Monday, September 30, 2013

What Are You Doing Here?

What would make someone leave his or her home, make a difficult journey, and start all over again in a strange land where he knows no one, has nothing, doesn't know where to go, and doesn't speak the same language?

I know of a man named John who felt that he would be better off moving to America from a country about 4300 miles away. Even though he had apprenticed at a craft-he was a tailor-and knew something about farming, there were not many jobs in his area, and he felt like he had nothing to lose. At age 22, he boarded a ship and came, alone, to the U.S.

I'm not sure how he could afford the ticket; it was very expensive to make the journey. Some people even came on a cargo ship to save money, and in some cases families came one person at a time. That person would get a job and send money home so the next person could join him.

Traveling to the U.S. wasn't much fun. You were likely stuck in the lowest part of the ship...with little ventilation, limited toilets and washing facilities, possibly having to provide your own food, and you get to share your space with a few hundred strangers...
....for six weeks or more. Sign me up, right? 

                                             Super-crowded ship of hopeful immigrants

Once these folks got to America, they took up many jobs that others didn't want, because they needed the money. The pay wasn't great, but it was better than nothing; they worked long hours at physically demanding jobs, such as building roads, as farmhands, working in factories, clearing forests, and also as servants to the wealthy.

Sound familiar?

John was my great-grandfather, and he arrived in May 1854.

You see, there's really not much difference between someone who arrived here about 160 years ago and someone who arrived in 2013.

When you look around you and see someone who looks 'different,' do you wonder how that person came to be an American? Or do you just assume you have nothing in common?

Do you think: What are you doing here?

The recurring reasons are:

Political oppression: Other countries deciding they own their neighbors, for example.

Corruption of leaders/government

Land unsuitable for farming

Not enough land

Poverty: when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose.

Genocide: People within the same country killing each other

Anti-Semitism: As an example, in the 1800s, Russia drove out as many Jewish people as possible; they also would force them to serve in the military for tours of up to 15 years-this was incentive enough for some people to flee to other countries in Europe as well as to the U.S. In the 1930s, Hitler began his campaign of trying to create a perfect race by eliminating Jews and others he thought were undesirable.

Famine: The Potato Famine in the 1850s is a prime example. Potatoes were a major crop in Europe, especially in Ireland. The soil was ideal for growing them, and potatoes were grown and exported to other countries. A form of fungus or disease somehow invaded the crop and spread, making all of them inedible. Thousands of people were starving, not only in Ireland but in other European countries, and even though the British had food supplies stocked up, they would not share with the Irish---another form of genocide.  The 'potato famine' lasted well over 10 years. The Irish had few other choices but to move to the U.S. and Canada.

Religious Oppression: The freedom to practice whatever religion you chose was not an option for some countries, and still is not. Often, the rulers of a country decreed what religion the country was 'supposed' to be and placed taxes on everyone to support that one church.

What is it that the U.S. offers that other countries don't? The most prominent reasons people left their home countries and came here are summed up in the first article of the Bill of Rights: Freedom of Speech, the Press, and Religion:

  • Freedom of the Press: We have the freedom to publish and to read whatever we choose, in many types of media such as newspapers, books, and online, as long as it doesn't infringe on someone else's freedom, that is, libel or spreading malicious information about someone is not permitted; obscene materials are at least restricted if not banned; and any publication that would incite rioting or treason, for example, would be illegal. It is also illegal to publish any form of government information that might risk our national security.
  • Freedom of Religion:  We are free to practice any religion we choose with no persecution.
  • Freedom of Assembly: We can meet with anyone for any reason, as long as it is peaceful. It brings with it the right to criticize our leaders and to hold a demonstration when we disagree with them.
  • Freedom of Speech: We are free to express our opinions, including criticism of our government, without fear of retribution, as long as it is not done to incite violence.
Tianamen Square, 1989: What was happening here?
We enjoy the freedom to travel wherever we want without anyone stopping us and demanding an explanation. In theory, we also  have the right to decent medical care, basic education, and a safe place to live. Most of us can't imagine living somewhere that doesn't at least offer those basics.

The U.S. gives women rights they may not have in another country.

We value education. We have public schools for grades Kindergarten through 12th, and opportunities for people of every income level to go to college. In some countries, if you can't pay for your schooling--from early childhood on--then you aren't going to go to school.

With instruction, newcomers to the U.S. can become citizens of our country, giving them all the rights and protections of everyone else, including the right to vote.

With the exception of those African-Americans brought here as slaves, as well as Native Americans who were already here when the first settlers came from England, people who make up our country are those who came by choice from somewhere else in the world.

What is the story of your family and how it came to America?

If you aren't aware of your family's history, take some time and ask a parent or grandparent about it.

  • Why did your family leave its homeland?
  • Can you find the town they lived in, on a map?
  • When did your family first arrive in the U.S.?
  • What language did they speak? Can you speak it? Can you write it?
  •  How did they get here?
  • Where did they live at first?
  • How did they make it work?
  • What does your name mean (first and last)? Were you named for someone?
  • What are naming traditions in your home country (such as, in Scandinavian countries, Johan's son is Eric Johanson or Johansen, and his daughter is Christine Johansdatter)?
  • What is your family's story?

Remember, their story is your story.

Keep a journal of what you learn, either by writing or by recording your discussions. Some time in the future, you can revisit this valuable information so you can discover more.

Ask a friend of yours what his or her story is, and tell him yours. Ask each other questions about it: do you dress differently from each other? Why? Do you eat different foods? What are your parents like? Do you have any traditions in your family? See what you have in common. If you're not careful, you might learn something.

           *We live life forwards, but understand it backwards.*
          Every time an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.
                                            -old African Proverb

Here are stories of several groups who have immigrated to Minnesota, including Hmong, Asian Indian, Latino, and Somali people:

Check out these interesting family histories:

A new series will begin in October: Many Rivers to Cross, about African-Americans and their stories:

For individual stories of immigrants:

Flag of Faces, Ellis Island
*Do you have family that came to America many years ago? Check out these other resources:
-not all immigrants passed through Ellis Island, but many thousands did-  (LDS site-search the records)  (Minnesota History)
*Try an online search for your family name, using Bing or Google. Be specific and use a grandparent's full name; even 'unusual' last names are more common than you'd think-
 *Some families have Facebook pages that include family history: See if your family is one of them, and you may connect with relatives you haven't contacted for a long time, or meet new ones.
This blog addresses immigrant experiences. To learn more about Native Americans, try these sites:


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