The eruption of overt expression of anti-immigrant feelings that the new US President has heralded is inviting some of us to reckon with our own distinct immigrant stories.
For all of my life, I have thought of myself as a “globalist”, i.e. born here, schooled there, working in multiple countries, travelling in yet another set of countries. And of course, there is the Jewish ancestry, which is nothing but a multi-generational immigrant story, no matter how far back you go.
Jewish immigrant lineage
To root my personal story on just a couple of generations back, I should set the stage.
My father was born in Warsaw, Poland, went to school in Belgium, settled in France, but when World War II broke, escaped to Brazil, only to return to France for most of his life, until he emigrated years later to the U.S. He spoke multiple languages (French, English, Polish, Portuguese, and possibly Russian).
His own parents hailed from both Russia and Poland, escaping these highly anti-semitic countries during an era when pogroms (the wanton violence against Jews practiced by Russian equivalent of US rednecks), were the rage, and of course this was 30 years before WWII.
My mother was born in France, but of Polish extraction, with her parents having faced similar immigrant stories, settling in France between WWI and WWII. She experienced the holocaust first hand as an 8 year old. Most of my maternal grandparents’ family members were killed in the camps. My grandfather was captured in France, after narrowly escaping nazis many times, by a unit that sent him to prison in Italy.
There were stories that my grandmother, always reluctant to revisit the past, told in her thick Polish accent, in French, about having to sleep her way through the ranks of the prison guards until her husband was finally released.
So on my grand parents side, that would be all four as East European jews as immigrants to France and both parents as immigrants to the U.S.
My own immigration story
I was born in France, but when my mother remarried to an American, I, along with my two sisters, was given a choice: to stay in France, (with our father), or to move to the U.S.
While I didn’t speak any English, at 15, I thought that going to high school in America would be an adventure. With my father’s blessing, I hopped on the immigrant flying carpet to enter high school, in Los Angeles. As a minor whose mother married an American, I soon got a green card, and then in due time became a naturalized US citizen. Easy stuff.
Be it because I am sagittarius, I always saw travel as my natural state and the globe as my home base. In addition, it was my studies, first getting a Bachelors in Political Science at UCLA, and then a Masters from one of the pre-eminent US universities for international studies – Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies ~ that I continued to project my personal life along the lines of US national security studies, which by definition is global.
An immigrant (yet again) in Japan
This was the time when Japan was on the ascendent and there was much grumbling about the demise of American power to the benefit of Japan. I majored in Japanese studies, learned as much as I could of the language, and moved to Nagoya, as an immigrant, to fine tune my language skills. I got my first job in Tokyo, were I lived for 3 years, working for a European Aerospace and Defense company.
I would highly recommend to any caucasians prone to see themselves as somewhat superior to other races, religions or groups, to spend time in Japan and thus to be on the receiving end, of racism. It’s a wonderful cure or vaccination against racism.
While I had pretty decent Japanese language skills at the time, there was no mistaking that I was a second class citizen. There was the perceptible ring of personal space that I would get on the packed trains, a bit reminiscent of Algerians and Tunisians on a Paris metro. There was the look of disdain when I would accidentally speak too loudly, violate some unseen social convention, fail to eat properly etc. These are all of course small issues, but… they were flashes of insights about being an immigrant in a highly homogenous Japanese society.
But the story does not end here.
An immigrant (or expat?) in Nicaragua, Latin America
After working for years in the global defense industry, I chose to take a divergent path and become a social entrepreneur. Peta and I took a leap into the unknown, moved from Chicago to Nicaragua, where we dedicated 6 years of our lives to have environmental impact by launching a bamboo housing company that would benefit victims of hurricanes.
Why is this relevant?
Because, yet again, I became a legal resident of a new country, i.e. an Immigrant. I was not referred to as an immigrant, no, I was now an EXPAT. What the hell is the difference between an EXPAT (typically white, living in the developing world) and an immigrant?
Intolerance of immigrants in America ~ the new “normal”
I am nauseated by the overt racism that plagues America and is now the new normal. To differentiate, and exclude, “immigrants” who have suffered the hell of war-zones and natural disasters, bouncing toward the hope of survival in the U.S, on the basis of the color of their skin, their religion, or their place of birth, is inconsistent with American history and values.
I have spent 30 years as a passionate student of international security issues, both because I am fascinated on an intellectual level, and because I have worked as a strategist in an industry that aligns itself directly with national security matters.
This perspective informs my disgust at the self defeating, racist policies that are now the laws of the land. To confound Islam, i.e. the religion that binds 1.6 Billion people on the planet, with the actions of Jihadist extremists is so fundamentally wrong, and shortsighted.
And, of course that’s only one front of the current racist agenda. This administration is also turning up the volume on anti-hispanic rants and maligning equally legal and illegal immigrants from Mexico, after the country has, for decades, held an explicit, economically-driven agenda to welcome this workforce in order to fuel America’s economy with “cheap labor”.
The majority of Americans did not vote for Trump. But with the electoral college, and with a little help from individuals like the FBI’s Comey, and from outside forces, like Russia, we’ve got a unstable dictatorial figure and racist, surrounded by grade A racists in the white house.
But, I fear, this is not the end of the problem. There are several dozen million Americans who rejoice at what they see. The more immigrant bashing, the happier they get. THAT, is the problem. If it were one man, it would be a (disastrous) 4 year prospect. But it’s not. It is a national illness.
My grandfather saw this anti-immigrant illness in Russia and Poland. My mother experienced anti-semitic fervor as child, in France.. And now, it is my turn to observe a resurgence of overt racism and antisemitism in America.
Yesterday, to coincide with the first meeting between Trump and Israeli PM Netanyahu, some 48 synagogues were the subject of “telephone terrorism” with false claims of impending attacks. While there was no actual lethal attack, the psychological impact on personnel at the Jewish community centers was rattling and reminiscent of a European reality circa 1931.
We’ve seen this movie before. It doesn’t end well.