What Welcome Really Looks Like: Softening Hearts to a New Generation of Refugees

The story of the Central American refugees is so essentially American that it’s a wonder we can’t recognize how much they belong here.

Soviet Jewish refugee families on a train platform after disembarking in Vienna, Austria. They are among 50,000 Russian and Soviet emigrants in 1979. Most became immigrants to Israel or to the United States.

Photo by Nathan Benn/Corbis via Getty Images

“Exodus.” It’s a word I savor.

In it, I hear voices from my childhood—Rabbi Sandmel and Rabbi Berkowitz, teaching me the bedrock phrases of Judaism. My father was a wandering Aramean. … The Lord, who brought you out of Egypt to be your God

And now, a modern-day Exodus, as a caravan of Central Americans arrive at the U.S. border where they had come in search of safety and the hope of something better—as elusive as that might now seem.

It’s not the first time I’ve seen something like this.

Starting in the late 1980s, my synagogue in Portland, Maine, was part of a network of Jewish groups helping to bring so-called refuseniks (Soviet Jews who had been denied visas because of their religion) over from Russia, resettling dozens of families in northern New England.

I have vivid memories from that time. It was 1990, and my parents had driven us down from Maine to Lynn, Massachusetts. We’d paused in Swampscott, Massachusetts, at a synagogue where I’d been on a couple of occasions, when we’d come down to go to services with my great-great uncle Ben. Ben was our first generation in America.

According to Myers family legend, Ben’s father had arrived from the Pale of Settlement with two of his brothers. These three went through Ellis Island, each emerging with a different last name. Two of the brothers, including Ben’s dad, were ragmen—collecting scraps of cloth to turn into paper. They established themselves and by the next generation, the business had split into a scrap paper plant and a scrap metal yard, owned by my great-grandfather.

The third brother never really took to America. He preferred Yiddish and set out on the road as an itinerant peddler and maggid, a sort of nonordained spiritual leader. He traveled the backroads of Maine, performing brises and weddings, before settling into a position in a synagogue in Waterville.

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On that particular day in Swampscott, my family loaded mattresses, overstuffed chairs, and a kitchen table into the back of our station wagon and made our way to Lynn.

I was 12. This was the first family that we were directly responsible for resettling. My father explained that we would be their sponsors, helping to get them settled in this country. We set up the apartment. It was designed as a one-bedroom with a small kitchen, but we managed to fit everything in.

Do you think they’ll like it here? I asked my parents. It’s better than where they were, they replied.

What had my own ancestors run away from? Nineteenth century shtetl life in the Pale: pogroms, forced service in an army for a ruler who brutalized them. And the refuseniks? Harassment, the inability to practice their religion, to hold certain jobs.

I want to believe we are getting better, as a country and as a human race. But I see that new exodus, that flood of people washing up against our southern border, and I hear the outcry in response: Build a wall, lock them up, send in the troops.

The story of the Central American refugees is the same as my family’s story, as the refuseniks’ stories. Yes, the details are slightly different—a new generation of persecutors, a new style of brutality, but the story contours remain the same. It is a story so essentially American that it’s a wonder we can’t recognize how much they belong here.

My father had grown up a stone’s throw from Lynn, in Salem, where his father had inherited the metal side of the scrap business. It would boom in World War II, and my grandfather would scrap the scrap and move the family to Miami Beach, then the most densely Jewish place in the world.

My father played chess when he was younger. The best chess players in Miami Beach spoke Yiddish or Russian. So when my father went off in 1959 to boarding school, he not only continued to play chess, he decided to study Russian, too. Soon enough, he was playing as a goodwill ambassador, challenging Russian youths to matches, traveling to Moscow and Leningrad, trying to build a small bridge amid the Cold War. This language proved useful as he worked with our synagogue to bring over the refuseniks.

I wish I had some way to make others see what I see: how much we have. How easy it is to lose it all.

In another week, the family arrived through the customs line at Logan International Airport. My mother and I shepherded them—a teenage Yevgeny and his middle-aged mother, Irina—out to the curb where my father waited in our station wagon.

From Logan to Lynn. A short drive. I watched them walk through the rooms, inspect the toilet. I don’t know what I had expected. That we were saving them from the darkness of Soviet Russia, and they would be weeping with gratitude. They mostly looked tired.

Would you like to go out to eat? my father asked in Russian. We brought you a little food to get you started. He indicated the fridge and the cupboards. We can take you out or help you get settled, or leave you on your own… whatever you prefer.

Yevgeny was fiddling with the wood-paneled TV and finding only static. His mother opened the cupboard doors.

Can we go to the grocery store? she tried out in English.

We parked and my father grabbed a cart; Yevgeny imitated him. We proceeded through the aisles. Irina timidly placed cabbages and carrots and potatoes in one basket. Onions. Loaves of bread. Yevgeny grew bored and whined something in Russian.

Take him to the cookies and snacks aisle, my father told me. No more than two!

I took this to mean two of each category. Two types of sugary cereal. Two types of chips. Two brands of crackers. I delighted in trying to explain whether an Oreo was better than a Chips Ahoy, or how come it might be smarter to get the smaller package of Pepperidge Farm than it was to get the massive package of store-brand wafers. I had never really thought of food before, not what I ate or how much choice I had.

My father groaned when he saw us. They won’t have room in the kitchen for all this. Maybe put a few things back? You can always return tomorrow, or next week.

Irina squinted at him. Next week, you aren’t here, no?

No, my father agreed. But you can come without me.

She squinted more, tilting her head. I know, this store is show-off. We have them in Russia. Looks good for show. But not for everyone. For everyone, long lines. No bread.

No, no, no. My father insisted. This is here all the time. He sighed. We pushed the overloaded carts to the checkout counter. The cashier’s eyes bulged.

We hauled it all up to the third floor, where my mother showed Irina how to use the oven.

Tomorrow, someone from the synagogue will come, my father explained, as we got ready to leave. We’ll come back in a week.

In a month, Irina had job. She had been an electrical engineer; now she worked as an assistant in a nursing home. In two months, they had a car, a station wagon like ours. In three months, Yevgeny started high school.

In a year, they had moved to Sacramento; Irina got a job at the power company out there. Yevgeny went to college.

So typically American.

We lost touch. That, too, is the American way.

But I think of them now as I listen to and read the stories of this latest exodus, of that big train of migrants and also that synagogue in Pittsburgh. I wish I had some way to make others see what I see: how much we have. How easy it is to lose it all. How sacred it can be to give, to offer, to open your arms.