As much as I would like to report on all the fabulous fun we had (and I will in coming weeks) on a recent trip to NYC, there is one topic that is squeezing its way through first – just like New Yorkers do! Or were those the tourists??? I have so many interesting things to talk about, and this week’s blog is a serious one; the one I’ve thought about most, so I begin with a foggy, misty Sunday afternoon, Dec 2, 2018. It is a bit long, but trust me, the boat will reach the harbor, and I believe it will be a thought-provoking ride.
LIBERTY SHROUDED IN A FOG OF MISUNDERSTANDING
One week ago I had the privilege of being on board a boat that shuttles tourists through upper New York Bay to visit Ellis Island, where stands the former chief United States immigration station. Knowing we would be passing Liberty Island and viewing that grand old crowned lady with her torch extended to the world, gave me goosebumps! I could hardly wait, straining my neck and eyes for the first glimpse of her immense presence. As we approached a body of land shrouded in a fog, I began to realize that our day of rainy weather would indeed dampen my long-awaited experience. In the distance I could barely see a pedestal similar to the pictures I had seen of that upon which stands the statue named Liberty Enlightening the World, or, the Statue of Liberty. The nearer we moved toward Ellis Island, and coming alongside Liberty Island, the clearer her outline became, until at last from her back side we were able to see the green of her bronze and the light within her torch. The crown on her head was not as clear but oh, how excited I was just to see that torch! Mixed feelings flooded my heart about immigration, homeland, and liberty.
Once inside Ellis Island’s station, I felt almost transmigrated myself into another time and person. The steamer trunks, instruments of medical examination, and articles of interrogation were just plain foreign to me. As I listened to the recordings, and imagined myself in those immigrants’ places, I felt so much sympathy for their sufferings and fears that I cannot adequately put it into words. The statue in her misty fog made a striking symbol that day of some of the emotions and happenings of those days. “Liberty shrouded in a fog of misunderstanding” came from my mouth as I had my first glimpse of Liberty. Little did I know that I would feel even more so after learning more of the immigration experiences.
I keep wondering who was so forgetful of his own or his ancestors’ infancy to the new world, that he could exert what we today deem cruel and unusual treatment of those who followed. The closest I’ve ever come (and it doesn’t even compare really) to what they may have felt as they entered the great hall of importation, is the shoulder to shoulder crowd on the New York sidewalks with a din of foreign languages, taxi horns blaring, and the sun so hidden by towering buildings that I couldn’t tell east from west. People who know where they are going run over you who may pause, to wonder where you are going. If not with friends and a fearless leader, what could I have seen?Confusion. Fear. Misunderstanding. Those were the three big realities when people looking for a life of liberty, were met with the very opposite of liberty. “The ability or opportunity to act in accordance with one’s own wishes or without repression or restraint by authority.” That is one of several definitions for ‘liberty’ in Funk & Wagnalls Standard College Dictionary. The fog of misunderstanding that filled those halls cloaked the immigrants’ hope in a shroud of fear, rejection for some, pain, hunger and loneliness rather than the liberty and freedom they desired. One woman’s story was that she and her siblings came to America with their mother who had always had one black fingernail. She said “my mother had raised all of us and was never ill and had always had that black fingernail; we’d thought nothing of it!” Due to that one black fingernail, the mother was rejected and sent back to her country of origin, parted from her children, and the voice of that one telling her story quivered after all those years, with sorrow of growing up without her momma.
After moving from room to room, being told via the audio equipment about hundreds of experiences, I returned to the great hall, and rested on the very benches where immigrants sat long ago in a state of anticipation, inside a bubble of disorientation. Oh, by the way, if one had a “dazed and disoriented” look, he or she would be sent for a psychiatric evaluation, having just come through the fog of travel into an unknown future, quizzed by someone who didn’t speak the same language, and answering through an interpreter. Dazed? I’d say so!
Well, not all was lost, of course. There were also some stories of unusually kind social workers, nurses, and an occasional immigration official who extended courtesy. Many were successfully poked and prodded into the world of progress, America by name. As President John F. Kennedy said, “Everywhere immigrants have enriched and strengthened the fabric of American life.” How often do we stop to think, would I be here at all if not for the immigration of some ancestors who made this their home, met another, and here I am – a little Irish, a lot English, and like everyone else, I like to think I am a fraction Native American too. That makes us feel a little less like intruders. Would those ancestors say it was worth it? I can’t imagine. But to go through the trauma, even today, of transferring your life into the face of another culture must be daunting to say the least; so what they are running from, well, must be pretty bad.
We’ve heard it said that with freedom comes responsibility. Parents love to recite that to their children, and for good reason. At no time has liberty been free. There are prices to pay. I mentioned earlier that I have mixed feelings about immigration. I’m just being honest here; not politically correct. I see both sides of the issue. As a Christian I can’t support shutting anyone out of a better life. On the other hand, I do not enjoy knowing our country is becoming more crowded every day; I am insulted by some of the attitudes and changes being etched into, or should I say eroding, our country’s standards; and I do wonder why people flee their own homes rather than staying to band together and make home a better place to live. That’s because I have never worn their shoes. Newcomers to this country were willing to dig in and make a living, shoulder the responsibilities of making a great nation, and earned the privilege of being an American. Somewhere along the line, we stopped holding that view. I do not know if I am shrouded by that fog of misunderstanding, or if immigrants-to-be are blinded by the word ‘liberty’ so that they do not understand the responsibility on leaders of a nation to protect its people. There must be some governing laws, or criteria by which immigration does not compromise the safety of a people. I believe God, the creator of the universe, teaches open arms. But also He teaches that once we escape the oppression of sin, we are not to return to the same. Likewise, if people are able to escape the oppression of one country, they must not become slaves to the oppressions of dependency, hatred and crime. I pray that those who are greeted by the Statue of Liberty, or any harbor of the USA, find people who are willing to teach, listen, and work together. In nursing, we sometimes say, “see one, do one, teach one” so that all are brought on board as equals. No one cares if your brass has tarnished, nor whether your crown shines, as long as you’re extending a torch of welcome, lighting the way.
It was enlightening for sure to learn of the past immigration process which, like our country, has evolved over time. I did not take time to tour the evolution of that process, because I couldn’t pull myself away from the history of it. What I came away with however, was more important. That is, to be aware of the fog we can enter which may obscure our vision, be informed, be kind, and be responsible in our liberties.