An American Refugee Story

I cleaned our bookshelves to make room for new books and donate books to the library. I had two boxes. One box had books I loved, one in particular, which I planned to put in the garage. The other box was destined for the library. These boxes sat on our dining room table for about two weeks. My husband surprised me by taking one box to the library. Guess which one he took? Yes, the one filled with books I loved. It was one book in particular that was my Father’s about the Holocaust.
When he told me he didn’t give them all away yet he went out to the car and brought a few books back into the house that night. Knowing if that one cherished book was gone I would feel upset I didn’t look until the next day. Yes, it was gone. My family saw my reaction which was on the verge of tears. My husband said we can see if the library still has the book but today is filled with extracurricular activities for our children. As we were in the car driving to this scholastic competition I had time to think about what’s really important. It’s not that book. It was the fatigue I felt that morning because I’m teaching English as a Second Language to students in China so I began working that morning at 4:00am. Why do I teach these extra classes on a day when I will have to rush around so my daughter can compete in a scholastic contest so I can send my son to robotics camp this Spring.
I’m like many parents who do a lot of things in a single day to give their children every opportunity.
I could sense my entire family felt badly over the book insident but I told them it’s not what matters in the big picture. My Father cherished that book because his Parents fled the Pogroms in Russia to live and hopefully create a better life in America. He understood the risk because some of his extended family choose Eastern Europe. They successfully escaped the Pogroms but all but one were killed in the Holocaust.
Today around the world refugees are fleeing war, extreme poverty, violence with the hope they can rebuild and create a better life in a strange new homeland. I thought about my grandparents fleeing Russia. I imagined it to be similar to a scene in “Fiddler on the Roof.” I pictured my Greatgrandmother quickly grabbing things she thought were important but as the long journey continued with her eight children choosing to leave things by the side of a dirt road. I imagined her feeling like I did when I realized this cherished book was gone. I imagined her pulling herself together to focus on what was important and keeping the family calm and positive about heading to a foreign land.
Then I thought about the El Paso Texas and Mexican border as we drove by it in the car. I think about these refugees in the “caravan ” with the hope of getting asylum. What cherished things did they leave behind as they began their few thousand and months long journey. Traveling through foreign lands. Leaving behind their lives, homes, and often loved ones. How often did they choose to leave something by a dusty roadside, like my Grandmother did over a hundred years earlier? How were they holding their families together by trying to remain hopeful as they ventured into the scary unknown?
I wondered how America, filled with similar stories of refugees could turn into an unwelcoming place? What made some Americas feel such disdain or fear of these human beings risking everything for a chance at a life for their children? In my heart I believe there are more Americans who can find a similar story in their past. Maybe they are too far removed from the fear, the sacrifice, the emotions their ancestors felt leaving their homeland at a chance in this foreign land called America. I need to believe most see the humanity and the American tale in this “caravan ” of scared, desperate refugees hoping for a chance to live and perhaps a chance at a better life.
Mary Ellen Popkin
Mary Ellen Popkin
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