This morning, a Syrian refugee family is arriving here, in Oakville, Ontario, thanks to an unlikely alliance between a United church, my reform Jewish synagogue, and a local mosque. Through this coalition, money has been raised, furniture donated, and a volunteer team of people is ready to offer hands-on support. One generous Oakville family is even opening their home to the refugees until a permanent place is ready.
This could take a while. A volunteer who has been searching for appropriate accommodations (which cannot go over $1,500 a month), is finding the search to be problematic. Not because rental units are unavailable, but because as soon as landlords hear “Syrian refugees,” they refuse to consider them as potential occupants. One board of directors went so far as to revise their by-laws to avoid the possibility of housing these refugees, stating that no more than two children can sleep in the same bedroom. It’s a direct response to this particular family, who, because of their limited budget for rent, would have no choice but to exceed this limit.
These narrow-minded property owners, like Donald Trump supporters who laud his rants for closing U.S. borders to Muslims, obviously have no idea what it’s like to be forced to move thousands of miles from your home and culture. No clue about the difficulties of assimilating, learning a new language, starting with nothing except bad memories. Having to ask for help. These anti-Syrian, anti-Muslim supporters come from all walks of life, with varying amounts of education and money, but they have one thing in common—illiteracy. They don’t know the first thing about being a refugee or, for that matter, the Muslim faith. They’re as ignorant as people who can’t read, illiterates who condemn without knowledge, without basic facts.
Ignorance fuelled the anti-Semitic pogroms (massacres) from which my grandmother’s family fled in Russia, ignorance fuelled the Holocaust, and ignorance fuelled the prejudiced Canadians and Americans who turned European Jewish refugees away right before WWII began. My maternal grandmother was a Russian-Jewish refugee in Shanghai, but when she arrived in Canada just before WWII, she hid her Judaism and never returned to her culture and faith. (Signs posted all over Montreal, stating: “No blacks, No Dogs, No Jews,” surely did not encourage her to expose her religion.)
When I began research for my third book, where the Russian-Jewish characters are refugees in California, I wished I’d been able to talk to my grandmother about her journey. I would have asked her about the biggest challenges, what she missed about Russia, what she liked best in Canada. But she died when I was twelve, taking her secrets to her grave. So I turned to books, fiction and non-fiction, about refugees, books which broadened my scope beyond my own comfortable world, opened my eyes to the stark reality of being different in a place where acceptance is scarce. Helped me get inside the heads of my characters. And the best book, in my humble opinion, for understanding the courage it takes to live as an exile, is Mary Antin’s true account as a Russian Jewish girl in 1894 Boston— The Promised Land.
“The most ignorant immigrant, on landing,” writes Antin, “proceeds to give and receive greetings, to eat, sleep, and rise, after the manner of his own country; wherein he is corrected, admonished, and laughed at, whether by interested friends or the most indifferent strangers; and his American experience is thus begun.
To Mary, Boston was the “Promised Land,” a place where only good things, like prosperity, were bound to happen. Yet they’d fled Russia because of religious persecution, not because of poverty. In fact, like many Syrians arriving in North America today, the Antin family left affluent lives, “upholstered parlors, embroidered linen, silver spoons and candlesticks, goblets of gold, kitchen shelves shining with copper and brass,” in exchange for “lean mattresses; a few wooden chairs; a table or two; a mysterious iron structure, which later turned out to be a stove; a couple of ornamental kerosene lamps; and a scanty array of cooking-utensils and crockery.”
Though free of the violent anti-Semitic pogroms (massacres) that plagued Russia, the Antins and thousands of others like them, were restricted by poverty and language barriers. To gain acceptance, Antin writes that, “With our despised immigrant clothing we shed also our impossible Hebrew names.”
For Mary’s father, “free education” in America was the biggest reason for coming, “his chief hope for his children, the essence of American opportunity, the treasure that no thief could touch, not even misfortune or poverty.” Back in Russia, Jews were rarely allowed to attend high school, girls practically never, and there was a steep cost for boys. Education was the key to success for people of all religions and color in 1894, just as it is important today. Even though Mary Antin lived in a poor section of Boston, with other poor immigrants, the good education she received helped her overcome many obstacles.
In reading Antin’s stories about learning English, how “I could not give the sound of w; I said “vater” every time,” I understood the difficulty with pronunciation, and the later thrill of being able to sing the national anthem in a new language. Then there was Antin’s struggle to make sense of where she’d come from, a struggle that will surely arise with today’s Syrian refugees: “Where had been my country until now? What flag had I loved? What heroes had I worshipped? The very names of these things had been unknown to me.”
This feeling of not belonging anywhere, of not knowing the definition of, “my country,” struck me as the core of the immigrant experience. Instead of proudly raising the Russian flag, “of loving their flag the way Americans do, it became the emblem of our latter-day bondage in our eyes. Even a child would know to hate the flag that we were forced, on pain of severe penalties, to hoist above our housetops, in celebration of the advent of one of our oppressors.”
Reading Antin’s words made me see how immigration isn’t just about language and customs. It’s about trying to reconcile a turbulent past, to transition by shedding the bad without losing yourself in the process. To retain fundamental beliefs and traditions while adding new ones. And seeing the immigrant experience through Antin’s eyes helped me understand my grandmother, how difficult it must have been to discard a fundamental part of herself, to feel Canadian without being able to disclose her faith. To know her family’s Judaism ended with her.
My grandmother would be amazed today, seeing an inter-faith coalition, including a synagogue, bringing a refugee family to Canada. I think she’d be pleased, seeing her adoptive country welcoming Syrians, but she’d also be glad she never showed her true colors, knowing that intolerance for refugees still prevails today, eighty years after she arrived.