A Tale of Two Immigrants: Un-Welcome, Lent Part 3

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Just as a body is one whole made up of many different parts, and all the different parts comprise the one body, so it is with the Anointed One. We were all ceremonially washed through baptism together into one body by one Spirit. No matter our heritage—Jew or Greek, insider or outsider—no matter our status—oppressed or free [Republican or Democrat]—we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Here’s what I mean: the body is not made of one large part but of many different parts. –1 Corinthians 12:12-14 (The Voice version)

As part of my Lenten practice this year, I want to do a few of posts on refugees and immigration. 4 stories. 2 about refugees. 2 about immigration. 2 from a welcomed perspective. 2 from an un-welcomed perspective. The subject is complicated, varied, and divisive. I don’t know anyone who thinks we should ‘throw open our borders to anyone,’ nor do I know anyone who touts that we should close our borders to all. I will not solve any of the issues in my blog; however, I want to share some stories. I hope the stories will help us remember that while we debate and discuss immigration issues, we affect real people’s lives.

The last 2 weeks, I’ve told the stories of refugees–me, who felt like a refugee living in Germany, and a family in our town who were Romanian refugees living in Germany.

This week, I’ll tell the story of my husband’s mother who married an American, thus becoming an immigrant in America. I don’t have all the details. Just bits and pieces from a letter she wrote 30 years ago, and stories I remember her telling us.

My mother-in-law grew up in Japan during WWII. She knew of the bombs that dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I only know snapshots of what she experienced. She didn’t open up about the war years much–which seems common in that generation. My husband never knew much about her life during the war–except that her father lost almost all his wealth. My sister-in-law may know more. I know in my family, I tend to ask more questions about our history than my brother does…

I have a long letter that she wrote to me after my husband and I got engaged. In the 9 or 10 pages, she talked about her hopes and dreams for her son, and alluded to some of the difficulties she’d experienced in America. She wrote it in Japanese, and then had her husband and another friend translate the finished project to send to me.

Her life started out seemingly idyllic in her island village. Her father loved her. She came from a  well-respected, well-off family descended from the Samurai. But, underneath the photos of the beautiful young girl lurked a hidden past. A mother who left for reasons unknown. Images of her mother in photographs destroyed–slashed. In her era of Japanese culture, the family removed all semblance of the spouse who left, and never spoke of that person again. Her father remarried a woman who acted out abusively because of jealousy toward her stepdaughter. She did not want to share her husband’s attention with anyone–especially not another female.

In school, she began to learn English … for about 6 weeks … until WWII broke out … when English became ‘the Enemy’s language.’ All forms of English schooling stopped. Japan became nationalistic and cut off Western education and culture.

A striking beauty, my mother-in-law dreamed of marrying an American so that her children would be tall and have blue eyes. (No one seems to have taught her about genetics. While neither of her children have blue eyes, two grandchildren do.) She had other offers; but she held out for a tall, American.

My father-in-law served in the military for several years. His service took him to Japan where he met this lovely Japanese woman. Almost a decade from the end of WWII, the world had begun to heal and rebuild. They married, and thus began my mother-in-law’s new life in our ‘Land of Opportunity.’

Except that she was Japanese.

She bombed Pearl Harbor.

She aligned with the Axis Powers.

She ended up on the wrong side of history from an American viewpoint.

Even though she was only a child during the war.

In a few conversations, she spoke of the prejudice she encountered from strangers, and her new family members. Her own mother-in-law did not accept her until much later in life. She spoke of having to learn ‘the Enemy’s language’ by conversing with people, learning this new culture so foreign from the one she left. People expecting many different things from relationships. In the Japanese culture, people rarely expressed their emotions.

She spoke of regrets that she had to leave jobs she loved because her husband’s job changed. She had no choice. No say. No recourse.

She could not make it on her own. And she felt very alone. Probably frightened.

And her new country did not want her.

She was the enemy. And she lived in her enemy’s world.

She spoke the wrong language.

She practiced the wrong religion.

She ate the wrong foods.

She laughed at perplexing times, because she had a different sense of humor.

