I am an immigrant too ~ Ben

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. 

33 thoughts on “I am an immigrant too ~ Ben

  1. Liesbet

    “Be it because I am Sagittarius, I always saw travel as my natural state and the globe as my home base.” Hey, that’s me! 🙂 I had no idea that the Japanese were racists. Once again, a great expression and interpretation of what is going on in this country and the world, Ben.

    Thanks for the insights in your personal life. History does seem to repeat itself, when the wrong people are in power. Ever since Trump has been elected, I have said to Mark the same thing: he doesn’t worry me as much as all the people that voted him in power! That is now the climate we have to live in in the US – It better ends soon! We don’t really want to have to escape, just like Peta did in SA.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Lisbet, (fellow Sagittarius), the wonderful thing about having at least some modicum of knowledge of history is that history provides repeated and multiple narratives about narcissistic despots. While he may have not fully blossomed to his full dictatorial potential (it’s early days yet…) it takes little effort to recognize the dangers associated with the political ascent of such a personality. But it also takes little effort to get comfort from the historical track record of despots ultimately imploding. I have faith that a resistance 2.0 especially in the world of constant communication, can be ultimately be successful. But in the meantime we are just at the beginning of a dismantling of the political system in place in the U.S.

      Ben

  2. Peggy Bright

    My heart sinks when I hear of racism and immigrant bashing happening anywhere in the world. As you say ‘it doesn’t end well’. Fascinating to learn about your enriched background.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Peggy it is hard to tell yet what part of the Trump experiment will result in his being ejected and what crimes he will commit between now and then. His motus operanti is to drown out the torrent of noise. The only thing that needs to be addressed now, is the Russian dimension. Nothing else matters. This is the cruz of the challenge to American democracy.

      Ben

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Anabel. But to use a bit of Jewish gallows humor, at least its not as bad as it’s going to be. This is just the beginning.
      Sorry for the sobering reality.

      Ben

  3. Shari Pratt

    As usual, Ben, brilliantly insightful. My great-grandparents and grandparents were all born in Russia – Poland, the same region, depending on which army was in control. I know very little about any of them, unfortunately, and likely will never know details.

    Have you read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance? Describes the fly-over heartland, specifically Appalachia where he’s from, and the sickness at the center of this country. Poorly educated, unemployed, drug addicted, impoverished, clannish, violent, far right wing, and certain that God is on their side. And many of them voted, with no more information than what they got from Trump’s tweets. Really frightening.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Sharon.

      I have not read Hillbilly Elegy, but Peta worked in Southern Kentucky while she was in graduate school in Cincinnati and so she was immersed into this particular population. It is what you describe. Wouldn’t it be great if twitter cancelled his account?

      B

      1. Shari Pratt

        Wouldn’t it be great if the Republicans paid attention to the values they supposedly espouse and cancelled his extreme behavior with something responsible? He is not only so completely unqualified, he doesn’t represent the Repubs either, except for the extreme lunatics. This country is being held hostage by Pa Stubbls with his shotgun, his whiskey, his Bible, his Oxycontin – and his right to vote.

  4. Gili Rosenberg

    I have to agree: the real problem is not Trump, it is the fact that almost 50% of the voters voted for him and (based on polls) continue to support him.

    As for the meeting between Netanyahu and Trump, this statement from Trump was priceless, as was Netanyahu’s spontaneous laughter:
    “So I’m looking at two states and one state. And I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one. I thought for a while that two states looked like it may be the easier of the two. To be honest, if Bibi and the Palestinians, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy – I’m happy with the one they like the best.”

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Gili, we are both still laughing at this ridiculous lack of substance, knowledge, gravitas on a subject that has occupied center stage in international diplomacy for forty years! He is so vacuous, it is pathetic. Embarrasing and scary at the same time.

      Ben

  5. Sue Slaght

    Thank you so much for sharing your personal experiences in this mind boggling time. As a Canadian I sit wide eyed and open mouthed and wonder if soon I shall wake up and this was all some incredible dream. Or nightmare.

