Immigrants: Yesterday and Today

“The number of malnourished children represents an increase of 72% since international sanctions were imposed on Baghdad.”

THE UNICEF, Nov. 1997

“Embargo should not be imposed on any nation. . . . It is a war against humanity and children suffer the most.”


I am a US citizen. I was once an immigrant. My daughter, who was recently celebrated in the New York media for her rescue/relief efforts at the Twin Towers after 9-11, was born in New York City. She is, on her mother’s side, of immigrant descent. Fortunately, for these times, she has blue eyes and has inherited my family’s and her father’s Germanic traits. I am a Slavo-Italian from the north-east of the Italian peninsula. I do not fit the stereotype of the Mediterranean type (unfortunately). We belong to the professional classes: I am an university professor. We know our rights, can read and write, and know the names of our senators and representatives. Our English is standard. Mine, however, retains a trace of accent–a lingering legacy of my foreignness.

Lately, I have been detecting a change in treatment when I open my mouth in public and my English-English spills out–it’s an English layered with different influences, picked up during my refugee years across Europe. Shop-assistants have begun to talk to me with enforced tolerance, it seems. Some, with barely disguised distrust. Others have spoken v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, ending with an implied “kapish?” A few have acted with smugness at piloting the foreign lady to the cat-food section of their minimum-wage, no-benefits, inhumanely vast emporium of largely disposable and unnecessary trash that passes for goods in the consumer’ world. Still others have asked me if I was familiar with the English alphabet–not to insult me, to be fair, but in case I came from a country that used squiggles instead of the familiar letters that one out of three Americans can barely make out.

At first, I thought, what is wrong? am I wearing something odd? does it make me look crazy? am I not meeting my quota of Americanly -correct diction?

Then it hit me: I am one of those people whom President Bush and Attorney General Ashcroft have warned Americans to be on the alert about, to report on–to put on notice, in other words. I am different, possibly un-American.

Laughable, but there it is: after thirty years lived as an American wife, mother, and teacher, I find that my accent, once considered charming (and certainly nothing that I could do anything about) has now become a source of suspicion. I have considered going about sprinkling my speech with quaint, country expressions like “wadn’ts” and “ain’ts,” but these come out sounding inadvertently parodic, snobbish, and mocking rather than homey and folksy. There’s been a benefit to this market-place discomfort: I have developed agoraphobia–fear of the marketplace. I shop less and save more, which, unfortunately, makes me more, not less, un-American. But, in a nutshell, that’s how the politics of resentment begins. When you are hurt, you love a little less.

When we were immigrants, in New York, we used to send money back to the now extinct Federal republic of Yugoslavia, where our relatives were starving in the 1950’s.We could not send it through the mail. McCarthy-era postal workers were alert to envelopes addressed to Communist countries; they could seize the money–perhaps fine us. We didn’t know enough English to find out.

We entrusted the money to Italian merchant sailors stopping in New York. These sailors would then find a way to get it across the Yugoslav border to our families. We knew that the US government wasn’t keen on dollars being sent to Communist countries. We didn’t mean to be disloyal, but our obligation was to the starving.

We didn’t make much money. I remember sending $25 out of my $160 per month, net pay, to a cousin in Italy to support another cousin’s education in Yugoslavia. Was I aiding the Communist regime–then equivalent to today’s terrorist organizations in the official mind? My cousin eventually left Yugoslavia and made her life in Italy–in part thanks to the aid her relatives provided with immigrant money from New York. So, was I aiding the Communists? Or a loved one?

We didn’t come to the US to enrich ourselves. We came for a chance to earn a living in a country that was free, we thought, of political and religious persecution. We had survived the Nazi horror, the post-war hunger, homelessness, and joblessness and now we asked to live in peace, in the country of our exile. The price for the luxury of economic survival and safety were huge: separation from the cultural safety net of our familiar customs, from our language, our family, our friends; sensory removal of all that was dear to us, the blue dome of the sky, the red roofs, the smells of herbs cooking, the sound of rain on the terrace, the taste of wisteria in bloom, the touch of a grandmother’s loving hand.

We endured marginalization and lived in immigrant communities. We helped each other. The Americans were mostly kind. They allowed us to take the most humble jobs. We had, even then, no benefits. Sometime they gave us a bonus for Christmas. They treated us with benevolent tolerance; they encouraged us to repay them with smiles for their amiable considerations. And we smiled–how we smiled. I smiled every time someone said, meaning to compliment me, “You’re not Italian. You’re tall and blonde, and you don’t have an Italian accent.” I would not then have dared to say, “This is what an Italian looks like.” I smiled, too, when someone said, “Not cold? But, then , you’re a hot-blooded Italian.” If they only knew how thankful we were to America for giving us centrally-heated apartments, those of us who didn’t live in cheaper, cold water flats–us, the hot-blooded Italians from the snowy, Alpine north.

I married an American. I could not have found on the whole globe a more complete and perfect man, in decency and intelligence, which really add up to goodness. And being good, he did not stay long in this world. I was his country and he mine–for, really, if a country is not the place where you are loved, what is a country?

What has prompted these musings? Recently, my local newspaper, ran a front-page news article, reporting that sixteen FBI agents had made a raid on a tiny grocery store in my city, “interviewed” the families, closed their little shop, and fined them for sending money back home to Iraq.

I shivered at imagining the fear of the children–remembering mine when my parents were threatened by men with government guns. It’s a fear that drains away your dignity–in an instant. If your parents have no power to protect themselves, how will you survive? You see, the instinct for survival is so overwhelming in a child that part of the casualty in the development of her personality is the thought for the safety of others. That’s what I mean by loss of dignity.

I wondered, too, what the US State Department really meant when it wrote in 1999 in a report on Iraq that “we will continue our efforts to increase humanitarian relief for the people of Iraq, over the obstruction of the regime.” Were these good intentions buried in the rubble of the towers on 9/11, along with our Bill of Rights, rationality, and solidarity?

“Sanctions are not intended to harm the people of Iraq,” wrote the same report. Had the writers of the report seen even one of the 500,000 Iraqi children who died of malnutrition, dysentery, dehydration, infections of all sorts– little infants, looking like wizened chrones, their heads and bellies swollen, their little limbs as tiny in proportion to their bodies as the legs of flies? Had they seen the faces of parents whose children were dying slowly without pain killers of leukemia?

The Iraqi immigrants in my city were acting in harmony with their humanity. Laws that prohibit the exercise of humanity are immoral. Open up the borders, declare that no one is illegal, remove discrimination against immigrants, and we may become the country we had intended to be.

The writer teaches film and literature at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania.