Jaber, 34, a Jordanian architect, said she and Wafaa, 27, did not know that the statue would be closed. “I was really upset,” said Ms Jaber. “It’s a special thing and I really wanted to take pictures so that all my friends on Twitter and Facebook could see me at the top.”

By Wednesday, it seemed that many of the city’s tourists had heard about the shutdown, and there were much fewer people looking to ride the statue ferry, said Marco, a manager of the private company that provides the service, who refused to give his last name.

Visiting the US for the first time, Ms Jaber said that when she learnt that the statue had been shuttered because Congress could not agree to pay the bills it had already voted to authorise, it helped explain the country she saw around her.

The physical and economic state of the US was much worse than anything she had expected. “I didn’t think America would be like this,” she said. “It seems that to live here would be very hard.

“Many people in Jordan want to come here” because they think it’s easy to become prosperous, she said.

“When I go back to Amman everyone – family, friends, people at work – will ask about what it was like during a government shutdown, and I will tell them. I want them to know the reality that America is a normal country, just like our country, and has many problems with its system.”

If she had to leave Jordan, Ms Jaber said, Dubai would be her top choice.

Americans at the Battery Park docks were also dismayed.

The Utah resident Brandon Christiansen, 33, was visiting New York for the first time. “I really didn’t think the shutdown would affect us,” he said. “But it has. I’m extremely disappointed because I was looking forward to seeing the statue but thanks to Congress, I can’t now.

“Congress needs to deal with it and get back to work. It’s already a huge loss.”

While the right wing of the Republican party in the lower house of Congress continues to insist that the country’s new health care law be defunded before they vote to allow the government to run again – and the president Barack Obama and his party refuses to compromise on his signature piece of legislation – the country has fallen into its latest political crisis.

If the country’s debt ceiling is not raised this month as a result of the continuing gridlock, the US could default on its loans, which would have terrible repercussions for the global economy.

The shutdown, only in its first days, has already begun to affect the domestic economy. The country’s national parks are visited by 715,000 people each day in October, according the National Park Service, providing $76 million (Dh278.9m) to surrounding communities.

“Of course this is very bad for business if it continues,” said the Statue Cruises manager, Marco.

The street vendors and souvenir stands that line the paths of Battery Park were either closing for business on Wednesday, even though it was only the afternoon on a summer-like day, or standing idle.

Henry, a street vendor from Mauritania, said he usually earns $100 to $250 per day. “Last week there were a lot of people, but you see today, nobody,” he said. “Everything is blocked. I haven’t made a dollar.”