I believe that my grandmother, now long dead, would be waving a United States flag wildly in favor of justice and welcome if she were still alive. My mother tells me that my Grandma Olga was a true patriot; no one could say a bad word about her United States of America.
I am her granddaughter, and my American story begins, in large part, with her, my maternal grandmother. Olga Ivanovna was born and raised in Vladivostok, Russia. From what I know of her incredible history, her father was a Czarist during the Russian Revolution. He was killed for his commitment to Czar Nicholas and his family, who were executed in July of 1918 by the Bolsheviks at the command of Vladimir Lenin. My grandmother, along with her mother and sister, then fled Russia due to persecution and threats to their lives. They ended up emigrating to China.
Grandma Olga met my grandfather, a U.S .Naval Officer from Columbus, Ohio, in China in the early 1940’s. They married in Chefoo, China, and eventually moved to Shanghai, where my mother was born, in 1941. My grandfather was then stationed in the Philippines in 1942 (World War II was in full swing). Soon after their arrival, he, my mother and grandmother were captured by the Japanese and imprisoned for three years in Manila at the Santo Tomas Internment Camp. They were liberated by General MacArthur and the U.S. Army in 1945. Many internees, including my mother and her parents, showed signs of severe malnutrition and starvation when they were freed. After the liberation, they traveled to the U.S. via a Naval ship.
And thus begins my mother’s American story. She, a four year old child, and her mother, Olga, stepped onto American shores in California for the first time in 1945. They were offered a welcome when they most needed it. As a grandchild of an immigrant, I am grateful to the United States government for allowing my Russian grandmother into the country following World War II. As the wife of a U.S. Naval officer, she was able to immigrate with little trouble. Sadly, she and my grandfather divorced because he became an alcoholic following the war.
Grandma Olga was desperate to get an education and her nursing degree in order to support herself and my mother. She placed my mother in the care of nuns in St. Rafael, California when my mother was six years old so that she could work and go to school. It is hard to imagine the difficulties that Grandma Olga endured during this time; it must have been an emotional challenge to hand my mother over to the care of nuns, and attending nursing school must have been tough because English was not my grandmother’s first language. Grandma Olga did obtain her nursing degree, and, once my mother graduated from high school, Grandma scrapped together everything she could in order to send my mother to college. This was certainly no easy feat for an immigrant single mother, yet it was my grandmother’s great desire to send her daughter to college. The sacrifices that she made proved to be integral.
My mother’s immigrant story continued when my parents met in 1960 at Ohio University. They married in 1961, and my sister was born in Athens in 1963. My father’s extended family settled in Ohio from Wales, England, and Germany (another American immigrant story, to be sure). After my father’s graduation at the age of 23, my parents moved to Dayton, Ohio, my dad’s hometown. He began his career there as a civil engineer while my mother stayed at home to take care of us kids. I was born in Kettering, a suburb of Dayton, in 1966, and my brother in 1968. All because the United States offered itself to my mother and my grandmother in a time when they needed a welcome.
My Grandma Olga’s hard work and dedication towards helping my mother, and herself, to become educated citizens mirrors that of my students and their own parents. I have been conferencing with refugee and immigrant parents for over ten years; the overwhelming desire of these indomitable souls is to contribute meaningfully to a working society paired with an abiding hope for their children to succeed. Just like any parent, ever. Just like you, just like me, just like my grandmother, Olga.
My students, 98% of whom are refugees, have come to the United States because, like my grandmother, they were persecuted by their governments or because their governments were unstable, leading to unsafe living conditions. Why does my government now question and deny those who desire to come to America based on such situations? Why is my president now capping refugees who enter this nation at 45,000, the lowest number since 1980? Why does my government continue to push a refugee/Muslim ban that is, at its base according to myriad federal judges and courts, inherently racist? I must not stand idly by as such policies affect my refugee students and their families. Not when all they desire is a safe haven, a place of refuge, and a welcome to the United States, a country that, even two years ago, was seen as such a place.
What if my grandmother had been blocked from this safe haven when she wanted to immigrate here in 1945? Where would she have gone, where would she have found welcome? Alas, in 1945, the United States was a nation that said, “Welcome!” Because of that, I am a citizen of this nation. As a citizen, I do not choose to accept our president’s desire to change the face of our country when it is a nation of refugees and immigrants, and has been since its inception. Unlike him, I plan to continue to be a welcomer of refugees, people who enrich our country both economically and culturally.
Refugees and immigrants in dire need of a safe haven, people with the same needs and desires that my Grandma Olga had, should be able to freely arrive on our shores when they meet the strict requirements that our government places on them in order to wave their own American flags. May the rallying cry of liberty and justice, alongside a “Welcome!” from us all, once again become the yardstick by which we measure ourselves as individuals and, indeed, as a nation.