All summer long and well into the early fall days we have seen the images of refugees from warring and authoritarian nations pouring into Europe. Countries there have been overwhelmed by the level of human misery and sadly these poor souls represent only the tip of the iceberg of suffering. While governments grapple with difficult considerations, all I see are desperate people who have grown weary of despots, war, and privation. Mostly I notice that so many of them are fairly young men who appear not to have families with them.
Closer inspection reveals a trend that is far from new. It seems that many of the immigrants searching for respite in foreign lands are heads of households. Their almost universal goal is to find a secure place to live so that they might one day send for wives and children who remain in harm’s way. They have made the difficult and unsafe journey alone because to bring women and small children would have been far too dangerous. They travel best if they only have to care for themselves. They have become familiar with the laws of the lands where they hope to live. They understand that once a country accepts them and they establish a foothold they will have the right to send for their loved ones. This is the plan. Their hopes and dreams depend on making this a reality.
My own grandfather did something quite similar just over a hundred years ago. He was trapped in a vise of poverty and mistreatment in his native country which was then dominated by Hungary. The humiliation of enduring the government’s attempts to eliminate his language and culture had become too much for him. The lack of economic opportunity was unbearable. His land and his people were being used as pawns in a game of power and politics. He heard stories of people who had found better lives in America and so he planned his escape. He booked passage on a steamship that specialized in bringing new immigrants to the United States. The ship docked in Galveston. A ship’s manifest bears his name from 1912.
I can only imagine the thoughts that must surely have overtaken him. He had left his young bride in the Slovakian area of eastern Europe, assuring her that he would send for her as soon as he had a job, a place to live, and the funds to purchase a ticket for her. I don’t know exactly where he went or what he did after landing in Galveston. That time in his story is murky. I do have proof that he must have been quite industrious for within a year of his own arrival my grandmother also came to Galveston. His timing could not have been better for they both just missed the outbreak of World War I. The ensuing decades would be incredibly sad and difficult for those who stayed where my grandparents had been born. The people endured two wars, a depression, and loss of their liberty as they were overtaken by the Soviet Union. It would not be until late in the twentieth century that they would finally find the freedom to rule their own country. In the meantime, my grandparents managed to build a family and a house to call their own. They reveled in the possibilities of the United States.
My husband tells a similar story of a grandfather who traveled to America from Northumberland in Great Britain, also before World War I. He missed his family while he worked to set up a better life for them. He had a wife and several children waiting back home for word that they might finally follow him. Somehow he found his way to the area around Houston, Texas, north of downtown. With hard work he managed to reunite the family but the move would never be easy for them. They missed the familiarity of home and the people that they left behind. Still, all in all they found opportunities that might have been denied them if they had simply stayed where their lives had been so unremittingly difficult. They understood this and took full advantage of all that their new country provided.
Yet another story of a former student keeps popping into my mind. His father had been a mechanic for the South Vietnamese during the long civil war that tore that nation asunder and created divisions here in the United States. When all of the American troops had left and the South Vietnamese government collapsed, my pupil’s father understood that he and his family were in danger. He decided to brave the open waters in search of asylum. Taking only his young son, the man became one of the “boat people” who literally risked death at sea in craft that included everything from ships to small rafts.
My student often recalled that he had seen people die on the journey. He watched as the adults tossed the bodies into the ocean. He was frightened and missing his mother but his father continuously assured him that if they were rescued their lives would improve. Eventually they came to Texas, living in a cramped apartment with so many other people that they had to sleep on the floor. Once my student’s father had saved enough money, like my grandfather and Mike’s grandfather before him, he sent for the rest of his family.
All of these people poured themselves into living good and decent lives without the fears that had been so present in their homelands. In each and every case the future turned out to be quite bright. The decisions to leave had been right.
I hope and pray that the souls pouring across borders will somehow find the peace that they seek. We have been blessed. They have not. It is part of the human spirit to seek better lives. Long ago our ancestors simply moved from place to place until they found a comfortable and inviting spot in which to settle. The Israelites wandered for years searching for the promised land. It is in our natures as people to want a safe place to call home. In most cases we are not seeking power but only to be left alone to live as we see fit. It is what we do.
I understand that the movement of people from one country to another is a complex issue without simple solutions. We want to be good and generous but we also face the reality that the world’s resources are limited. We have to determine just how much help we can give without endangering those for whom we are already responsible. It is a very delicate balancing act.
I have found a copy of the naturalization papers from my grandfather. He had to swear his allegiance to the United States of America and agree to sever his loyalties to the old country. In each case he boldly and willingly signed his name. He insisted time and time again to his children that they were Americans and as such should be good citizens of the highest integrity. He never lost his love for Slovakia or his memories of his time there but he also felt a pride and thankfulness that he was an American. He understood all too well that he had benefitted from the generosity of this country. Even when he and his children felt the stings of being misunderstood and mistreated he urged them to hold their heads high and to walk with the knowledge that the gifts of freedom far outweighed the small slights. Hopefully the present day refugees from across the world will enjoy the fruits of their new homes and become as loyal to their hosts as my grandfather and Mike’s grandfather and my student ultimately became. They all understood the enormity of receiving a second chance in life and remained ever thankful. I suspect that if the modern day immigrants follow that model they will finally find the security and peace that they seek.