This is the passenger list of a boat that sailed from Antwerp in December of 1921.
On it were my great-grandmother (my father’s father’s mother), my grandfather and two other great-uncles I never met. From what I’ve been able to gather, Tillie (my great-grandmother) crossed the ocean with the three boys, and apparently followed my great-grandfather here after he was settled (he arrived around 1914). They were Russian and spoke Yiddish. My father’s maternal side of the family came from Palestine, presumably on similar ships, around 1912.
I am a 2nd generation American, granddaughter of immigrants (who were also likely refugees of both a World War and a Revolution), though I can’t pretend to know their stories. They lived in Brooklyn and built decent lives for their families. They came to this country for the opportunities it offered, for the freedom and security it promised and for a way of life they were not able to achieve in their native lands.
This is the story of how our nation was built: ship by ship; immigrants and refugees bringing their stories, skills and entrepreneurial spirits to this “land of the free.”
While the attacks in Paris made me angry and sick and scared – to me, it was an attack on the western freedoms we take for granted, I’m more disheartened by the way my homeland is responding to a larger crisis. While I don’t think we can accommodate every refugee, and I do think we need to weed out the *known* bad guys, the fact that we’re turning our backs and slamming doors on humans facing the same (or likely worse) conditions that our not-so-distant ancestors did is really truly sad.
I was young when she died, but I remember my great-grandmother Tillie. And it was decades later that I found out how she got to this country. I think about that now, the sacrifices and the challenges my ancestors faced in trying to find a better life, in order to give me a privileged and comfortable one. And I think about the even worse sacrifices the current-day refugees and (im)migrants are making…as I wonder how these politicians can look themselves in the mirror each morning when they realise they are metaphorically turning their backs on the great-grandmother Tillies of their own.
We’re all immigrants here, regardless that we came from Europe or Asia or Africa… Maybe we should embrace that and start to act like better humans now.