Now We Are 50: One Family’s Scrapbook of Immigration and Hope

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The writer and her parents.

Just over a week ago, my mother and I sat on the floor in my rec room in front of a closet full of books and games and toys. The closet isn’t opened much these days as the children who used to play with its contents are long past bingo and model cars. We were gathering things for the refugee families at the center where my parents are volunteering. They’re going a couple of times a week to teach English to a group of recent immigrants from all corners of the globe. My mother discovered, on a recent visit, great success with children’s picture books.

The refugee center is happy to have them help. My father is a linguist and has studied nearly a dozen languages over the years, including Spanish, Russian and Arabic. My mother is suited to the task as well with more than fifty years’ experience as a language teacher. And because she is an immigrant herself.

Her story, unlike that of many of the people in the center, is not one of hardship. She has been in the United States a long time. Her husband is American, her children and eight grandchildren are American. She is American, too, now. But her accent is still pronounced. You would not, if you met her, mistake her for native-born. 

My mother came to the U.S. for the same reasons so many people do. To explore opportunities, to build a career. Because she was curious about the world. At a particular moment in time when she could make a change, the chance was handed to her – an opening for a language teacher at a high school in Pennsylvania. She boarded a ship bound for the U.S. on very short notice, learning that she had passed her graduate exams via a telegram received at sea. On the journey, she was seasick and nervous, but once recovered, had the time of her life with fellow passengers looking to adventure and the future.

She arrived, like hundreds of thousands before her, through New York Harbor. The city was an exciting universe of lights and action; the town in the heart of Pennsylvania where she would teach more like a remote planet. But just as many immigrants before her, she adapted and thrived, joining clubs and taking trips. In one such organization, she met my father, a young engineer just finishing his stint in the army reserves. He will tell you he fell in love at first sight. My mother took a bit of wooing. But eventually, she did too.

They got engaged. And then my mother’s visa expired, and she had to leave the country. Immigration laws kept them apart as she applied for permission to return. In their respective towns across the Atlantic, my parents’ story made headlines. My brother and I loved to hear the tale as kids and thumb through the family scrapbook looking at the yellowing clips in two languages: “Young Couple Separated by Red Tape.”

They were married abroad in a small ceremony and returned to Pennsylvania to begin a family. Some days, as my mother acclimated, the town felt again like that remote planet. She developed a network of friends who were also immigrants, a pattern that continues to this day.

On the same weekend we collected books, we visited DC for a family event. As my parents and I walked along Embassy Row, they told me about one of their first “dates,” a trip to the capital together. We talked about the tenor there now and our new president. I told them about marching, just the week before, in a sea of pink hats and placards. It was my first experience at a political protest. “You haven’t had to fight,” my mother remarked. In her country, people are always in the streets. On this day, Dupont Circle was quiet. Bright flags fluttered against a blue sky. We were enjoying a respite, temporarily unplugged from the world, as a travel ban was implemented.

Upon our return to Baltimore, we turned on the television and watched the coverage of events, of protests at airports across the U.S.  My heart aches for the children, and for the elderly. For the parents caught between them, caught between places. For dreams deferred and denied. For the peril many will face.

I think back to travel abroad with my mother as a child, my brother and I getting in one line to go through customs, my mother in another. Never did we fear we wouldn’t be reunited on the other side of the swinging doors with my father who waited for us.

I think of my grandmother, anticipating our summer visits, and to the enriching experience of reaching across different cultures and languages to learn from each other year after year. I think of my parents’ circle of friends, the many places and customs they represent and embrace.

I think to my mother, an only child, making frequent trips as my grandmother’s health failed, constantly worrying about getting there enough, or in time, but not having to worry about if she could even go, or return.

We paced as we watched the news of the travel ban.  I felt a little as if, as marchers, we had poked the hornet’s nest and the world was feeling the stings. This action seemed to me to be particularly aggressive and fundamentally un-American. But my mother, as angry as she was, was also energized. “I’m proud of the Americans,” she declared. “They’re protesting. They’re fighting.”

The next day, as we selected things for her to take to the families at the refugee center, we reminisced. “I could never beat your daughter at this game,” she said, thumbing through the worn cards of Memory. “Why did I buy so many stuffed animals?” I asked, putting them in a bag for the kids at the center. “We must have read this hundreds of times,” we laughed at a particular favorite fairy tale.

“Are you sure you don’t want to keep these things?” my mother asked. I gestured at the closet, full of toys and books. But also full of good fortune and good memories. That’s what I really would like to give. What I’d like our country to continue to offer and represent. Scrapbooks with a multitude of rich and diverse family stories. Happy endings. Acceptance. Opportunity. Sanctuary. But those are more difficult to bestow than hand-me-down toys. Those things we have to fight for, and will. 

“I’m sure,” I said.

Christine Kouwenhoven

Christine Kouwenhoven is a local freelance writer.She writes the column "Now We Are 50" every second Tuesday in the Baltimore Fishbowl.

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