Almost forty-three years ago, I met and fell in love with an immigrant. He was twenty-five years old at the time, and recently returned from U. S. military service in Vietnam. He had a green card, as did his parents, and had been in the United States for nineteen years. About six months later, he asked me to marry him. My father objected because he was not a citizen of the United States. Because my sweet man loved me, he studied hard, passed the test and became a naturalized citizen. He chose not to tell his family because it would upset his father, who was unhappy living here in the United States.
As a shy young bride, I really wanted to be accepted by his family, and I spent hours talking to his mother. Over the years, I slowly learned her story, one that continues to astonish me, and pull me deeply into heartfelt respect and love for such an amazing woman. Not long before she passed away a few years ago, we listened to one more story. The story of how she and Pop escaped over the fence from East Germany to West German in 1946, defying death to reach freedom. They each carried a pack weighing about 50 lb. (all they could carry with them), bribed a guard with a pocket watch and a bottle of vodka, and climbed from sure deportation back to Russia for Mom to a poor, but free existence. Mom was three months pregnant with my husband, and Pop agreed to leave his family in order to save his wife and his unborn child.
Mom, her sisters and mother, Oma, escaped from the Ukraine in the midst of WWII. They were from the German community in Russia, that was now being subjected to pogroms, and terrorized on a regular basis. The escaped with a small trunk filled with their possessions, and the clothes they could carry, through Poland and on in to what would become East Germany. Mom served as an interpreter between the Germans and the Russian army during the early occupation of East Germany. Being who she was, her life was placed in jeopardy several times because she would not walk away from her values and do what the Russian military wanted her to do. When she found out her and her family’s names had been placed on a deportation list back to Russia, she knew they needed to get to safety. Her sisters and mother escaped East Germany on a ship bound for camps in Paraguay, and Mom and Pop headed for the border.
Six years later, Pop again agreed to leave his home in order to immigrate to the United States, a country whose politics he didn’t agree with, with Mom and his three children, Karl-Heinz being the oldest. They were sponsored by Mom’s sister, Tante Kathe, received their green cards, and moved to Kansas to start their lives in this country. The family moved to Omaha several years later, and settled there.
Three times, Mom left her familiar surroundings, twice illegally, to get away from violence and horrible living conditions. Twice, Pop left to move his family to a better life.
Pop, according to my husband, refused to learn English more than he needed to. He can only ascribe that to Pop’s dislike of the way the United States divided his country, giving half to the Russians. Mom, on the other hand, worked hard to learn the language of her adopted country and insisted that her children learn and speak it at all times. Have I told you before how amazing she was? All five of her children are living examples of the sacrifice and perseverance of parents who deeply loved their children.
Their life in Omaha wasn’t easy. Pop worked in the meat packing plant until it closed (losing his pension because he was just short of working there 10 years), and then he had his own business painting the three story houses in the Dundee area of Omaha in order to support his family. Karl remembers the actions of people who couldn’t get past their hate of Germany. He remembers waking to swastikas being painted on the side of the garage, with hateful words to go with them, and having to constantly paint over them. He remembers the bullies – in school and in the community.
Why am I telling you this story?
These stories are not unique. They are the stories that could be told of the Irish, the Italians, the Czechs, the Germans before and after the war, and most recently, the Latinos. They are stories born of the desire for freedom, love and a better life. And, they are stories of heartbreak, hate and disrespect. They populate our country’s history like autumn leaves covering a struggling late summer lawn.
And, yet, many who cherish the memories of their parents and their grandparents choose to disregard their own history when they look upon those who are turning to our country for succor today. Most recently, they insist that the children who are illegals crossing the border between Mexico and the United States should be put on the first train back to their country of origin, without the process of refugee status being taken into consideration. Their countries of origin are countries of violence, poverty, and often certain death. It doesn’t seem to matter that they are children, and they deserve our compassion and care. The children are being looked upon as “tickets for the parents to come into this country, refusing to learn our language and expecting to be taken care of by our system of Social Services.”
Yesterday, I was called a “bleeding heart liberal” with some disrespect, and told that I need to wake up to reality. Because the person doing the name calling was a member of my husband’s family, it was particularly poignant. I have such immense respect for my mother-in-law and everything she endured in her life, it was hurtful to me to be belittled by a family member for having the compassion for the children who are with us now as a result of the same type of violence and terror I know Mom went through.
I know that everyone’s reality is colored by perception and the thoughts that they think on a daily basis. We see what we expect to see. When your outlook on life is so negative and bitter that you can’t make any decisions based upon fact, but only on your perceptions, reality is a very dark place to live. When you apply those negative perceptions to a group of people, you create fear and hate. I wonder if the people that are doing that recognize that they are the ones who are creating the problem. It is because of the collusion of fear and hate that we do horrible things to innocent people, especially when we are looking at them as a group rather than individual people with unique and individual stories. Stories that can bring tears to your eyes and cause your heart to swell with grief and compassion for the pain they have endured.
Here is my reality: We are here on this earth to love and care for each other. We are here to take care of the children, and if that means that we help take care of the parents, so be it.
Our purpose on this earth is not to judge who deserves to be given help and who isn’t. It is not to make money by taking it away from those who are working hard to live a better life. It is not to go to war to make sure we have control of natural resources, money and power. It is not to control who gets what rights and benefits because of our religious beliefs (are corporations people, and do they have religious beliefs?). It is not to escape paying taxes by moving revenues from sales within the United States to another country. It is not to treat people as if they are unworthy of respect and dignity. It is quite simply to love and care for each other.
My reality means that compassion is not a dirty word.
If having compassion means I am a bleeding heart liberal, so be it. I will gladly accept that judgment.