A Day for Thinking About Immigrants

Another writer who belongs to the same writers’ collective of which I am a member asked me whether I’d be interested in working with him to document the story of a woman whose family immigrated to the U.S. from what was then Yugoslavia in 1971. He said the woman’s story was especially fascinating because she has built a successful career, attaining an executive position with a well-known organization in Hot Springs. I thought it would be an interesting endeavor, so I agreed.

He arranged for the three of us to meet last week for the first time. We spent about an hour, sitting in a coffee shop in a bookstore, listening to her relate her experiences. She was eight years old when they arrived in Chicago, where her father’s sister lived. None of the new arrivals spoke English, but the little girl learned quickly; she said she felt comfortable with the language after about a year. We learned quite a lot about her. And we learned much about her years in elementary school and beyond, including her time in high school in Hot Springs, where her family moved when she was fifteen years old.

Yesterday, as I sat typing my notes from our meeting, I began to think the most interesting story involving the woman’s immigration to the U.S. would focus on her parents. Unlike their malleable daughters, they were not so young that learning English would be easy (in fact, her mother still does not speak English). And unlike their children, they did not have someone else to rely on for food and lodging (though the aunt did provide a place to stay in the beginning).

I suspect my writer friend will not want to change the focus of the document we jointly agreed to write, but I will suggest to him we expand its scope. Though the woman with whom we spoke has achieved some impressive accomplishments, I think the more inspiring story belongs to the parents. Arriving in the U.S. with virtually nothing but the support of family members, they got work, built businesses, bought homes, bought rental property, and ultimately retired quite comfortably. These are people who, as young parents, moved their family from a home in another country; a house with no indoor plumbing, no electricity, no telephone, and winter heat supplied only by a wood-burning stove.

Hearing of people who take such extraordinary risks is inspiring. And it makes me realize how risk-averse I am; it makes me question whether there is any courage residing within me, as I have never done anything as courageous as those people did. This morning, I read a friend’s blog post, written on the occasion of her grandmother’s 126th birthday, about her immigrant grandparents’ immigration. Her grandmother and grandfather, born respectively in Poland and Russia, moved to the U.S. from what was then their home in Germany. I wonder if I could ever summon the courage to start anew in another country. I hope I don’t have to find out.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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3 Responses to A Day for Thinking About Immigrants

  1. John says:

    Robin and Pauline: Sometimes my blog fails to notify me of comments! Drat! I just noticed yours. Thanks for posting them.

    Robin, I suppose the promise of something better, or something more tolerable, is what drives people to push themselves beyond what we might consider normal limits. Thanks for wishing me well with the project; I look forward to working on it.

    Pauline, you’re right, as usual. Courage is contextual, I think, and what’s courageous for one person is commonplace for someone else, and vice versa. Thanks for giving me more credit than I sometimes think I deserve.

  2. robin andrea says:

    I am also quite risk adverse. In fact, I don’t even like to travel. I can’t imagine how my grandparents undertook such a journey, and yet they did. There are dreamers who seek a new life, and there are people fleeing famine, misfortune, and political nightmares. Something compelling spurs the immigrant on. Thank you for linking to the blog, John. I really appreciate it. Good luck with your work on this very interesting project.

  3. Courage manifests itself in many forms. What one sees as courage might seem simple to those who have experienced it. Sometimes courage is as simple as doing what’s right time and time again or treating people as human beings rather than thoughtless entities. Or doing what’s right under adversity rather than sky diving or climbing the highest mountain. Give yourself credit, you have been courageous more of then you considering!

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