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Refugees

A veteran's remembrance

The world is awash in refugees now; floating, walking, filling trains, jamming borders, hungry, exhausted, terrified, fleeing war, seeking safe, quiet places to live and work and raise children.  It's all happened before. Rwanda, Cambodia, Vietnam; the list is endless.  The current crisis is said to be the biggest migration of displaced people since World War II.  Many are Muslims from the Middle East, fleeing the multi-war in Syria where once neat functioning cities are bombed out rubble, without water, electricity, police, food, schools, or peace; with mortar and machine gun fire night and day.

It's very lucky to be living someplace safe with the proper papers of belonging, with food in your own refrigerator in your own home, air conditioner purring all Summer long, with shops, trains, and buses nearby for a normal life, yet feeling a twinge of guilt while watching the evening news showing those poor people climbing over barbed wire borders, lugging crying children in arms so tired that they can barely hold on to their reason for leaving what was once home for foreign shores.

I really don't know what it's like to be an ordinary American who was never part of a family that had to run for their lives from the horror of war.  I wonder what it feels like to have no knowledge of uniformed thugs with machine guns and big barking dogs, blown up belongings and homes, running and crossing borders scared to death of uniforms, getting caught and being detained or sent back to the rubble and bombs.  I'm sure that most people deeply care and even do something to try to help.  For me, I can't help crying when I see these desperate crowds of people on TV.  I remember where my family came from,  all that was lost long ago, what language I would have spoken, how and where I would have lived, had it all not been torn asunder by tyranny and bombed to hell.  I even went back and visited that place, in peacetime, and saw who lived there now in neighborhoods that had been rebuilt after the war.

I was born out of World War II.  Both my parents were refugees who came to America fleeing the horror of Hitler's Nazi Germany.  They met here and married on this foreign shore after having had to run for their lives, leaving behind everyone and everything that meant anything to them.  My mother got here the hard way, much like those poor Syrians today, illegally without papers, relying purely on terrified determination to get here.  She had a tiny cardboard suitcase with a few items of clothing and photos of her parents, not much else.  To have had big proper luggage would have been a dead giveaway that she was running away, which would have resulted in being stopped and sent to a death camp.  So, she left everything behind, kissed her parents goodbye and promised to send for them as soon as she could, knowing she'd probably never see them alive again.  The dust of their ashes still remains today in the mass graves beneath the barbed wire of Auschwitz in Eastern Europe.  She went first by train, and was stopped and interrogated at the Dutch-German border by the Gestapo armed with machine guns and big vicious dogs.  She crossed the border hiding in the ladies room of the next train, and then went into hiding in Holland, followed by a crossing of the North Atlantic in the middle of World War II, riding in steerage, and after a sea sickening journey finally sailing past the Statue of Liberty holding aloft its beacon of freedom; SAFE, Safe at last in America!  But, then the ship docked at Ellis Island in New York's harbor where she debarked among thousands of other refugees and followed the line into a processing center filled with the multi lingual babble of humble humanity, crying children, and desperate people.

She had no documents.  After waiting her turn on an endless line, she presented herself to Immigration as WOP -without papers- a refugee among thousands of others.  I visited that place, now a museum of the misery of migration and war.  I imagined what she must have felt on that line, in the stench of humanity fleeing for their lives; and I nearly vomited imagining her fear, loneliness, and weariness.  She was interned there for over a month amidst the masses of other undocumented people.  Letters were written, forms were filed, and finally some distant suburban American cousins paid a bond or a bribe and she was set free to seek a new life here.  She didn't speak English.  Like so many others, her first work here was cleaning other people's toilets to earn a living and live in freedom.  She never got a penny of welfare; 60 years later she retired as a shopkeeper and real estate broker.

Meanwhile, my father fled Berlin via England and lived through the Bombing of Britain, the Blitz, and eventually came to America.  They met, married, and conceived me in celebration of the end of WWII; I was one of four hundred thousand baby-boomer Jewish-German children born to refugees living on New York's far Upper West Side in the late 1940s.  They reared me to believe that there is nothing more precious than America Freedom.  And so, two decades later I volunteered to serve my country like so many other of my first generation American peers.  We wanted to pay our country back for our families' freedom; while others, who took their freedom for granted, ran away to Canada or lied and said they were gay to avoid serving in Vietnam.  I and so many other gay sons of immigrants lied and said we were straight so that we could serve.  That's the way it was.

