Are refugees limited to the images which come to our minds?
People walking in herds with their possessions reduced to what can be easily carried or put on a mule. Camps, dirt roads and tents, tents, tents. Communities of tents always contained within barbed wire; tents for sleeping, tents for eating from enormous pots, tents with outhouses, the few and far between tents for children and hospitals. Volunteers, red cross, soldiers, havoc, disorder, chaos, tears, fights, death, hope. Old people carted about like the young. Young men in protest – of what they are not always sure.
The tearing apart, tearing away, something always tearing, like life itself coming apart at the seams. African, Albanian, Kurdish, South Asian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, Jewish… all these faces you know, or think you know. You recognize us from something – a billboard, a commercial, a telethon, a magazine article… but this is not what a refugee is; it is not what you see, it is precisely what you don’t see that makes being one so…amazing!
Amazingly difficult, amazingly angry, amazingly inconsistent, amazingly dissociated, amazingly…unique. The fires contained within our souls, the unquenchable thirst in our throat, the turbulent imbalance in our brains… these things cannot be seen, cannot be spoken about, cannot have funds raised for them, cannot be mended – will not die out! We can only hope that the generations that follow will find peace, will find their place, will find a balance.
For the Russian-Jewish refugee circumstantially things have changed, the world as we found it having landed in an airport and disembarked from a jet, is quite different from the one found by those who landed in Ellis Island and disembarked from a steamer. Ironically, the challenges have remained the same – in spite of advances in technologies, communication, social awareness and social programming. Because the greatest challenges are not contained in the physical realm of the tenements, ghettos, sweat shops, mills, factories, street corners, pizza parlors, kitchens, living-rooms, retirement homes, oil stained handyman trucks, sweat drenched movers trucks, or pizza funk infested delivery trucks. No, the greatest challenges are in fact contained within the hearts and minds of the doctors, professors, engineers, musicians, scientists, writers, psychologists, artists, pilots… who work these new jobs and are placed in section 8 housing in neighborhoods which rank only slightly higher than the slums of our native lands.
We were “welcomed” with crossed arms into communities where what we were mattered not, for we did not speak the language of the land. This seemed to be the measure of whether one is worthy of kindness and graciousness and respect. Neither our post-doctoral degrees in nuclear physics nor the characters chiseled from years of hard struggle and making daily miracles from nothing so as to bring happiness to our loved ones, mattered. No, we were judged by whether we pronounced “please” as “pleeze”, or “birthday” as “biorzday”. For they knew not, and cared not to know, from where we came and who we were. Their only focus was on how well we fit in and how quickly we went about it.
Retention of values? Retention of traditions? Retention of pride? What for? To what end? They have no place here. Our identity, our quality as people, is now judged within the parameters of how well we pass for Americans. To this end many forsook our roots and ignored the history of our ancestry. America welcomes refugees with mores, rules, predispositions, prejudices, hatred and anger. Because it does not know, it does not see, the TV did not say, who we are. It could not, it chose to not, there probably was no way it would be able to, see and understand us for what we were, what we’re worth and what we brought to the table.
Like any human being we sought freedom, rights, choices, options, opportunities, and open doors – the fertile soil of a free society. We sought liberty, open mindedness and respect. We sought all this because, though taken for granted here, from where we came these things, these seemingly natural and unalienable rights, did not exist – not for everyone and certainly not for us. From where we came we needed to forsake ourselves, our religion, our rights, our hopes and dreams… our very lives. Forsake it all for the sake of staying alive.
There is not a thing, person, god, or place that is worth, that deserves, that has the right, that has such a claim on, your life. And yet there we were in such a place.
But within that place we came to define ourselves. From there we grew and identified with, acculturated and accepted, and regardless of the opposition, became a part of Russia . We became citizens and contributing members of society, we adopted traditions and style, we adopted all that is best and some of what’s worst. We rose in the ranks, regardless of glass ceilings, pogroms, outright denial of rights and passage, we rose. We, some holding fast, others balancing, and yet others who completely disregarded our Jewish selves, rose to the top of the sciences, the visual and performing arts, music, medicine and literature.
Does all this sound familiar? Does Germany from the turn to the middle of the century sound familiar? Is all this not the repeating story of Jews everywhere? One little difference though: we did not stay. We did not blindly stay when the door of opportunity was opened; when the chance came to escape, we did not wait for the return of pogroms and executions, mass murders and mass defamation. We did not wait.
We, stripped of our belongings, stripped of our citizenship, stripped of everything but our pride, were shipped to a foreign land with no claim to any place on earth. And there we waited, bated breath, waited and waited, in the arms of pity extended by Italy, for America to take us in. Some waited a month, some waited a few, others a year and still others never made it and were taken in by Israel or Canada. We huddled week in and week out for a sign that America realized that we had nowhere to go, that we were not comfortably home at tea waiting for the approval of a visa, that we were the “huddled masses” desperately praying for acceptance.
The changes! How immense the alteration! What we knew to be real was gone; what we thought was truth was no longer so; whom we considered friends were left behind; that which made sense was a world away; the tongue which we spoke no longer native and no longer understood. Now we are unable to express ourselves, our pain and suffering, our hopes and dreams, now we are unable to contain our anger, now we are forming into something as strange as the land where we now live, and the tongue we don’t yet speak.
Where did we go? If everything outside of us has changed should we at least contain within ourselves…ourselves? Is this not how we are going to survive?
Alas, it’s not.
The anchors of acculturation sink deeper and deeper, detached from our understanding. Every day we have less and less which makes sense, every day we become someone we do not recognize. If before we had friends to whom we could turn for help, for a shoulder, for an ear, for a hand, for a song, for a bowl of soup, a cup of tea, for a walk – they are no longer here. If before we had a job that brought us no money but a great deal of satisfaction because of the great barriers we had crossed to obtain it, the education that qualified us, the experience that now defined us – it is no longer here. If there was a soul, a spirit with which we could identify, as it embodied the place where we lived, as it contained its history that we shared, as it gave meaning to stone and street, bench and tree, symphony and hall, as it gave light and color to our pathetic little lives – we are no longer in contact with it, we no longer sense it, if one even exists where we now live.
This dis-identification, dissociation, societal and cultural dismemberment, disembodiment…is with what we are left. This is now what defines us. Now we are told to make our way in the world, and good luck! How? The answers shall never come. Some of us will strive and succeed, others will remain irrelevant and mediocre, others will die of desperation, others will take their own lives, still others will turn to drugs and crime and hate.
But in the end we will be redefined; in the end we will, as we did in Germany, Russia, Spain, Italy, Africa, Persia and the east… become a part.