“The migrant is the ‘defining figure of the 20th century,’ so wrote Salman Rushdie some 20 years ago” re-quoted in a recent New York Times Book Review article on the literature of immigration by Paul Sehgal.
The refugee is also the defining figure of the early 21st century—at least politically.
From tragic photos of dead children on beaches to the sheer numbers, we forget that there are refugees from many other countries beside Syria. The UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) states that we are witnessing the highest number since WW II: over 60 million in 2014 alone. To give it some perspective, the population of New York City in that year was 8.4 million.
Refugees, migrants, displaced persons do not leave their homes, their country, their lives that they could have had in those familiar places. They leave because—for whatever reason—they think they will at least be able to survive elsewhere. Today war and violence are the main reasons for leaving.
Syrian refugees escaping from war. Photo courtesy of the UNHCR.
If you know your family’s stories, why did your ancestors, your parents, or you leave your homeland to come to the United States? Because all of us in this country are or are descendants of migrants and refugees, unless you’re full-blooded Native American, although they migrated also, but so long ago we don’t count them as ‘immigrants’ today. As Gary Paul Nabhan wrote in his book, “Cultures of Habitat,” “Somehow, we each need to reckon with the legacy of our ancestry, and remember the many ways we are also enriched by contact with others from completely different backgrounds.”
There is a variety of beautiful writing about the reality of immigration. For example: “When we got to America we took our dreams, looked at them tenderly as if they were newly born children and put them away,” by NoViolet Bulawayo in her book “We Need New Names.”
The next time you are in a cab driven by someone you think of as a “foreign” person, ask what thy did before they came to this country. Nine times out of ten they will have been a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, a businessperson. They weren’t a cab driver (not that there is anything wrong with being a cab driver—thank heavens there are so many in NYC).
New York taxis.
We all loose dreams during our lives, but refugees and immigrants loose so much more. They deserve our compassion and understanding from those of us who have rebuilt our dreams over generations.