    Such a good point about expat vs immigrant.Considering unless one is of indigenous background in America, weren’t we all immigrants? What has happened to tolerance?

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Sue, I just checked my Russian language dictionary and there is NO translation for “tolerance”. Sorry, the U.S. apparently won’t be using that word anymore.

      I hope your prime minister has the political longevity to provide continued thoughtful, liberal leadership.

      Ben

  6. Anita @ No Particular Place To Go

    Thanks for sharing your beautifully written story, Ben.

    As a US expat and newly welcomed resident of Portugal, I’ve learned what a privilege it is to travel the world with a US passport and be welcomed almost everywhere. It’s so incredibly disheartening that my country cannot extend that welcome to those who desperately need it as well as ensure that it’s own citizens have equal access to basic human rights: healthcare, decent housing, clean water and nutritious food, education, safety and justice. If there’s anything positive to be said about DT, it’s that his election has been a massive wake up call to those who value democracy. To use your analogy, this movie has been seen before. Hopefully, the numbers continue to grow of people who will take those lessons learned and reverse the rising tide of hatred.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Anita, thank you for the compliment on my personal story.

      “If there is anything positive”… This is an interesting cultural bias of searching for that silver lining. My current bias, is more akin to that soulful Portuguese Fado music with its melancholic notes. I fear a dark cloud has taken position over the United States.

      Ben

  7. Rachel Heller

    Very interesting to read your thoughts, which express so well what I’ve been thinking. Trump’s son-in-law may be Jewish, but anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head again. The racists who are feeling like it’s safe these days to express their racism are also anti-Semites. The two are expressions of the same general fear of difference. I’ve given up my US citizenship, but my family history is very similar to yours. Here in the Netherlands, similar right-wing tendencies are showing up as well. It might be time to get that Israeli passport …

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Rachel. Well said! I am afraid that Holland is the next domino to fall. The spate of anti-semitic imagery seems to be spreading now nationwide with some 46 Jewish centers reporting recent vandalism or threats.

      Ben

  8. Gilda Baxter

    Ben, what a fascinating background you have. Thank you for sharing with us.

    Your feelings and worries are the same as mine and you expressed it perfectly with this post. I am also from a very mix background and very proud of it. Brexit and Trump election have been a disaster for us all who believe in being global citizens. Scary times ahead if men like Trump are allowed to be our leaders.

  9. Nicole Melancon

    Just read Peta’s post now yours. I love to hear these stories. I agree that we are living now in a very frightening world and it is a disgrace. My only saving grace is that today’s children including mine are so much more loving, tolerant and open-minded. In Minnesota where we live, we have the largest population of Somalis outside of Somalia and our MN Senators have made me proud. We have fought hard and will continue to fight for our Muslim friends. Trump is a horrific disgrace but what terrifies me more is the millions who voted for him. My only hope is he is out of power before he truly ruins all the wonderful things about our country.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Well said Nicole. I did not know about the cluster of Somalia refugees in Minnesota. Well done Minnesota! There have been some really sad stories about Somalian refugees who had finally acquired the paperwork to enter the U.S. and were turned back at the border by immigration.

      Trump has already demonstrated that congress will not play the role of checks and balances even when it is blatantly obvious that there is a direct attack on the institutions of democracy. 2017 will be remembered as the beginning of the end of the American experiment in democracy.

      Ben

  10. Pamela

    I’ve read this entire post with tears streaming down my face. So well-written, factual, yet personal, about a family who has endured so much, yet moved on, over and around the world with grace, intelligence, insight, and love. I’m a Pisces, and now wishing I was a Sagittarius. Ha ha. (Personally, I think the wander lust is in your genes, and the world is thankful for that.).
    I understand there are still some Cabinet offices still open – my dream would be that you got in there.
    My first reflex is to say “NO! America is not a racist country – it’s only our president and his ilk.” Unfortunately, there are way too many of his ilk. May the rest of us make sure that history does not repeat itself.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Tears streaming? sorry about that Pamela… not sure that’s a good strategy to keep one’s readers coming back for more!

