We All Come from Somewhere
This post is inspired by my time at the Tenement Museum.
We all come from somewhere.
This thought has filled my mind for weeks, months, years. We all came from somewhere. We’ll all go somewhere. Maybe physically, maybe emotionally, maybe leaps and bounds in our career. We change, we meet people who inspire us, we go through times of unimaginable horror and (mostly) make it out the other side. We all come from somewhere and that shapes where we go.
A few days ago, I stood in a building of living history and filled my mind with other peoples’ stories for hours. I heard of Irish immigrants to Five Points, then on to the Lower East Side of New York City back in 1863. I became the family whose children died of diseases now entirely preventable through clean water and sewerage lines. I found myself enraged at the people who fought these changes, these public expenses that now seem so logical but must have seemed a mammoth task nearly 150 years ago.
I cried for the 16 year old woman who sailed from Italy to Ellis Island to be with her husband, only to be turned back again. She sailed once more and entered the country illegally from Canada to be with the man she loved. When news one day arrived of her ill parents in Italy, she couldn’t travel back to say goodbye because she had no official papers and would never have been able to return to her young family. For a few moments, I suffered with her. Two worlds to which she equally belonged, tearing her apart as she tried to straddle the cultural, social and geographical distances separating her new world from the old. My new friend, my long lost soul, made it New York to live the American dream, raising young children in a small apartment in Kleindeuscheland (little Germany) where she understood little if any of the language. She struggled to find the ingredients she would have used for life in her old country. She spoke little of the local language and had to translate through her children. All the while, people around her were getting sick, money was always tight and that dream sometimes seemed to be slipping out of her fingers. And, when something went wrong, there was no way to contact her parents for emotional support or advice on how to take care of a sick child. She was young and all on her own.
It’s easy to forget, several generations on, that this story is not so far removed from so many of our ancestors. My own great-, great-great- and great-great-great-grandparents made harrowing journeys from their homelands to greener pastures to live in the New World. In a few generations, the stock from which I’ve come have gone from farmers, blacksmiths, peasants and gypsies to tight-knit communities of new settlers to the intrepid generation to which my parents and I belong.
It’s easy to forget that many of us were “boat-people” once upon a time. When my ancestors travelled to their new homes, there was little alternative to a long voyage on a boat. A voyage often filled with spreading illnesses and, rarely, happy omens like the birth of my great grandmother on her parents’ journey across ferocious seas. The fear of my great-great grandmother being heavily pregnant on a ship with, likely, scarce resources is almost unimaginable. Born only shortly after Germ Theory was established, it was likely that many hygiene practices were yet to be implemented. Back then, everything carried incredible risks.
It is with pride that I imagine my ancestors living hand-to-mouth to make their dreams of a better life come true. It is with honour that I remember their stories. And with so many of my compatriots with similar stories, it makes me wonder why we have lost this respect for new immigrants that we can extol for our predecessors.
It makes me wonder why we become so nationalistic at the expense of all other peoples. Afterall, we all come from somewhere. To those people in the world who can trace their history to their land back generation upon generation, I envy your connection to a physical and spiritual place in this ever-changing world. Those who have in generations gone by travelled from far away lands, remember the struggle to fit in, make life work and give you the opportunities you have today.
It is this journey that means we should, often, forget about borders. It is for these reasons we provide aid, and should provide the sort that “teaches one to fish” rather than that which only puts a fish on a plate. It is for these reasons that international aid seems little removed from social welfare programs that exist at home. And it is for these reasons that each individual should be considered an equal, regardless of their homeland, their heritage, their first language, their appearance, intellect or ability. Because we all come from somewhere, and somewhere along the line, you would have been in exactly the same boat.