Welcome to America

Five-year-old me photographed for emigration to the United States.

As indignities go, it ranked relatively low. After all, I had been subjected to senseless fumigation. An insult to any girl whose grandmother has taught her to wash her hands after everything and to always carry a clean handkerchief. But, somehow, making me look like a monkey in my first official photograph crossed the line. Some self-important functionary had said that my ears, which stuck out, had to be clearly visible or I would not be allowed to emigrate to the United States. So my mother braided my hair and attached it to the top of my head, and I let everyone know exactly how I felt about that. Or so I was told, at least. I have no actual memory of anything from my first five years, when I was a little displaced person from war-torn Latvia.

Similarly, I have no memory of the turbulent transatlantic crossing in a converted troop carrier, the General S. D. Sturgis, in the middle of a mid-October hurricane, where almost everyone but my father and a cook was too seasick to eat. Or of refusing to be labeled like luggage at Ellis Island, where I not only tore off my tag and drew a picture of a girl on the back but also snatched those identifying other refugee kids. Or of the 730-mile train ride to Michigan. Or of my mother bursting into tears once she disembarked in the Lowell station and saw the bleak surroundings. Or of the meager meal of canned tomato soup and Saltine crackers that our sponsors, a Lutheran minister and his wife, served us before putting my mother to work. Meaning that she was to hand-wash the dirty laundry accumulated since their washing machine had broken down, except that my mother—a clever lady shaking from exhaustion—diagnosed the problem as a short and fixed it with wire strippers and electrical tape and then only had to repeatedly load and unload the machine and carry everything out to the yard to dry. Or of the cramped, unheated space above the garage that they deemed suitable quarters for four people, including an old woman and a small child, during a chilly fall and the following freezing winter. Or of my urbane father being tasked to single-handedly turn their fallow fields into a functioning horse farm. Or of him walking 26 miles in deep snow to Grand Rapids, the closest large town, to secure a factory job. Or of us moving to a nice flat on Ethel Street.

The first thing that I do remember is staring at a large Coca-Cola clock on the cloakroom wall at Sigsbee Elementary School, where I sat for what seemed like an eternity, terrified that no one would come to take me home from kindergarten. Before you conclude that this was the same sort of separation anxiety seen in American kids starting school, let me remind you that Europe had been decimated by World War II and dealing with the devastating aftermath. As a result, my father and mother and maternal grandmother had been the only source of stability that I had ever known. The thought that I had been left to fend for myself was unbearable. Which is why I am appalled when Americans refer to the “zero-tolerance” policy of separating children from parents who cross the Mexican border to seek asylumtheir right under both US and international law—as sending them to “essentially summer camps” or “basically boarding schools.”

As you might expect from the way that my family and I were welcomed to the United States, I was not nearly as shocked as many of my progressive American friends were by the way that a recently empowered segment of our society views foreigners who have been forced to flee their native land. That was always there, if not always so openly expressed. But back then, at least, no one kept me from my family. Despite my worst fears, someone eventually took me back to Ethel Street. Still, the memory of sitting alone in that cloakroom with that ticking clock stays with me to this day. I wonder what traumatic memories and subconscious changes will stay with the 2500 some kids recently separated and sent to shelters in at least 16 states. Some are only a few months old. Hundreds have been apart from their parents for several weeks. And there is no good system for reuniting them, so who knows how many will ever see Mom or Dad.

 

A border patrol agent takes a youngster into custody in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, where at least three facilities are holding “tender age” migrants. (Photo: John Moore / Getty Images)

 

Children are held in a US Customs and Border Protection detention facility at Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Center in Texas. (Source: US Customs and Border Protection/Reuters)

 

6 thoughts on “Welcome to America”

  1. Surely you never touched Ellis Island. That was for clearing potential immigrants, but all the DPs had been cleared on the European shore. It’s like a false memory, this report that I increasingly find among Latvians who were children at the time. The DP ships unloaded on the regular docks. (Tho’ of course it’s possible that if there were a strike at the time, or if the docks were somehow unavailable, then unloading at Ellis Island might have happened even for ships of immigrants already cleared; but I doubt it. The whole of Ellis Island was set up for handling those who might yet be turned back.)

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    1. I appreciate your input, Gundega. You might even be right. As I clearly stated in the piece, I have no memory–not a false memory–of that time.

      Although I know that we were processed in Europe, I also know that we were tagged and required to spend a considerable amount of time somewhere before boarding the train to Michigan. I still have my tag with my drawing on the back. I can find it to see what info was on the front.

      I did check the Ellis Island website, which says, “After 1924, the only people who were detained at Ellis Island were those who had problems with their paperwork, as well as war refugees and displaced persons.” So I’m not yet willing to say that we were held at some other location.

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      1. At 5 years old I remember disembarking from a troop freighter (General Hersey) to the place I had always thought, like you, to have been Ellis Island. I remember we had a meal in an enormous and crowded cafeteria where the sound of clattering dishes was deafening. Not sure how long we were there but in my case don’t think it was more than a day, just until a rep from our sponsored organization picked us up in a station wagon.

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    1. Thanks, Jesse. Fortunately, it’s over for me. But, unfortunately, not for families from Middle Eastern, Far Eastern, African and Central American countries. Which is why we’re having the worst displaced person crisis since World War II. Which is why people like me must speak up.

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