      Cabinet office – uh, no! I’ll think I’ll pass…

      The only way for history not to repeat itself, would be for Americans to actually value history for its lessons, but alas this is not in the cultural profile… Perhaps if there was a parallel with a sports team that killed the game for all, by having one team consistently lie/fight/obviate the rules… but as I am not a sports aficionado, I can’t think of a parallel case.

      So knowing something about the history of past dictatorships would be indeed a good place to start, to have a populace able to have an early warning of upcoming storms.

      But without this historical set of patterns, then all forecasting of where this first month in office is leading, is just that… one person’s forecasting of un-predictable events.

      On the other hand, with a sense of what Europe looked like in the 1930s, the early signs of conditions that are ripe for a dictatorship to blossom are rather clearly perceivable… From a steady flow of attacks on the media, ridiculing and challenging the authority of the judicial system, developing a cast of yes-men around a fickle, temperamental, narcissistic leader…. It’s all there, really…

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments.
      Ben

  11. Johanna Bradley

    I don’t have your vast experience, Ben, but it’s still pretty obvious that what’s happening in the States is wrong. Some of our parents experienced terrible times. The world doesn’t seem to me to have made much progress.

    1. ben Sandzer-Bell

      Well, this is the interesting thing that is emerging from our travels – the world does in fact make significant progress, and at considerable speed.

      We see this in terms of evolving awareness about climate change (and the need to do something about it), or in terms of(slowly) evolving attitude toward women’s rights.

      But, occasionally, one country decides to take a major step backwards. We saw this before when Iran opted to do a 180degree turn from being a science-based, modernist to a theocracy based on a return to “traditional values”.

      And, though most Americans might recoil at the comparison, we have a science-based, facts matter “liberal” post Obama majority population, being yanked back to an America characterized by less inclusive, more racist, climate deniers with a strong isolationist bent. No matter what happens going forward, damage has been done. So it’s not that the world doesn’t make progress, it’s that a very large chunk of the US population is choosing the option chosen by Iran – putting a theocracy in place, with express instructions to blow up the existing governing infrastructure.

      As the US takes a step back, the rest of the world will continue to go forward, and the era of America’s global leadership will recede into the sunset. The Chinese flag will ineroxably replace the US flag in the world’s capitals. The world shakes its collective head in disbelief (except for Russia of course), wondering what happened to America.

      A bloodless coup, orchestrated by a hostile foreign power, has been initiated, and the ruling party, the Republicans, choose to delay and limit the scope of investigations. If ever there was a case of Country over Party (or as the Republicans, except Senators McCain and Graham, believe “Party over Country”), this would be it.

      The silence on the Russia influence play is… deafening…

  12. Otto von Munchow

    A very timely post. It’s sad and it’s terrible that so much hatred is directed to immigrants and refugees in all over the world. Thanks for sharing your background and story, Ben.

  13. Joanne Sisco

    Thanks for sharing such an interesting story, Ben. It’s reinforced the feeling that we HAVE seen this movie before, and as you stated, it doesn’t end well.

    This is a frightening time. This contagion of intolerance is spreading because it validates the beliefs of all the racists, homophobes, and outright crazies. They are becoming more emboldened and that is truly frightening.

    I’m very sad to see the rhetoric is gaining momentum now in Canada, including attacks on the mainstream media for spreading ‘false news’.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Joanne for reading and commenting. Sorry to hear the racist wave is spreading North. This “false news” thing is SO infuriating. As an avid reader of newspapers, I value the rich analysis found in the New York Times, and to see a President so relishing the process of demolishing the credibility of an independent news media is more than disheartening. In a single administration, ney, in a mere 6 weeks, Trump has, under with the acquiescence of a silent Republican Congress, managed to destroy any shred of authority and credibility for future US diplomats hoping to take a high road and laud the merits of democracy. The impact will be far reaching, global and lasting. Democracy itself is in the balance, and once the US Domino falls…

  14. LuAnn

    Thank you for sharing your story of struggle and hope Ben. I fear so much of what I am seeing in this new administration. I believe that Steve Bannon and Jeff Sessions, our new Attorney General, chose Trump to get their authoritarian message out. Trump isn’t smart enough to construct all of this himself, but he could easily see himself as the dictator, given his narcissistic nature. I am very apprehensive about our way forward. As each day passes my mind moves towards making a life outside the US.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks for reading and commenting, LuAnn.

