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Mature Content: Reflecting on immigration, looking ahead and behind

Locations: Columns, Opinion Published

By Sue Zislis

Dad’s parents spoke only Yiddish to each other and their children. They listened to us speaking English, smiled, and nodded, but I’m not sure they understood much.

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Grandmom and Grandpop came to this country from Odessa, about 100 years ago. They kept to themselves and felt safe doing business only with folks they easily understood. Dad quit school early to help them operate a small grocery. By the time I was born, Dad was a mailman. On his days off, he helped his aging folks with decision-making in a culture that didn’t seem like a good fit for them.

They never talked about the “Old Country”. Even as a kid, I understood that the circumstances of their immigration must have been horrific.  I had no idea about the extent of sacrifices dad and his parents made.

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Mom’s parents immigrated from Kyiv. There, PopPop learned a few languages and became a translator for some prominent people. The PopPop and MomMom I knew wouldn’t discuss the circumstances of their immigration either. Although escape to the U.S. was dangerous, costly, and unpredictable, they fled Ukraine when it became clear their lives were in danger there.

Settled in Philadelphia, MomMom worked as a seamstress and baked amazing strudels to sell.  PopPop became a roofer. He was a confident guy who made friends easily and learned to speak perfect English. I remember them sitting at the kitchen table, writing down phrases they heard and reading them back to each other, over and over. PopPop organized a mutual aid society with a mission to help other immigrants learn English and make connections within the American community.

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My mother, their oldest child, turned down a scholarship to take a typist job and helped put her brothers through college. I was naive about the sacrifices she and her parents made.

Many years after my grandparents and parents died, after my brothers and I had each completed professional school, had rewarding careers and raised our families, I was living along the southern border. There, immigrants experienced extreme barriers, imposed regardless of personal circumstances. I met families who had endured unspeakable perils to arrive in the U.S., but were still stuck in day-to-day survival mode with little hope for relief. The climate there was HOT and remarkably unwelcoming.

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Moving to Carbondale, I found the climate cooler, and abundantly more welcoming. By welcoming, I mean that this Valley has a culture of compassion and an attitude that inclusivity and diversity benefit all of us. People immigrating to our Valley can find support to learn self-reliance, to pursue their dreams and contribute to this fabulous community.

Here, I signed up to tutor for English In Action, a major player in the Valley’s welcoming committee. My task is to help my student, Norma, gain the confidence to use the English she already knows and to learn more English to advocate for herself and her family. No matter how many jobs she has that day, or how worn out she is, she makes the effort and time to meet with me.

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I have developed a deep respect for the sacrifices she makes for her family. I especially enjoy Norma sharing news of her children’s accomplishments. In my humble opinion, these kids are well on their way to becoming assets in whatever community they choose. Week after week, I thought about my parents and grandparents as I walked home from our sessions.

As I said, I was a clueless young thing back then. I saw my exhausted parents and grandparents. I overheard bits of whispered conversations about brutality in the Old Country, the negative impacts of miscommunication once they were here, and the dilemma when it came to balancing “becoming an American” and carrying on the culture of their origins. But, I didn’t put the pieces together to see the big picture.

Meeting Norma has encouraged me to do research and reflect on the courage and foresight of refugees in my own family, and the sacrifices they made for me all of those years ago. The pieces are now coming together with new clarity. My experiences near the southern border gave me a perspective on barriers that complicate the journey for modern immigrants. These barriers may be more extreme or less extreme, or simply different than those my family encountered, but they are real and gut wrenching for some. 

Inspired by Norma’s courage and her ever-growing confidence and skill to communicate in English, I support English In Action to honor my PopPop, who started that mutual aid society many years ago. How phenomenal it would be if he could witness the stunning long-term consequences of sacrifices made for his family’s future and for other immigrants he helped.

Perhaps the next best thing is for me to use my new appreciation of my heritage to encourage folks like Norma. With a little help, perhaps they can foresee a bright future for their families, with clear communication as a key to resilience.

Mature Content is a monthly feature from Age-Friendly Carbondale. This article contains excerpts from Sue’s presentation for English In Action’s summer benefit.

Tags: #English in Action #Heritage #immigration #Mature Content
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