by Carol A Westbrook
On Labor Day we honor the contributions of the hard-working people who helped build our nation. Many of them were immigrants who fled war, religious persecution, and poverty, who gave up their own countries to become Americans. This cycle of immigration and assimilation has been repeated since the founding of our nation, and arguably it is one of the most defining aspects of being American. Most of us have immigrant roots.
An elderly Lithuanian woman told me the story of how she moved to America at the end of World War II. Like many Europeans, her family had been displaced due to changing boundaries and Soviet annexation after the war. Though she was only five years old, she remembers this as one of the most fun and exciting times of her life. Her family was housed in a German castle for months with other Lithuanians, where there set up a church and a school; there were lots of other children to play with, and they looked forward to going to America! They had so much fun! I'm sure it was anything but fun for her parents. They had lost their homeland, and the Russians forced them to move. Theirs was an uncertain future, confined to an immigration camp and waiting for resettlement in any country that would take them in.
I nodded in understanding and sympathy.
"Like the Syrians," I said.
"No No NO, " she exclaimed, with a horrified look on her face. "We were not like the Syrians!" She explained that she was, after all, a Lithuanian, and is now an American. She insisted it's not the same!
But isn't it? Resettled World War II refugees like her faced hostility and resistance in the US. They were insultingly called "DPs" (Displaced Persons), and ridiculed for their strange language, peasant clothes, and unpronounceable names. Yet today, they are as American as anyone else. As a matter of fact, almost all of us have immigrant roots — even the founding fathers.
Today's Middle Eastern, Latin and South American immigrants are refugees from war and oppressive governments, or fleeing soul-destroying poverty. We fear their strange customs and clothing, their alien religions, and the threat of terrorism. Yet it's not much different today than it was in the past.