“Why do some people not like immigrants?” asked my 10-year-old son, again.
The subject of immigration has been coming frequently in our home since the presidential campaign and election. Hearing the news led my youngest son to start asking questions which were at times difficult for me to answer, and the recent, rapid changes in our country’s immigration policy brought on another round.
My standard answer has been some variation on the theme that some people are simply scared of anyone who is different from who they are—that’s the reason, sadly, that racism, homophobia, any sort of discrimination exists. But my son kept asking, clearly looking for a better explanation. I don’t know much of the social science behind the anti-immigrant sentiment. I only know what it’s been like to be one, a child who came here with her family as a Jewish political refugee from the former Soviet Union, allowed to leave as part of a grain for Jews deal, struck by the American and Soviet governments. While my story is an integral part of who I am, I was never comfortable discussing it until my children pressed me.
From the time I was 11 and arrived here with my family until I started earning money as a medical resident, financial concerns loomed large. The first summer in the US, I was riveted by the sight and sound of the ice cream truck, but could not ask my parents for 65 cents, the price of an ice cream cone in 1981. They did not have even that small amount to spare. I was teased in school for my unfashionable clothes, acquired second hand from a synagogue that gave out clothes to recent immigrants. I was the first Russian-born student in my school, and my math teacher asked me in front of the entire class if I was embarrassed of my accent. Of course I was! The result was that I excelled at algebra, but became embarrassed by my history, one I should have been proud of.
Things got better in college, but the feeling of not measuring up never completely abated. I did not have a computer to use for my assignments; I was lucky to have friends who allowed me to use theirs. I went off meal plan as quickly as I could as a freshman, to save my parents money; the small amount they had to pay for my education after financial aid was still significant for them. I graduated in three years to save them a year’s worth of tuition, and gave up the fourth year on the Columbia University campus, the place where I had been the happiest.
In medical school, I was surrounded by immigrants and started out hopeful that I could be open about my past. I quickly found, however, that, while most medical residents were newcomers to the US, they often told stories of their accomplishments “back home,” which was not something I could relate to, and the few American residents would quickly point out my accent to me. I was an American with no accomplishments to the immigrants around me, and an immigrant with no accomplishments to the Americans. It seemed that I could not win, so I buried my story even deeper and threw myself further into getting the grades and getting into residency.
When my oldest son was born, I delighted in him and in the knowledge that, just like in the story of Exodus, he represented a new generation, born without the burden of the immigrant experience, until my American mother-in-law heard my grandmother speaking softly to him in Russian, the only language she knew, and sternly said to her, a woman old enough to be her mother, “No! We speak English to the baby.” I realized as I held my newborn that I would not escape my past, but I still refused to embrace it, choosing again to avoid talking about it.
As three more children came along and my parents retired, I became aware of the pride I felt in my parents’ accomplishments. They worked hard, spent frugally, saved wisely, in ways many American-born adults were unable to do. They were able to give my children gifts, have outings, and take vacations that I would associate with typical middle class retirees—dinners in restaurants, cruises, shows. But along with the pride I felt came the voices I heard from Americans of my parents’ generation who I was acquainted with, and who would inquire about my parents, and then, when I would mention their vacation plans or trips to the theater, would say, “It must be nice to have money.” Would they say that if my parents were born here, in the US, I wondered. Do they begrudge my parents the money they earned and saved, and the taxes they paid on every dollar they earned? Not feeling free to talk about my immigrant past, I never asked.
It was during this presidential election, when immigration has become a hot topic and the subject of debate more than ever before, that my children started asking, and I started talking to them, about my immigrant experience. It coincided with my oldest son’s own college career, on the same Columbia campus, where he is staying for the entire four years and where he writes about Jewish student activism and the history of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. Initially, it was his interests that validated my past and started opening the door for me to share it. And, once my story started coming out in the open, I found that my American-born children listened. They now understood why I get teary when I buy them ice cream cones. I could see in their eyes the hurt when I told them about my algebra teacher. They asked me to make my grandmothers’ recipes. And I finally started becoming comfortable with my past.
I repeated some of these stories to my youngest son. I reminded him that we are very lucky. I am a physician and can provide him and his three brothers with a comfortable life. And, even back in 1981, my family was not nearly as badly off as many other immigrants were then, or are now. There was always a roof over our heads, clothes on our bodies, and food in our refrigerator. After only two months in this country, my father found a job as an engineer, which matched his training exactly. My mother found excellent schools for my brother and for me, which were appropriate for our strengths and abilities. There were worries, of course, but my parents succeeded, and enabled me to succeed.
It is a story worth sharing. I am grateful that my children keep pushing me to share it, and that now I feel that I can. I hope it is one that answers their questions, guides them to look out for the newcomers in their midst, and leads them to speak out for refugee rights. To paraphrase an internet meme that has been going around these past few months, their people were immigrants, too.