Day after day, as I witness the latest migration of refugees seeking safety from their war-torn lands, Emma Lazarus’s famous poem on our Statue of Liberty comes to my mind in full force. That poem, The New Colossus, contains some of her most famous words: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But what resonates most with me is the term “wretched refuse.” Yes, my grandparents were once considered wretched refuse. And seeing these desperate people pouring into European countries takes me back to my father’s family history.
Just over 100 years ago, my grandfather heeded those vaunted words on that bronze statue and left Eastern Europe for the golden land – America. Leaving his wife and four children, he arrived at Ellis Island in 1913, a poor immigrant looking for refuge from the Russian pogroms against the Jews. His journey was long and hard, but he was one of the lucky ones – legally welcomed, provided he passed a health check and found a job.
He headed to Philadelphia where he knew other landsman from his town in the Ukraine. For eight long years, he toiled to bring my grandmother and their children to the United States. They arrived in 1921, surviving the separation and the Russian Revolution. Sadly though, only two of the four children made it to America – my aunt and uncle. The other two were casualties of war, malnutrition and illness. My father, the youngest, was the only one born in the United States.
Looking back, I consider how lucky I am that my grandparents were able to come to this country. How lucky that they sacrificed and persevered for all of us, making it possible for my father to become a doctor and raise an American family. How lucky that I have been able to continue this tradition.
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But what about these new refugees, people who like my grandparents have fled their homelands for a better life? Like many 19th and 20th century immigrants, they are reviled and cast adrift in a harsh world without a home. As the crisis has expanded, we have witnessed both cruelty and kindness. After the madness in Hungary, many refugees have been welcomed in Europe. Germany, Austria, France, the U.K. and even tiny Iceland have stepped up to help. In the 21st century, with all of its technology and 24/7 news cycles, solutions should be easier and faster. However, the bickering and fighting over who will take them in continue to play out on a global scale.
On a crowded planet of haves and have-nots, we now bear witness to winners and losers. At the turn of the 20th century, my grandparents were winners. They were given a chance to remake their lives in a free country. Unfortunately, the golden door to our country is closing, despite the fact that all of us – except our Native Americans – descend from immigrants.
What will we do to solve this global crisis? It’s a question we must address as we head into a brutal election season that makes sound bites out of serious and complex matters. Let’s hope our leaders and politicians appreciate the irony of closing our doors, when once their ancestors walked through them to create their own American stories.
Jill Serota Braden is a retiree in Raleigh.