Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Finding a new home in a new country: No easy road

        Once upon a time, I was an immigrant. So were my father, mother and younger sister.
         I can tell you: It is no easy road going from a country you love, the only home you've ever known, to a foreign land far, far away with no guarantees of a happier life. But for us, it was a fairy-tale story.
When I see scenes of Syrian refugees in Europe (photo
from Getty Images, www.mtv.com) ...
         When I've watched the news the past few weeks and seen the reports of the tide of thousands fleeing persecution and war in their homeland and heading for -- they hope -- safer territory, and a new life, I am a little more empathetic than many American citizens.
        And when I hear the words "the worst humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II," that resonate with me. When I see the reports of hunger and despair and violence, I find it difficult to watch.
        Please, please do not mistake this. Our lives -- the Van Thyn family that came from The Netherlands to the United States in January 1956 -- were so blessed. It all worked. Not perfectly, but darned near it.
... I also remember this  -- survivors freed from the Bergen-
Belsen concentration camp (U.S. Holocaust Museum photo)
       We did not run from persecution or hard times. We came here because my parents wanted to; we weren't forced.
        Our journey was planned for us; there were people waiting to guide us at almost every step. What uncertainty there was, my parents, Elsa and I kind of figured out what came next.
        But "the worst humanitarian crises in Europe since World War II" has me thinking of my parents.
        We weren't refugees when we came to the U.S., but my parents were refugees once.
         Once Nazi Germany took over The Netherlands in May 1940, they were among the hundreds of thousands, millions, who were harassed and persecuted in the next five years. And then having somehow survived the Holocaust, they went on uncertain paths to return "home," whatever was left of home. At that point, they were among those wandering through the European countryside.
        That is my point of identification with today's crisis. Sorry, I can't help it.
        When I see the masses of people walking the roads of Europe, going days without much to eat, eagerly accepting food handouts, sleeping very little, at times sleeping on the side of roads or in fields, boarding the trains heading to God-knows-where, I see Rose and Louis doing just that.
        I see their original family members forced onto those trains, at gunpoint, going to the camps, going -- unknowingly -- to their deaths.
        I see the photos of the long lines of Jewish people outside those trains, many not long from the gas chambers. 
        My parents were in those lines, but over the next couple of years they went from prisoners to survivors. I suppose, once the Nazis abandoned them and their fellow prisoners, they became refugees, or maybe the term is migrants. I'm not sure, and I don't think it matters. What I am sure of is they were lost.
        Gas chambers aren't the threat now, but these people fleeing Syria and other countries are escaping civil wars and bombs and persecution -- and looking for "home."
         Don't know how you feel about immigration -- about the Hispanics, the Muslims, the Middle East natives moving into foreign territory -- but we know the whole world is dealing with transition.
         I know there is much resentment in my old country, The Netherlands, about the influx of people from the Muslim world. Many Dutch nationals are demanding much stricter immigration policies and tighter borders.
         That sounds familiar. We hear every day about the 11 or 12 million "illegal" immigrants in our country; it's at the top of the list of issues for some of the Presidential candidates. 
         Solving that problem isn't as easy as simply building a giant thousand-miles-long wall, as one I-have-all-the-answers so-called candidate suggests (and has he asked the Mexicans if they are willing to pay for that wall?).
         The powers-that-be in Washington, D.C. -- and I use "powers" loosely -- haven't solved the border problem in 25 years. Heck, yeah, we all want tighter control, more careful vetting. Neither political party has found the answers or committed the money and the manpower, or hit on a compromise that works.
         Amnesty for some -- carefully vetted -- sounds good to me. Amnesty for no one, as the junior Senator from Texas and others insist on, that's not practical.
         When I hear that those illegals will be treated in "humanitarian" fashion as they're sent away, I'm thinking that those people are not going to just volunteer to leave. Maybe they'll have to pushed or threatened, and that might -- might -- lead to violence.
         Our history tells us we didn't treat the Indians or the African-Americans in a "humanitarian" manner. Violence, unfortunately, has been a constant in our world -- and we're a civilized country. 
         So when I see the violence erupting in Hungary or Serbia as the borders there close to the masses roaming through Europe, I think it's not much different than what we see here.
         Of course, there are some murderers and rapists and bad guys coming in here, and in the European crisis, too. Again, history tells us that's going to happen, no matter what the safeguards are.
          So we have 9/11, we have the Boston Marathon explosions -- foreign terrorists. The security, the walls ... not enough. But many of our worst ordeals recently -- police shootings, police being shot, shootings at schools or in movie theaters, in churches, on military bases, federal buildings blow up -- are American-made.
          The great majority of those fleeing Syria and the Middle East to Europe, and those making their way from Mexico and Central America to our country, are looking for better lives. Many of the Syrians are middle-class people, with enough money to pay the "smugglers" providing their way north and west. Refugees, with means.
What I find remarkable now, in the European crisis, is that Germany -- of all countries -- is willing to take in 800,000 refugees and give them a chance at a new life. Maybe Germany owes this to the world, after its inhumane actions of the 1910s and 1930s-early 1940s. It is Germany asking for help from other countries in making room  for the refugees.
          I wonder what my parents would say now about the Germans' initiative. Would there be forgiveness?
         The U.S., where many would extradite those 11 or 12 million "illegals" as soon as they could, is willing to take in 10,000 Syrians through immigration. I saw Sunday that the presumptive Democratic nominee for President -- I think you know who she is -- suggests we make it 65,000 and enlist the United Nations to step in more boldly and quickly to help find solutions world-wide.
         I know this: Solutions for immigration problems (legal, illegal) require empathy. I did not see much of that last week in the Republican presidential debate.
          Even legal immigration is difficult. I have a friend in the Atlanta area whose wife, an attorney, runs an immigration practice and he says "the stories and the unlikelihood of success [for immigrants] are disheartening."
         But, I say this from personal experience as I remember the people who helped the Van Thyns all those years ago, thank you to those trying to help the immigrants.
          Look, I'm a lot more knowledgeable about matters in athletics than immigration, but I know this: When I see the reports of the European crisis, and I see those families, the faces of those children -- the ones for whom their parents are seeking better lives -- it affects me.
         Because a long time ago, we were those children. The conditions and the journey were much easier for us, but I know the adjustment is a life-changer.
         When I hear people say that the United States of America is no longer a great country, I strongly disagree. It's better than any other place.
          And maybe Germany will be a better place for those refugees. When I see those children heading into Western Europe, I can't help but root for them.
          Maybe in their new country, some will become social workers or, if they're lucky, sportswriters.
          Bless them all. I hope they end up healthy and safe -- and with a future.