This September of 2015, Germany is the desperately prized goal of refuge, safety, freedom, peace and prosperity of millions of Muslims fleeing the horror of war and oppression.  It's the same Germany that millions of Jews, including my parents, fled for their lives from so long ago, seeking freedom from tyrannical genocide.  I'm not sure if there is any meaning at all to this phenomenal irony.

I visited that place in Germany that my mother had fled from so long ago, from which her parents had been taken by the Gestapo and sent to a death camp where they were murdered.  Back then, when Jews were sent to the camps, as soon as the truck taking them away turned the corner, their Christian neighbors kicked open their doors, knowing they wouldn't be back, and took furniture, bedding, china and whatever else they wanted.  I met my mother's former neighbors, a very elderly German couple coming home from shopping.  I told them who I was and what I was doing, looking at where my mother and her family had lived long ago.  They didn't invite me in for tea; perhaps they were afraid I'd look at their china cabinet knowing all that fine old stuff was mine.

I walked around my mother's old neighborhood, which was already in the 1990s a section where mostly Arab immigrants had settled.  Seeing me standing there with a map, a camera and a list of addresses my mother had given me to see, a young Arab boy volunteered to show me around HIS neighborhood.  He knew what had happened there long ago.  It had been a routine third grade school assignment to study the history of his neighborhood and country.  He explained it all in flawless German richly embellished with the regional dialect, his language; he'd been born there to his immigrant parents.  Suddenly he realized what was going on, that this American was speaking to him in German with the distinctive glottal local inflection, swallowing my vowels and 'r's' in the back of my throat the way that only Frankfurter could.  "For God's sake!," he exclaimed, "You are one of them; you came from here didn't you?"  "Well, my mother did," I told him.  With the genuine sincerity that only a child could have, he said, "I'm really sorry about what happened here!"  He shared the shame of many young Germans, even though his family had been there little more than a decade and, thus, had no guilt for the Holocaust.  He showed me where all the addresses were.  I thanked him, and in parting said in Arabic, "Salaam-Alaikum."  Without a moment's hesitation he responded, "wa Alaikum-Salaam!"  Peace unto you, Unto you peace.

In America, where nearly everyone is descended from immigrants and refugees, there have always been those who feared that newcomers would change the character and moral fiber of our nation.  That was true when my mother arrived fleeing tyranny at the height of WWII, and its true now among those who fear the influx of Hispanics now seeking a better life here.  This son of an illegal immigrant served his nation honorably for a decade, becoming a Sgt. First Class; not a bad payback for letting a little refugee woman in during wartime.  In Germany today, there are those who fear that the influx of Arab refugees will change the character and moral fiber of their nation.  If they are anything like that kid I met in my mother's old neighborhood, they have nothing to fear.

Today's registered refugees, who have made it to their preferred northern European countries, get tidy individual or family housing, monthly food and clothing funding, transit passes, free job training and language classes, universal healthcare and who knows what else.  Many left behind abject poverty, rubble, drinking rainwater, and picking through garbage to find food.  Still, they seem to have mobile phones and are able to complain in English to international network TV news cameras.

It was different when my mother arrived here in the middle of World War II.  Immigration interned her in a crowded women's barracks for over a month.  The meals she got were likely similar to the slop plopped on my metal tray in military boot camp, hearty but unidentifiable.  When she was released from detention to begin her new life in America, she was likely given a nickel to pay for the ferry ride across New York harbor, that's all.  Fortunately, she was offered work by 'cleaning staff recruiters' while she was still in refugee detention.  They were exploiting her, of course, but considering what could have happened, she was lucky.  She worked long hours for little pay in a seedy immigrant's holiday hotel on the Jersey Shore, cleaning toilets, changing bedding sheets, serving meals and doing whatever else needed doing.  She was educated and must have cried herself to sleep every night in that place.  I can't imagine how she managed to save any money, but she did and got herself out of there as soon as she could.  She started her own business sewing, bought a sewing machine, and worked her way up, never looking back, never getting a penny of assistance.  That's the way it was back then.  No cell phone, no TV, no newcomer benefits, nothing.  She was on her own.  She worked hard and did fine; she gave me a good lower middle class American upbringing; she taught me cynicism, self reliance, and American patriotism.  The older I get, the more I appreciate what she gave me.  Her proudest day was when I graduated from boot camp.  Her son, an American Service Member!  She kept that boot camp photo of me in uniform in front of the American flag on display for the rest of her life.

So, who am I to judge today's refugees?  I can't.  I only hope they become proud grateful contributing citizens of their new countries.  That's what we did.

-Proud American Veteran
Sgt First Class Denny Meyer

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