Put yourself in her shoes. How would you fare uprooting to Russia, China, Botswana, or Haiti? How would you feel leaving the culture you love and hold dear, and moving permanently to a place that didn’t welcome your culture? Your beliefs? Your perspective?

Many immigrants come here because they hope for a better life. Many of those do not find a welcoming space here. Especially now. I hear stories every day of people born and raised in this country hearing ugly remarks like, “Go back to Africa!” (one man, who has Turkish heritage, was told, ‘Go back to Mexico.’). So imagine if we’re mistreating people who actually come from this culture and know how to navigate life in America, how those from other countries must feel.

My mother-in-law learned to hide some of her Japanese pride in public. In the safety of her home, she had many remembrances. With her Japanese friends, she spoke her native language animatedly. But, she didn’t draw attention to her heritage publicly. She couldn’t afford to show that pride. She didn’t know if she was safe.

May we become ‘safe’ people for those who have left everything they love and hold dear. May we remember that our country is a melting pot of cultures. Let us celebrate those differences. Unity amidst diversity makes us great.

I welcome comments! Please keep them respectful and constructive.

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A Tale Of Two Refugees: Un-Welcome, Lent Part 2

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Just as a body is one whole made up of many different parts, and all the different parts comprise the one body, so it is with the Anointed One. We were all ceremonially washed through baptism together into one body by one Spirit. No matter our heritage—Jew or Greek, insider or outsider—no matter our status—oppressed or free [Republican or Democrat]—we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Here’s what I mean: the body is not made of one large part but of many different parts. –1 Corinthians 12:12-14 (The Voice version)

As part of my Lenten practice this year, I want to do a few of posts on refugees and immigration. 4 stories. 2 about refugees. 2 about immigration. 2 from a welcomed perspective. 2 from an un-welcomed perspective. The subject is complicated, varied, and divisive. I don’t know anyone who thinks we should ‘throw open our borders to anyone,’ nor do I know anyone who touts that we should close our borders to all. I will not solve any of the issues in my blog; however, I want to share some stories. I hope the stories will help us remember that while we debate and discuss immigration issues, we affect real people’s lives.

Last week, I told the story of how I felt like a refugee when we lived in Germany. This week, I tell the story of actual refugees that lived in our small village of Erzenhausen.

Another family living in our town did not receive the same tepid welcome that we did. They were refugees from Romania. Ovidios had been on Ceausescu’s hit list. When that regime fell, the country was in disarray, and Ovidios and his family fled for their lives. He was an internationally recognized artist. He had won international awards for posters he created for the International Red Cross and for the United Nations. I had seen these posters in the media, symbolizing world peace.

He was somebody!

But, he was also a refugee.

His accolades meant nothing in Germany. The posters he’d created, which hung on the walls in the small home he and his family were given by the German government, did not give him peaceful living.

This story plays like a Hollywood movie:

The little home fellowship we called ‘church’ took them in. We tried to find them asylum in America; but we found that the immigration laws prevented them from coming here. For America, they were required to have $1,000,000 and have a sponsor in the country who could provide Ovidios with a job that no other American could do.

Our borders were closed.

We didn’t want them.

An internationally known, award-winning artist.

But one who was poor and came from an eastern-european-communist-block country.

The immigration standards changed depending on the country you left.

We finally found asylum for them in Canada. Our group of about 20 families raised $20,000–the amount Canada required. Remember the time–early 1990s, long before GoFundMe pages, Paypal, and wifi! We raised the money the old-fashioned way–we wrote letters to friends and family and churches, we sacrificed our own finances, we contacted government officials and embassies.

One woman in our little group LOVED crafting. She got us all to make 5 quilt squares each so that we could make a queen-sized quilt for them to take to Canada. I am NOT craft-sy. But, I dutifully made my quilt squares (with her substantial help). Ovidios, Tania, and their little daughter would be able to remember us.

Oh, and we gave them Cheez Whiz (or ‘Cheez Wheez’, as they pronounced it). Ah, yes, this delicacy is what we’re giving the world. Canned spray cheese made them so happy.

That’s the end of the story. The joyous, Hollywood ending!

