In the light of the current radical shift in immigration policy in the U.S. under the new administration, it has made me think about my own history as an immigrant myself.
Leaving South Africa’s apartheid behind…
I left my family, my home and my home country South Africa, at age 20. I headed into the unknown, to spend a year in America.
My parents sold my cello which had gained value over the years of sitting in a closet, to pay for my ticket.
I was leaving apartheid behind, which due to my skin being white, had not oppressed me, but I had witnessed oppression and racial hatred. I no longer wanted to live in a country where racism was official policy. I did not want to continue to bear the weight of being witness to the pain I could feel and see in people’s eyes.
I was the first of any of my friends or acquaintances to “escape” apartheid. Years later, a decade later, whites left in fear. I did not leave in fear, I left in pain. I took apartheid very personally from a young age. I never understood it. As a young child I watched it, helpless, shocked and deeply impacted. I was sure there must be another way. I desperately wanted to live in a place where people were treated equally. Where skin color made no difference. I was not proud of my country. i was horrified.
The murder of black activist Stephen Biko was earth shattering to me. I had already made my plans, booked my ticket, but this was the era and the environment I left behind in South Africa.
I had a vision of living and working in many different countries. Of being global. Of being independent and adventurous. I was angry that as a South African I could not use my passport to visit other countries in Africa. I did not particularly want to go to America. After all, this was not a country we studied in school (not that I was a good student, I was not…) but history lessons were focused around South African and European history (with South Africa’s history as a British Colony.) Nor was it a country that had in those days, much cultural following in South Africa.
A family of Jewish immigrants
My grandfather left his family, home and country Lithunania (before 1915 approx.) at age 16. He boarded a ship to South Africa, land of gold and diamonds, in search of a better life. And that is how he came to be an immigrant in South Africa, from Eastern Europe. There was a small population of Jews in South Africa, and most of them had come from Eastern Europe ~ they had got on different boats from the Jews avoiding persecution who got on boats to America. But the timing and the reasons for leaving, were mostly the same.
My maternal grandmother was born in Palestine, which later in 1948 became Israel. She immigrated to South Africa, which is where she met my grandfather.
Coming to America
When my boyfriend got a scholarship to study in America, I wanted to go with him.
“He needs to state his intentions” my parents told me. “State his intentions”? What did that mean?. “If you want to go, then you need to get engaged.” I am not sure why I did not argue this point, being rather inherently irreverent by nature, but I think it was because I didn’t really care what it took… As long as I could leave. And so, we got engaged and he became my fiance (and later my husband and father of my sons.) And I got to leave ~ on a one way ticket.
I was a rather naive and passionate 20 year old. I did not choose America, but on the other hand the country had a “one man one vote” democracy and this was the kind of underlying political philosophy that seemed to be so different to apartheid in South Africa. I understood what it meant to not be able to vote. I wanted to live in a country where people were equal. And that was my starting assumption upon moving to the United States.
I arrived on a tourist visa.
I was in for quite a shock on several different levels.
Most people in our Miami neighborhood did not speak English, they spoke Spanish. We had a postage stamp size studio apartment in little Cuba in Miami Florida, which was cheap housing. It was near Florida International University, (FIU) where we both attended and graduated from.
Soon after my arrival in Miami, extreme racial tension led to the Miami race riots. Violence erupted and chaos ensued after a former marine black officer was beaten to death by white policemen. 500 national guard troops were sent to Miami in an attempt to quell the violence, rioting and chaos which broke out when the cops were acquitted.
I thought I had come to a land of democracy and equal rights. I was in shock! I thought I had left this kind of hatred and racial atrocity behind me in South Africa.
I had a lot of questions. I had a lot to learn.
I hit the library and spent hours reading American History.
How exactly was the U.S. history of slavery and the enduring racism and differential treatment of whites and blacks in America, different from South Africa’s situation? The brutality of treatment by the white police of its black population certainly found a direct parallel with recent history of police treatment of blacks under apartheid in South Africa.
Of course one large difference was that the oppressive rule by the white governing body in South Africa, served to protect the interests of a white minority that represented only 10% of the population. Yes, America had one man one vote, but the oppressive and vile tragic history of slavery and the ensuing blatant racism that I was learning about, was definitely a huge eye opener for me.
Getting a green card ~ the ultimate “prize”
We lived in a building that had about 30 international students other than ourselves, all of them were from Holland. FIU had one of the best Hotel schools in the country apparently. The Dutch students were the only people I could really relate to in those early days. Americans were just way too different . They often did not understand my “Queen’s English” and I was not enthused with the American way of speaking English either. As “outsiders” it was not easy to make friends. But there were the “Dutch guys” thankfully.
The Dutch guys, were obsessed with one thing. Getting their green cards!
When I bought my ticket, the “plan” was “a year in America.” But then the green card fever took over and I started to wonder if I could get one of those. Long story short, none of the Dutch guys got a green card, not one. I however, did manage to get a green card for myself and therefore for my husband as well. We could now stay indefinitely in the United States.
Years later, I applied for the same status for my parents and they got green cards and American passports. (Years later, they applied for my sister and she got hers. And her daughter as well). And as my children were born in the U.S. they too got American passports. I had single-handedly impacted 9 family members becoming American citizens.
Of course I was not a refugee, nor seeking amnesty as so many did then and are still today. It was still no easy task to get a green card and American citizenship. 30 Dutch guys were plenty jealous.
How did I get my green card?: During my days at FIU a professor in the department of Education took a shining to me. Professor Reichbach was instrumental in my getting a green card. He took me “under his wing”.. I think the fact that I was Jewish, as he was, and that he was an unusually caring and kind human being. He helped find me a job as a pre school teacher. (I had graduated from teacher training college in South Africa). And it was this job at a Jewish day school, which was my key to a green card.
The school needed a Hebrew teacher. There was one way to get a green card (amongst others) and that was, if you could fill a need that an American could not, job wise, then you had the ability to apply for a green card.
I had lived in Israel as a child and as such was somewhat bilingual, enough to theoretically be able to teach Hebrew. The school put out an ad seeking a bilingual Hebrew teacher, ie someone with good English skills. Typically their Hebrew teachers were Israeli and had limited English. No one answered the advert. After months and months of lawyer appointments and papers and lines and waiting… after over a year, I eventually got my green card. And years later, I got my American passport.
I have an American passport but I still have a South African accent, drink more tea than coffee, think of myself as South African. and root for South Africa in the World Cup.
I am an immigrant to America. As I read the sad news about stranded refugees suddenly stopped in their tracks by the new administration’s Muslim ban, the stories of broken dreams and upended lives resonate strongly with me. There seems to be pushback from U.S. courts forcing the administration to re cast its poorly planned and horribly executed order. But the general stench of racism that is behind Americas evolving policy vis a vis immigration should make any immigrant and child of immigrants shudder.