Was Once An Immigrant
June 5, 2002
By Luciana Bohne
"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."
JOHN PAUL II
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 northeast of the Italian peninsula. I do not fit
the stereotype of the Mediterranean type (unfortunately).
We belong to the professional classes: I am a 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 foreigness.
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 "y'all" and "ain't," but these come
out sounding inadvertently parodic, snobbish, and mocking
rather than homey and folksy. There's been a benefit to this
marketplace 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 postwar 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 was
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
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 wizzened 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.
Luciana Bohne teaches film and literature at Edinboro University