(Naturally, Emma Stone would play me, and Steven Spielberg will direct… Ooooh, or maybe it could be a musical!! Lin-Manual Miranda, are you reading?!)

But I digress… 

But the middle part of the story also has the tension and drama of the Hollywood script:

Ovidios, Tania, and their little girl (I believe she was 3 or 4) were refugees.

And the little German village did. not. want. them.

The local baker refused them service.

Anonymous people would vandalize their home, and send them notes of un-welcome.

They did not feel safe.

They had no transportation. The nearest city was about 10 miles away. The closest bus stopped in the next town over, a couple of miles away. They often got rides from some of us. And several of us would get extra groceries at the commissary to give them.

In short, they relied on the kindness of strangers.

Because they had fled Romania, they had precious little in the way of clothing and creature comforts. Because they were refugees, they had precious few people to offer them support … of any kind–financial, emotional, mental, spiritual. Because they were refugees in a country who didn’t want refugees, they didn’t know whom to trust. Because they were refugees, they had precious little in the way of finances and ability to earn money to help them live. The German government gave them a subsistence for housing and food; but they found it hard to make ends meet.

Even in our little house church, people quoted Scripture (out of context) and said that we shouldn’t help them because the Bible clearly says, ‘For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat”’ (2 Thessalonians 3:10).

**And how they actually quoted that verse: ‘Why should we help them? The Bible says, “If a man don’t work, he don’t eat.”** 

Ovidios wasn’t lazy. No one would hire him. Because he was a refugee. Employers considered him an enemy.

Still, I’ve sanitized this version. I wish I had done more, realized more, offered more. One family in our house church lived very close to them in our town. They really bore the brunt of helping them. They exhibited more of Christ’s life to them. They sacrificed themselves and their young family to make room for them. (Emma Stone would play Leslie, not me…)

So, our current tensions over refugees hits home for me. I know what it’s like to feel like an unwelcome outsider in a foreign country–even though I had many comforts because of access to the American military bases. But, I’ve also seen the hardships of a refugee’s life as a friend to one.

Most refugees don’t pick the country where they will resettle. Survival-mode describes the trauma they feel as they escape war-torn tyrannies. Terror cloaks these children … women … and men. All they want is a friendly gesture of welcome. Because most of the gestures they receive do not acknowledge their humanity.

I welcome comments! Please keep them respectful and constructive.

**Next week, part 1 of an immigration story.**

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A Tale of Two Refugees: Welcome, Lent Part 1

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Just as a body is one whole made up of many different parts, and all the different parts comprise the one body, so it is with the Anointed One. We were all ceremonially washed through baptism together into one body by one Spirit. No matter our heritage—Jew or Greek, insider or outsider—no matter our status—oppressed or free [Republican or Democrat]—we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Here’s what I mean: the body is not made of one large part but of many different parts. –1 Corinthians 12:12-14 (The Voice version)

As part of my Lenten practice this year, I want to do a few of posts on refugees and immigration. 4 stories. 2 about refugees. 2 about immigration. 2 from a welcomed perspective. 2 from an un-welcomed perspective. The subject is complicated, varied, and divisive. I don’t know anyone who thinks we should ‘throw open our borders to anyone,’ nor do I know anyone who touts that we should close our borders to all. I will not solve any of the issues in my blog; however, I want to share some stories. I hope the stories will help us remember that while we debate and discuss immigration issues, we affect real people’s lives.

When my husband served in the Air Force, we lived in Germany for 3 years. We experienced a culture so much older than our American one. We lived in a farmhouse that was built in 1910, had survived 2 world wars, had added-on indoor plumbing, no room was square, and if you put a marble on the floor it would roll. And in our small village we heard the rooster crow, cows moo, and church bells ring as we woke to meet the day.

**sigh** Drink that in. Mmmmm. Even at the time, it seemed idyllic.

Okay, back to reality.

We lived there in the early 1990s. The Berlin Wall had fallen the year prior to our arrival. The first Gulf War, Desert Shield, was ending, and the second, Desert Storm, commenced days after we arrived. Germany welcomed accepted refugees flooding from Romania and other countries because Ceausescu’s government had fallen a couple of years before. Like our current climate, the world felt uneasy.