  1. Well written, and from the heart. Empathy requires perspective, and perspective requires being able to see more than one side (if we had only one eye, perhaps even the idea of perspective wouldn't exist). Too many in the U.S. are ignorant of history, and see things from a single viewpoint. Ask yourself, who wants Mexico's minimum wage to be $.80 (80 cents) an hour? Wealthy Mexicans, and multi-national corporations fronting for wealthy Americans. My dad used to say, "Follow the money."

  2. From Tommy Canterbury: Great take on this from true experience. That validates [what you write].
    However I will add, while helping the oppressed, it does not stop the on-going problem -- ELIMINATING the BAD GUYS. They are obvious, visible and even boastful of their deeds of hate (remind you of another time?).
    With difficulty , sacrifice and great resolve, we did that to end the bad guys, thus ending the war in 1945. My dad was there at the Battle of the Bulge and at the concentration camps (got pictures of him on site).
    My point: Help the displaced, but we must cut the head of the snakes or we are just waiting for a repeat.
    Will anyone lead us in "truly stepping up?"

  3. From Herman Garner Jr.: I really enjoy reading your writing. It is always good, but this article is just incredibly well-written. It is so moving and so thought-provoking. Thank you for sharing this wonderful piece.

  4. From Anne Burford Griffin: It's a mark of your humanity that you can identify with these victimized displaced people, unfortunate not through any fault of their own but due to the actions of a mad man, one poured into the mold of the evil one who hurt so many in your own family. Not many folk in this country remember that we were all immigrants at one time or another and needed a helping hand.

  5. From Pat Flenniken: Well-written, as usual. Very thought-provoking.

  6. From Tom Gibson: Good stuff. Sports is fun, but this is about our humanity. You hit this one out of the park.

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  8. From David Worthington: Thanks for sharing your article and insightful perspective about the refugees fleeing Syria. You are able to empathize with them in ways that none of the rest of us can. I can see the problems and there are no easy solutions. I want to see the nations of the free world work together to provide humanitarian relief, but getting nations to work together is not so easily done. Helping the Syrians find a new “home” where they will not be oppressed and where they can make better lives for themselves and for their children, is a prayer that we all must pray.
    Thank you once again, for your unique perspective and ability to help us feel what is happening in that far corner of the world.

  9. From Jimmy Russell: Great points. The most concerning to me is the ease with which terrorists can get into the country.

  10. From Henry and Huck: Evil wins when those who ask for help are turned away; humanity requires a humane response. Your post is a poignant tribute.