By playing it ‘safe’ with Syrians, we deny refuge and diminish ourselves

Pietro and Inger Tavernise with military officers in Positano, Italy, during Pietro’s service to the Allies
Pietro and Inger Tavernise with military officers in Positano, Italy, during Pietro’s service to the Allies Courtesy of Memsy Price

Luther Hodges occupied the Governor’s Mansion the August my grandparents arrived in North Carolina. I doubt they knew who Hodges was, focused as they were on getting their four children settled in Durham and enrolled in the public schools. They had waited five years to board the Cristofero Colombo at the port of Naples before sailing off to discover America. The ship passed under the gaze of Statue of Liberty in a blur of welcome to their homesick eyes before they piled into a hot car for the miserable drive south.

I thought about my grandparents’ voyage when I read about Gov. Pat McCrory’s joining the chorus of mostly Republican leaders asking that Syrian immigrants be barred from resettlement in their states. My grandparents hadn’t risked their lives in a dinghy to escape a war-torn region rife with terrorism. But my grandfather, Pietro Tavernise, in the way of immigrants for generations, felt compelled to leave everything he had known in Italy to start a new life in North Carolina.

In the aftermath of World War II, much of southern Italy was demolished and impoverished. Naples was heavily bombed during the war, and the entire region, like the American South, clung to an agricultural past, eclipsed by the industrialized North. In Sorrento, just south of Naples, Pietro was a banker and a member of the Town Council. In Durham, he and my grandmother took jobs as an assistant manager and housekeeping supervisor at a motel. They were later hired at Duke University, where all four of their children would graduate. Two of my uncles served in the Air Force during Vietnam, and my mother married a young Naval lieutenant who served his own tour; she went on to become a public school teacher.

What if, after waiting five years and navigating all the red tape that immigration agencies on both sides of the Atlantic could muster, Hodges had said no? For my grandparents, reducing their lives into six steamer trunks and putting their children on a boat to an unknown place was not a decision they took lightly. In 1953, my grandfather wrote to George Watts Hill, “I see why Religions do so much to make people interested in a world to gain through a good life. But it is far more easy to dream for another world at the closing of our own life than to cut with a world for another one in the middle of our life.” Not even Mr. Hill, then president of the Durham Bank & Trust, could make the wheels of bureaucracy turn faster.

The Tavernises have an immigration story that, in this rhetorical run-up to the 2016 elections, might be heralded as good news by both political parties. They arrived legally, paid their taxes, stood before a judge to take oaths of citizenship. Theirs was not a daring escape from an evil force trying to devastate their country; not a silent, desert border crossing in the middle of the night; not an attempt to slip past officials and bring radicalism to our shores. But it was radical, as is almost every decision of that magnitude. My grandfather changed the trajectory of six lives, pointing his family compass at a place just starting to evolve into a shining star of the New South and giving his children the opportunity to prove themselves as students and citizens.

I grew up in Raleigh during the first waves of Northern immigration from IBM; some of my first friends were the children of graduate students, attracted to N.C. State from India, Turkey and other points that might now inspire fear. My parents raised my sister and me to be as accepting of these friends as we were of our own grandfather’s thick Italian accent.

McCrory explained that his “primary duty as governor” is to keep us safe. The place that raised me, where I’ve returned to raise my own daughter, seems to be disappearing before my eyes. When someone cuts with one world for another in the middle of his life, risking everything, how is it right to place false value on our safety above his? By playing it “safe,” we deny not only a supposed threat but refuge and potential as well. As North Carolinians – and as human beings – we should know better.

Memsy Price is a writer and editor in Chapel Hilll.