About 200 homes populated the little village. Many wanted nothing to do with us–we were interlopers, a reminder of WWII concessions because of defeat. However, I never felt unsafe. And no one ever denied me service. While some may not have liked the situation of having an American military presence in their country, they recognized the profit that they could have from our business; and for the most part, recognized that as individuals, we did not create the policies of our government.

When we arrived, I was 7 months pregnant with our first child. I had never lived so far away from home. Loneliness fell heavily on my shoulders. Jet-lag took ages (okay, probably a week) to get over. The excitement I first felt at living in a new culture began to give way as the stark reality set in that I knew no one here, and all of my support systems had stayed in America.

We felt like refugees in this foreign land.

We weren’t. And I do know the differences. We had many privileges that refugees don’t enjoy. We had a commissary on the military base which gave us subsidized food prices, we paid the American prices for gas (about $1.20/gallon vs. what-I-remember-the-German-price-per-liter of about $1.20), we paid US postage for packages/letters. But, most importantly, we had income. And a military community where we could retreat at any time.

In short, we had many more privileges than refugees.

However, the feeling of living somewhere foreign, not my familiar surroundings or familiar culture, helps me relate on a smaller scale to how a refugee feels.

We chose to live off-base, on the local economy. We didn’t speak the language. We didn’t understand the life-rhythms of the country. Small town stores closed during the afternoons, then reopened only to close by 6pm. Thursdays had a different shopping schedule, also; but I don’t remember if they stayed open later, or closed early. Saturdays, stores closed at 2pm. Unless it was a ‘long Saturday’ when certain times of the year stores remained open a little longer. I could only keep straight Sundays. Stores never opened on Sundays.

In the larger cities, we felt more at home. More people spoke English (at least better than we spoke German). We especially enjoyed the diversity of cultures. One of our favorite restaurants served Mexican food, but was owned and operated by people from India. Dogs came in with their owners. I watched, a little horrified, when one poodle piddled on the floor, and its owner just mopped it up with the cloth napkin… No one else seemed to notice.

I remember in our small village, we had a ‘Gasthaus’ (restaurant) that served Greek food. Often we ordered pizza from there–some of the best pepperoni I’ve ever had!–but sometimes we would dine-in. I always noticed one or two tables would clear out immediately when we sat down.

As a foreigner, I remember the few people who rejected me and my family because of our nationality. But, mostly, I remember the people who made me feel welcome. The people whom I felt I could exhale around. The ones who smiled and greeted me. The ones who spoke to me even though I couldn’t understand most of what they chatted about. The ones who made me feel like we belonged.

I remember the woman across the street from us, Elsa, who had a Labrador, Amore. She gave chocolates to my daughter when we went for walks. Elsa beamed as she talked with me and my daughter.

I remember our landlords who lived behind us–separated by an apple orchard and a small stream on the property. Monica spoke some English and helped us figure out where to shop, and how to navigate directions. She also gave my daughter chocolates. Most of the older people in the country seemed to carry around candy in their pockets on the off-chance they would see a child. My husband and I laughed thinking that in America, we’d accuse these people of nefarious motives. In Germany, we let our child eat the candy from strangers!

I remember our landlord, Dieter, who spoke almost no English. Our elderly next-door-neighbor had fallen on his stoop one night, and we didn’t know what to do. I called Dieter, and he must have understood the panic in my voice as I cried into the phone, “Karl is hurt!” Dieter came running, helped Karl up and into his house, and reassured us that he was fine. The next day, Monica explained that Karl was drunk and was fine; but he really liked that we covered him with a blanket…

I remember feeling secure knowing that our landlords and neighbors looked out for us.

Welcome. Belonging. A smile. Such small things. Yet, those ‘small’ things created an atmosphere that encouraged me to feel less lonely, less homesick, less foreign, less ousider-ish, and more confident to explore this new country.

Next week, Part 2.

I welcome comments! Please keep them respectful and constructive.

 

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