We each have our own valuable story. Sometimes told. Sometimes not. I am of Eastern European Jewish descent, second generation American. My perspective is colored by my personal history.
I am Lucky. Blessed. Grateful. I am living a fulfilled life of my choosing in the U.S. But I cannot ignore the rising antisemitism here and abroad. I am fearful of the past repeating itself while trying to keep the faith. It’s hard. And so scary.
Many of my ancestors could not fulfill their destinies. They died in multiple ways: pogroms, the Holocaust, overcrowded boats, such as the SS Exodus, turned away with Four thousand five hundred desperate refugees on board a space suitable for five hundred.
People have endured horrific hardships in their homelands and again when fleeing. It takes tremendous courage to leave one’s former life regardless of its gruesome reality. Jumping into a pool of unknowns with no real resources is an act of sheer desperation.
I have met many of today’s refugees who are seeking not just a better life, but simply stated, a life. They express their initial fear, their gratitude, more fear, and finally faith that things will work out. They huddle together in their communities, documented or undocumented, where they find love and support, hope and faith and the feeling of safety in numbers. Their cultures and religions bind them together.
Immigration is certainly not a new story. Within waves of immigration are many individual stories. Some have happy endings. Some do not. It’s important to continue telling these stories, regardless of country of origin or motivation. The U.S., since its inception, has been a shining light of hope for those escaping repression, religious prejudice, gang wars, dictatorships, ethnic cleansing, torture and more. We haven’t always been the best we can be, but we have held onto our democracy saying “Give us your tired, your poor”.
Traveling recently with Israeli Micha Feldman, author of “Wings of Eagles” and a living legend whose life is dedicated to rescuing Ethiopian Jews, I visited some of the thousands still stuck living in squalor in Ethiopia. They wait for years, still hoping to get to Israel.
I also met Ethiopian Jews living in Israel and heard their stories of walking through the Simien Mountains at night, often barefoot, the very young and very old, pregnant, ill and desperate to escape antisemitism and poverty. Marauders along the way demanded money they had very little of. Many did not make it to the refugee camps in Somalia. Many left family behind. Today there is a film on Netflix titled “The Red Sea Diving Resort”, the fascinating story of escape and rescue thanks to the Israeli Mossad.
A short time ago I met 3 undocumented Mexican couples and their children. All are working menial jobs here, all paying taxes and rent, all were terrified to leave their homes and families in Mexico. Their need to escape gangs and/or poverty overpowered their fear. In some parts of Mexico it was hard to get jobs unless you knew someone or agreed to have sex in exchange for some kind of work.
They are sending money to relatives back home. One woman’s talented grandmother embroiders bags and sends them here to sell for $30 each. The granddaughter sends that money to her grandmother.
These people have been here 15 -19 years, led by “coyotes”, paid guides who know the ropes to cross the border. Trekking by foot at night, crawling by day, sleeping on the Sonora Desert floor with tarantulas, snakes and human skeletons, they arrived to a van in Phoenix that piled them one atop another for the drive east.
There were problems in the desert along the way. When they ran out of water they drank from a dirty pond. Shoes falling apart resulted in barefoot, bleeding soles. Fevers occurred from the thorny bushes pricking their skin and causing infection. The biggest issue was fear, all- encompassing fear of getting caught, or worse, injury or death. At that time they paid $2000 to the coyote. Today it’s about $12-13,000.
One of the men tried to cross the border three times. The third time he was helped by a ranger who gave him water and directed him to an easier crossing. All their marriages happened here and the kids are U.S. citizens in school. The parents are waiting for their children to turn 18 so they can begin the process of legal citizenship.
The fear of separation from their kids and deportation is prevalent. Some have alternate plans in place, some do not and cannot face the possibility of deportation. Two young daughters cried bitterly as we spoke. It was impossible to comfort them.
Faith keeps these people moving forward in their daily lives in spite of the fear. Their children can achieve something here. Their families integrate the best of both cultures to create loving homes. They fully embrace our Thanksgiving holiday.
Living under the radar is challenging. They have no voice, no rights, no police protection, no insurance, no political power, no vacations. But they are self-sufficient, often working jobs many Americans don’t want. There are no handouts.
These are resilient, proud hard working people who only want to give their kids a better life. It was an honor to be trusted with their heartfelt stories. Kind, compassionate, honest people with strong family values.. We need more citizens like them these days here in the good ol’ U.S.A., don’t we?
Miriam Seiden is a cultural explorer who loves to write about her living bridges around the world.