When escape is the only course, refugees deserve a helping hand

Marilyn Telen’s grandmother Freda Miller on her wedding day
Marilyn Telen’s grandmother Freda Miller on her wedding day Courtesy of Marilyn Telen

I am a second generation American. As a child, I loved to ask my grandmother to describe how she came to this country, herself only a child of 8 or 10. Her parents were Eastern European Jews living in a small town near the intersection of Moldova, what is now Ukraine, and Romania.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the town was almost entirely populated by Jews and ethnic Russians. My grandmother, who was born in 1898 and had some schooling there, learned to speak and write Russian as a child, although her parents spoke Yiddish at home.

When I was a child, no one described to me the persecution, pogroms and terribly unfriendly circumstances into which my grandmother was born. Jews were not particularly welcome anywhere in that part of the world, and they put up with myriad obstacles, ranging from insults to danger to their property and lives. For a Jewish man of the time, being drafted into the czar’s army was essentially a death sentence.

My grandmother’s two oldest brothers set off across Europe for the United States when they were in their late teens. They eventually found jobs in the clothing and fur coat factories of the Lower East Side and “fur district” of New York and saved money to send for the rest of their family. But moving a family from Moldova to the United States was not easy. Jews could not easily get passports and legal documents to travel, so they used smugglers to get them out of Russian-controlled territory.

And this is the story I asked to hear over and over again. My great-grandparents arranged for my grandmother and her younger brother Ben to be walked across the border by a peasant woman who worked in fields that extended across the official boundary lines between Russia and Romania. At that time, peasant women wore long skirts, with often voluminous layers for warmth. Given the frequent border adjustments of the time, guards generally gave these peasants a free pass across the border, as fields always had to be worked, irrespective of what country they were in.

But, of course, my great-grandparents were too big to be carried inside skirts. So the woman’s husband built a shallow false bottom into his haywagon and hid my great-grandparents. They lay flat between the false bottom and real bottom as the border guards probed the wagon with pitchforks to make sure no contraband was crossing the border.

What has haunted me since hearing this story is wondering how terrible life has to have been for my great-grandparents to have taken such risks, both with their own lives as well as those of their children. Clearly my great-grandparents thought life was truly dreadful enough to try for something else. They could have been caught, they could have been imprisoned or worse, and they could have never seen their children again. But they took the risk and eventually trekked across Europe and onto a boat that brought them to the United States through Ellis Island.

The end of the story is a happy one. My grandparents made a life in this country, learning English and acquiring enough skills to support themselves. They sent all three daughters to college and counted three doctors, an artist, a Hollywood screenplay writer and a computer expert as their grandchildren before they died. Their great-grandchildren have also made their way in the world and are having children of their own.

As their granddaughter, I believe I owe today’s refugees fleeing war and chaos in the Middle East and in Africa understanding and a helping hand. Surely the circumstances they have left are at least as bad as what my grandparents fled, and the risks they have taken to escape and find a better life have been driven by the dire conditions they are running away from.

I also believe that the ones who do escape are the most enterprising and the most likely to do well in our country and ultimately contribute substantially to the success of the United States of our children and grandchildren.

Marilyn J. Telen, M.D., is the Wellcome Professor of Medicine at Duke University.