Same Motivations, Different Century

Posted by Hannah Z. Michigan
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How our own history shapes our ability to understand others and create an accepting American creed

A knowledge of one’s own personal and communal history is one of the most powerful and intangible gifts that citizens of any nation can encounter. A particular population’s awareness and education on their own past and the history of their community is the foundation of empathy within any society. Without consciousness of our own histories as Americans, it is impossible to understand the patterns that repeat themselves with certain themes that are constantly overlapping. These include the pursuit of liberty and steadfast belief in irrepressible opportunity. With that said, my idea of America is defined by the adversities and triumphs of my own family’s history and is something that contributes to the values of empathy and open mindedness held in my community today.

The history of my family as they pursued the American dream is similar to so many others who fled 19th century Europe. The primary push factor that caused my dad's family to immigrate across the Atlantic was the Irish Potato Famine. In an interview with my grandmother on the subject of her own family's immigration, she stated "it was very hard for my family to make a living in Ireland once the famine hit. They were all farmers and it was an unbelievably devastating event for them." They were not the only ones who felt this extreme pressure brought about by the famine. According to History.com, the Great Famine hit Ireland beginning in 1845 and by its end, 25% of the Irish population had either perished or fled overseas. My father has done extensive research on how our family operated once they reached Ottawa, Canada after fleeing the famine and later how they moved to Detroit. In Ottawa, they were very poor and lived in a large community of Irish immigrants that became virtual outposts of all Irish culture within Canada. My grandmother shared a story with me about one of her relatives who slept without a roof over her head. She would wake up each morning soaking wet with the rain from the night before and unable to provide even the most basic necessities. This is just one of many adversities faced by members of my family when they fled Ireland. Upon arriving to America, my family worked to make a living in the Detroit Auto Industry despite facing discrimination from local Detroiters. The divides between Catholic and Protestant Irish Americans only served to deepen the distrust of “the other”, and made community virtually impossible. Nonetheless, my family persevered and overcame any forms of discrimination that encroached upon their pursuit of opportunity and success in America. For my entire life, gratefulness for this perseverance has been molded into me. I am in constant recollection of the piece of farm land that my family was forced to flee. I remember the roof that was not over their heads during the cruel, cold Canadian nights. I remember the five of them that left for America to provide the generations that would come after them with a real and true existence. My family's own experiences with carrying cultural aspects of our past has, in turn, made us more aware and open members of our community. Our conscious effort to remember what makes us unique even after we pursue our own paths as part of the American dream has helped shape our perception of America's diversity and all that makes it a melting pot of all thoughts, creeds, and backgrounds.

This brings me to the manufactured crisis that has been building to boil over on America’s southern border for the last decade. Michigan is far removed from these standoffs, but that doesn’t make my stomach churn every time a new child is put in a cage. My great grandmother was not a naturalized citizen until she was nearly seventy years old, so when my family and I hear racist or discriminatory statements coming from others, we are not susceptible their messages as facts and create our own, unbiased opinions that are not fueled with hatred. The hypocrisy and lack of historical knowledge that runs deep in one side of my family is something that has likewise captured the American population. ​The assumptions of stereotypes around American people and the perspectives they hold towards immigrants have been corroborated in studies done by NPR, a reputable and impartial news outlet. In a survey completed in July of 2018, NPR inquired with diverse Americans about their perspectives of the border "crisis" and whether they see immigrants to the United States as crucial to our culture. Opinions were split along party lines and news outlet affiliation. The party affiliation of Americans definitely plays into the way they perceive immigrant populations, and this also holds true for the level of historical knowledge that Americans have. It is therefore difficult to make connections between the fact that republican voters, on average, are more educated on the most common issues, showing that they are aware of the history that accompanies America into every election cycle. However, more republicans than democrats, or more Americans who watch Fox News over CNN, have developed a deep seeded fear of “the other” in recent history. Our education as Americans should forever be a reminder of how similar our stories are to those undocumented immigrants facing hardship today. Most importantly, if they care enough to be educated on general American political happenings, they should also know how the history of their own family’s immigration has helped America to become a melting pot of all different creeds, races, and backgrounds. It is simply hypocritical for anyone to harbor uncertainty towards immigrant populations fleeing their circumstances. This is because, whether we like it or not, all Americans are products of the adversities faced throughout their family’s history. This is the main contributing factors to the diversity of American opinion and success.

Immigrants have pursued America and faced discrimination in return for safety or freedom. However America, which is an inward country, often breeds people who are only interested in things that reflect back on themselves. This precedent of not trying to understand those different from you and not even caring enough to fix this is something that is extremely dangerous to the productivity of America. It is important, now more than ever, that Americans are able to contextualize the circumstances they are living through. If people are able to put into perspective their own family’s history, it will help contribute to the values of empathy and open mindedness that are so desperately needed today. An article of editorials published by the Washington Post summarizes this point perfectly. In the piece, titled Put Yourself in the Caravan’s Shoes, The Post interviewed those who would’ve been considered “the other” in America at various times in US history. Andrew Maslar from Elkridge, Maryland shared his own story as a WWII asylum seeker and equates it to those traveling in the caravan through Mexico, headed towards America’s southern border. He spoke of how he trudged Germany's highways as he fled violence flooding through the region in the aftermath of World War II. He summarizes how he slept on pine straw in forests and walked for three months to reach a point where he could make the journey to America. Maslar states shows how sixty years of being in America still hasn't erased the reasons that drove him here and equates this to present day issues facing the country. "That caravan dragging itself to our border should be given refuge, medical support, food, clean beds," Maslar said. He also shows how past procedures can be implemented now using the system he used when working as an interpreter in Berlin. Maslar makes his final appeal by stating how Ellis Island made it work then, so we can now. "They are me, 73 years ago. Starvelings infested with lice. Let them in with a smile and with open arms. Wash their feet. Wash their faces.”

The perspective that Maslar shares is one that all Americans need to consider much more closely. Each immigrant seeking asylum at the American border shares the same desire that drove each and every person to our country regardless of when they arrived. All Americans must view the world through the lens of what their own families have gone through and recognize that empathy is one of the most powerful tools that we all have. The more that someone recognizes the patterns that repeat themselves with the same themes of liberty and opportunity, the closer America will be to realizing its true potential. My own view of America made up of my family’s constant efforts to remember what makes us unique and, just as important, what we all have in common. In order to clarify our perception of America's diversity and all that makes it a melting pot of all thoughts, creeds, and backgrounds, Americans must take a look at themselves and all of the triumphs and adversities that have impacted them, then turn to understanding these motivations in others. 

Published on May 26, 2019
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