      I share your assessment of Steve Bannon as a Karl Rove type mastermind, but not Sessions. Sure, he is part of a cast of evil-ish characters, but I think it would be unwise to think of Trump as a George Bush (43) type puppet, chosen to merely front a movement.

      I do believe Trump has the wherewithal to drive his no-agenda agenda. His absolute lack of policy substance or even interest is less a reflection of being a puppet, and more of a reflection of what some psychiatrists have described as “malignant narcissism”. Basically, he wants power, or more accurately, recognition of his power.

      I believe history books will be written precisely, no matter where things go in terms of the substance of his term, as a man (little boy?) craven for approval and that he will subjugate US Democracy, if we let him, to his quest for that position of unrivaled dominance.

      What is terrifying to me is not merely the single man’s apparent desire for that dominance, rather, it is the stomach churning willingness of the Republican party to dynamite every bit of policy substance they have stood for, for decades, in the interest of that sliver of political power.

      Hypocrisy does not even begin to tell the tale of the prostitution we are witnessing.

      – The party that huffed and puffed about the sanctity of the Constitution for decades, say for instance re the 2nd amendment, has zero problem torpedoing the 1st amendment.
      – The party that hyper ventilated and lectured the Democrats for decades about the sanctity of free trade as a signature priority in the construction and expansion of a post WWii global order led by the U.S., has zero problems instantly adopting policies that are protectionist and fly in the face of a free trade policy.
      – The party that has demonized Russia as an expansionist evil twin of the US in a bi-polar world, seems apparently shocked, just SHOCKED, that Democrats would dare to question the basis for Trump’s surprising bromance with Vladimir Putin.

      The fact that what seems like the entirety of Trumpdom is Russian influenced, or at the very least Russia-sympathetic, even in the face of demonstrated Russian interference in US elections (Paul Manaford as a senior campaign strategist, who worked for years as a Russia-paid lobbyist to topple Europe-leaning Ukraine; Roger Stone who made a fortune with Russian oligarchs, Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State who is demonstrably pivotal in removing US Sanctions that would allow the company he led for years to re-open a $500 Billion oil exploration JV with Russia (and no doubt stands to make a hefty commission measured in the Billions of $, General Flynn who as a top intelligence officer was paid expressly by Russia at a time when Trump started to reshape US policy by advocating a rapprochement with Russia (Crimea invasion? meh!), Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General who LIES under oath to Congress about prior contacts with Russia’s Ambassador… the list goes on).

      How it is possible for this confluence of Russia sympathizers to be able to waltz through the appearance of some very nefarious shit, with the entire Republican establishment, save for a lonesome couple of two senators – McCain and Graham, shrugging and not that enthusiastic about even investigating the matter is way past pathetic.

      It is clear evidence that it’s all a big game. Some have even said a Russian-manipulated Republican Administration is still better than a Hillary- led Administration.

      History books, if they are allowed to be published, will remember 2017 as the implosion of US Democracy. R.I.P.

      Ben

  15. Jeff Bell

    I don’t even know where to start with this comment. First off, great post. Your family history is both heartbreaking and fascinating.

    Your description of racism and bigotry as a national illness is spot on. I have a lot of family members, all who are middle to upper middle class, who have said racist things or posted bigoted things on Facebook in the last couple of years. There seems to be a feeling that they are getting screwed over by immigrants, when in fact they have benefited from free trade and the cheap labor. Trump made it okay to hate and you are right, this isn’t going away soon.

    There are about 250 million people in the world who are living in a country in which they were not born, which is pretty incredible. That group of people would be the 4th largest country on Earth. I have always viewed immigration as a human right, especially if you are fleeing a war zone.

    Thanks for sharing you story.