An immigrant moves for many reasons — most are economic.
Dad, an immigrant from South America, arrived in New York City in 1948. When I asked why he traveled so far from his birthplace, he always answered the same, “I wanted to see snow.”
Though the snow Dad described so sweetly did not compare to this week’s megacyclone, he would have enjoyed himself with whatever snowflakes he encountered. He was a man of simple pleasures. I imagine his first sight of frozen water falling from the sky made his blue eyes twinkle.
I’d like to think the snow alone was the reason my father immigrated to the US, but I know he came to meet a more important significant need — income.
In NYC, he enrolled in the RCA Institute’s resident program for television repair. There, he learned the inner workings of the devices that revolutionized communication mid- 20th century — the vacuum tubes that brought black and white images into American homes. His immigrant status eventually changed to citizen some years later as he set up a business with his wife and created a family.
In Suriname, once a Dutch colony and where Dad was born, he grew up one of five children raised by a poor single mother. He attended Catholic schools when he was healthy enough or his mother could afford them. During stretches of illness he educated himself, particularly in math and English. Dad had difficulty finding work in his homeland and left to work on a ship carrying oil in the Caribbean. For the first few months, he was seasick every day. Later, he worked at the oil refinery on the island of Aruba. I have his aluminum identification badge from Esso, the oil producer, with a small ten-year anniversary pin nearby.
Immigrants have created the fabric of our country.
It pleases me that in my little city in southern Wisconsin, I know individuals who are immigrants, like my father was. These residents came from Nigeria, Ghana, Syria, the Phillippines, Mexico, Columbia, Poland, and the Ukraine. They chose to enter the U.S. for mostly economics, but occasionally other reasons, like love or adventure.
My friend Rossio came to the US from Mexico on a tourist visa and then stayed once he obtained a legal social security number. For many years he worked at jobs in a factory or kitchen. He helped me with a myriad of house and rental projects from teardowns to installing insulation and landscaping. He and I argued on so many projects we worked together, we sounded like a wife (“I think you should add humus to the soil.”) and husband (“The plant will grow ok without it — you’re wasting money.”) Eventually, he needed more paperwork besides that social security number, and he returned to his grandchildren in Mexico.
The Nigerian couple we know arrived in the States 20 years ago. He studied to become a PhD-level economist and instruct at the college level; she is a CNA studying to become a RN. They raised four children — one a nurse, another a PhD candidate in cellular biology, the third, a dental hygienist, and the fourth still in high school.
My new Zumba instructor, Jenny, married a man from Oshkosh who had been on contract in her homeland of Ghana. She arrived in this country six years ago and pursued her Zumba training while a mother, student, and employee.
Immigrant or refugee?
My partner and I continue to travel and meet individuals in their process of reaching a new home. For many we meet, the impetus for travel now is very different than it was for my father. For these individuals, refugees, they fled their countries because of a well-founded fear of persecution. Not able to return home, they often saw or experienced many horrors.
“The world is currently witnessing the biggest wave of mass migration since the Second World War — and the most dramatic example of this phenomonon is occuring in the Mediterranean sea. Since 2014, over 1.4 million people crossed the Mediterranean in leaking boats….as civil wars in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq — and repression and poverty in Africa — push an unprecedented number of people towards Europe. For years, the burden of the global refugee crisis has largely been borne by the developing world ((South Sudan, Chad, Uganda, Niger, Lebannon)), which the UN says is home to 86 percent of refugees.” (From The New Odyssey by Patrick Kingsley)
Countries accepting refugees slowly expand to the developed world. The European Union absorbed twice as many refugees (700,000) in 2016, than it did the year before; and Canada, took on 300,000 in 2017, tweeting welcome messages to new arrivals.
America has never been a country to take in large numbers of refugees. In 2016, we settled 97,000 individuals and the requested ceiling for FY 2018 limits the number to 45,000.
It’s not so easy to tell a refugee from an immigrant. And whether it is 1948 or 2018, being either is not easy. Language, customs, money, time limits, lack of connections all provide impediments to starting life in a new country — not to mention the possible intolerance or prejudice of neighbors.
Of the many individuals I’ve met while traveling, I’m not sure if Musa was an immigrant or refugee. He and I bumped into one another on the streets of Istanbul four years ago. We immediately apologized to one another in English, and realizing we had a common language amidst the Turkish-speaking people, spent the next half hour comparing our lives. He told me, “There are many of us from Nigeria. We sell things on the streets. We are Muslim, but the Turks, who are also Muslim, don’t like us because of our dark skin.” He also sent the money he made to his wife in western Nigeria. Two years ago, she joined him in London. They now have two handsome sons.
Salma I met at the refugee camp in Chios. “Judy,” she said when I talked to her on What’sApp. “I miss you so much! You remind me of my mother! Yes, the children are well. They are going to school. I am so proud of them. And, I am better at my English!” She is right. Her language skills improved greatly since I saw her only six months ago. She fled from Afghanistan through Turkey and was smuggled across the Aegean Sea with her four children and husband, who was a drug addict. Unable to divorce him in Afghanistan, she did so in Greece. Recently, she moved from Chios to Athens, where she and her children have stability and a new life.
Qualities: hard-working, kind, family- oriented, and outwardly directed.
I often see the qualities of my father in the immigrants and refugees I met during the last ten years: Hard-working, kind, family-oriented, and outwardly directed. Just as they share with me via phone, email, or FaceBook their own joyful times — the receiving of political asylum, the birth of a new baby, a new job found — they have also asked about my daily life — where am I next traveling? How is my son? Is it snowing in Wisconsin?
I am glad to know these individuals, to expand my understanding of the world’s people, to know where they have come from and where they hope to go.
Is it snowing in Wisconsin? No, it’s sunny and eleven degrees Fahrenheit but no longer snowing. Dad would have enjoyed the cold — so different from Suriname.
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Judy O Haselhoef, a social artist who writes, travels, and authored “GIVE & TAKE: Doing Our Damnedest NOT to be Another Charity in Haiti,” blogs regularly at her website, www.JOHaselhoef.com.
Copyright @2017: If you’d like to use any part of it (up to 200 words), please give full attribution and this website, www.JOHaselhoef.com.