Here is viewpoint I never get tired of offering in this blog. You may be tired of it, but not me. What I AM tired of is trying to get people to understand, but I’m going to go for it again. If you read just the first few sentences, you might think that this narrative is something it isn’t. If you persist, you might get my point . Here goes.
The immigration of my grandparents and great grandparents happened over a period of time in search of the proverbial “better life”. They were not fleeing war or starvation. That needs to be clear. What is consistent among all of them, as it is for many of the immigrants of the time, was the burning desire the aforementioned “better life.” That sounds cliché now, doesn’t it? “A better life.” Whatever that meant to them at the time, in the context of their own lives’ and whatever it means now, it seems to me to be a fundamental right. So they travelled from their small towns to the nearest ports (often at considerable travel for a significant amount of money), tickets and paper “passports” —such as they were at the time, to travel, most commonly and, one would imagine, quite roughly, in steerage.
Many already had a husband, a sister, a brother-in-law, or at least a family friend already living in America, who would look out for them, help find them a job, or put them to work in their own homes, watching their children if need be. Their lives’ were uncertain to the extent that many of them expected better, much better than what they encountered when they arrived. In short order, their “dreams” did not come true. But we know that take generations. Anyway, they came from a culture they felt was (and is!) beautiful, down to earth, close-knit and highly civilized—the land of the Renaissance, for goodness sake! But instead they were met, from the outside of their own culture with hatred and derision. They were mocked and reviled. We all know the immigrant’s narrative, no matter the country of origin: the boat, the poor health, the barely livable conditions, and the struggle with the language upon arrival and for many years ahead. Many immigrant narratives are similar in vain, because while each individual experience is different, the overall way populations migrate or immigrate and the conditions under which they happened were often the same.
Generations later, and far removed from the horrific struggles these immigrants endured for the sake of not only themselves but for the fully assimilated current generation that they perhaps knew, in an abstract sort of a way, would some day exist, so many oppose the moving of desperate people across borders. And here is my point : I cannot understand, cannot wrap my head around the fact that we forget. Don’t we? Selective amnesia. Reminds me of the arrogant attitudes of those that build houses in previously unspoiled Shangri-La’s but then lobby to keep everyone else out. Or white Westerner’s who go where ever the hell they please—-but how dare anyone else attempt to do the same.
I have engaged with many in the Italian-American community who are happy to be in the US, proud of their heritage and enjoy beating their breasts about their parents or grandparents—but, just don’t let anyone else in. And certainly don’t let anyone else in Italy! I have heard “bootstraps” mentioned, as in my grandparents pulled themselves up by their bootstraps…..but it is far too irritating a topic to even get started on. I once spoke with a now, rather successful former refugee in Sicily who at one time struggled in his new home of Sicily, but felt so removed from the experience, that he disparaged other refugees their lack of dignity, how they seemed so desperate and unruly, ready to grab at anything that was given to them. Listening to him was a shock to my system. I remember looking at him and feeling a different way about him after that. What it said to me was: I’m here, I did it, I survived, but those people… That kind of rhetoric never helps. In fact, it hurts.
I write all of this as a segue way into the horrific stories coming out of the European Union these past few months, and for years before when no one was really paying attention, because after all there has got to be a LOT of deaths in dramatic ways that are broadcasted on cable news networks before anyone really pays attention. I don’t want to get into political specifics here—I am not a political scientist and never wanted to be. I am not an “expert” on immigration, nor do I desire to be—far from it. What I am is a human being living in a world that seems to have gone mad. What would it take for the inhabitants of the earth to become….human again. As I write this, “migrants”, “refugees” or perhaps, just HUMANS as the case may be, are crammed into a steamy stew of humanity in Keleti Station in Hungary where they are in what I like to call “Limbo-land”—and going nowhere fast. Read past the headlines to learn about a situation that is out of hand in the worst possible way and still the borders of certain countries are clamped down like a piece of bread between the jaws of the hungry. It is a pathetic and horrific scene of which I have witnessed from the safety of my living room couch. But this is not entertainment, it is tragedy.
I have heard the arguments about unemployment, no jobs for the people who already live here (insert country here___________), blah, blah, blah. I also know that every generation, in time ,will oppose those from another country who are trying to find a better way to live. As if the pursuit of safety and happiness were a sin. My point in the beginning of this piece was to exemplify that my people came for that “better life” I keep mentioning and were hated for it—but they were not fleeing war! And now, in this point in time, we have people in the fight for their life, and we cannot open up a space in our societies for the most vulnerable, we can’t even find a space in the knotted , nautilus chambers of our twisted hearts. We shame them, corral them into a (Keletri) train station , and yell at them to go home. I understand the practicalities. I do. I really do. What I cannot understand is the rhetoric of hate, the opposition , the total lack of any kind of empathy or understanding…
I was going to write this entire post about the death of Aylan Kurdi , the small boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach a few days ago. He and 11 others died on a boat in an attempt to eventually get to Canada. I was going to write about Aylan, but I thought: what’s the point? Also , because a researcher I just met told me in a rather disturbing and halting tone that the contents of my blog seemed….familiar. Hmmm. Perhaps because I will often write both conditions I witness in Italy and those on the news. And I realized that so many have already written about that poor, small boy, I won’t attempt to write prosaically about a situation that questions everything about this world we live in.
But indulge me this small bit. Aylan Kurdi. The picture of his tiny body, face down in the sand in the Turkish city of Bodrum , a few men way off in the background are sinking their fishing lines into the sea has been everywhere on the Internet, which in and of itself is beyond what I can handle. When I first saw the image I thought it wasn’t real. When I realized it was, I was distressed to the point of distraction, to true soul sickness. Life is always elsewhere, isn’t it? There but for the grace of God go I….. in reality it could be any one of us at any point in the future. He died along with his brother and mother, fleeing the strife of war and displacement in Syria. I cannot help but wonder how his father feels at this image. And yet, people need to see it, heart breaking as it is. And then Aylan will be forgotten until another body surfaces, as they tend to do, on beaches, while the locals blissfully soak up the sun. The photographer will win an award, for sure.
Here is what we need to know. Read these words and try to understand what Aylan’s father told a CNN reporter, how he must have felt:
“I don’t want anything else from this world. Everything I was dreaming of is gone. I want to bury my children and sit beside them until I die.”
How you can read something like that and oppose , even in theory, the right for people to cross borders? If you can, there is nothing that I or anyone else can do to help you understand.
And those migrants in Keleti station? Still there. Of course they are! We have forgotten already.