My granddaughter’s mother was a refugee from Laos. Once, on Thanksgiving, I started a conversation asking everyone’s earliest memories. She spoke last.
She remembered eating at a table at a refugee camp in Thailand when a stray dog ran up to her and stole the food off her plate.
She said this in the most deadpan way. The conversation was over. She had no interest in entertaining us with her family’s refugee story. Only the one image of being in a camp and having a dog steal her food.
My granddaughter’s father is a Nicaraguan who became a naturalized U.S. citizen when he was in his teens. He is our adopted son, brought to the U.S. when he was 21 months old.
My husband’s family immigrated from Ukraine in the early 20th century to escape the pogroms. His grandfather and his great uncle walked to Palestine where his uncle stayed and raised a family. His grandfather immigrated to Philadelphia and, after many years, opened a deli, the kind you see in the old time movies with the pickle barrel in the corner and the kind shopkeeper giving all the poor people credit. That’s what he did. My husband’s mother grew up in the apartment above the deli.
My husband’s grandmother came to the U.S. on a boat in 1905. Alone. She was 12 years old, also from Ukraine. Her mission was to find a job and send money back to her family. That’s what she did. She lived a long, good life, worked hard, had two children. My husband remembers her making gefilte fish from fish he and his dad would catch on vacation in the Florida Keys. She’d brought the recipe with her, I guess. She was small and sturdy. Undaunted.
My family has been in the U.S. for a very long time but they, too, started as immigrants. A few years ago, my daughter spent a weekend absorbed in Ancestry.com and discovered that our ancestors on my father’s side go back to the Revolutionary War. It surprised me. I never knew. My father never talked about his lineage, never bragged that his family had been here a very long time.
He talked about growing up, his father’s work as a carpenter, and how rough it was during the Depression. That was his history. So I don’t think he would have felt that his ancestors having been in the Revolutionary War had any real import. But he likely never knew; maybe his family had been here so long they had forgotten they had come from somewhere else.
I’ve been thinking about all of this because of the detentions of Central American immigrants on the Texas border. Watching the news reports, I am struck by the determination and strength of women and families who have walked their way through deserts and rivers to get to a place of safety. I admire my husband’s relatives, picture them walking from Kiev to Palestine and figure they had many terrible, frightful reasons to make such a journey. I admire his grandmother, walking off a ship in 1905, not speaking the language, not knowing what’s next and making a life, creating a line of very tough, ingenious descendants of her own.
I also admire my father and his disinterest in the past and his belief in his ability to make his way even while I acknowledge that his beliefs and opportunities were rooted in his being a white man in a land that put those people first on every list.
Our country is a jumble of people and a tangle of history, some of it grand and much of it horrible. The immigrants who came first presumed the land theirs for the taking. The decimation of the native population of America is often overlooked, an historical inconvenience in the discussion of immigration. But immigration started as organized theft and I acknowledge that. We also need to remember the forced ‘immigration’ of enslaved people, the millions of captive, chained men, women, and children whose coming to America involuntarily started generations of enslavement. This massive piece of history often seems to get lost in the immigration discussion.
All of this history is our history – the people who were here, the people who came from other places, the struggle of figuring out how we can all live well on this enormous and beautiful piece of the earth. We may never achieve the perfect union but we have to keep trying and we have to keep welcoming people who want to join us. The girl from Ukraine, the man from Palestine, the baby from Central America, the child from Thailand, the man who had been here so long he forgot where he came from, they all sit at the table.
And there are seats at the table because we kept making the table bigger. That’s America’s best and finest thing – making the table bigger.