WashCo Dems Op-Ed: We Didn’t Have Our Papers
By Karolina Newcombe, WashCo Dems Communication Committee Member
As I look at pictures of women and children getting tear gassed at our border, my mind can’t help but drift back to a time when I was a frightened little kid.
Back in the 1980s, my parents made a brave decision which a lot of Americans on both sides of the political aisle would have approved of. They stood up to the Communist government of our native Poland. They became active members of Solidarity, the trade union movement which fought against totalitarian oppression and for free speech, fair elections, better working conditions. Because of this, my parents were blacklisted by the government and unable to find employment anywhere. The threat of arrest was always looming over them. There were contingency plans for who would take care of me if they were taken away.
My father decided that, for the good of the family, we would leave Poland.
My parents managed to obtain visas for a six-week vacation to Holland–our suspicion has always been that the government was happy to get rid of us because we were troublemakers. Nobody who saw us leave would have been fooled by the vacation bit. Our little Volkswagen bug was filled to the brim with sheets and pillows, clothing and books, so much so that it almost broke down at the border between East and West Berlin. After many adventures, we made it to Groningen, a town in the north of Holland which would become our home for the next few years, and there my parents made their next brave decision.
We overstayed our visa.
Yep, that’s right–we broke immigration law. It was our only chance at a new life, since there was no way the Communist government in Poland would have officially allowed us to move elsewhere. As weeks and then months went on, the realization hit me that this really wasn’t a vacation and I really wasn’t going back home. I suffered from intense homesickness, but in time, I got used to Dutch culture and I grew to like living in Holland.
And I’m so grateful that the Dutch government didn’t just immediately kick us out.
I’m even more grateful that they didn’t arrest us, or separate me from my parents, or attack us with tear gas. The Dutch understood that we were asylum seekers and they put us through the normal asylum appeal process. In time, the Berlin Wall would fall, and with it Communism–much sooner than we thought it would–and at that point, our asylum claim was denied due to the changed political situation. But we were given a fair shot.
And while, yes, we had some scary times in Poland, what we went through is nothing compared to what some of the refugees trying to get into our country have experienced. The families from Central America who have seen family members get kidnapped and killed. The Syrian kids whose homes were bombed into rubble. And we can’t extend a helping hand to them? Because these people are “illegal”? Since America is supposed to be such a devout nation, I will speak in a language it might understand–like the Pharisees in the New Testament, you are obsessed with following the letter of the law, not the effect it might have on the life and spirit of your fellow human beings. Jesus would not be proud.
When I have brought up my family immigration history to Trump supporters who are all about keeping the migrants out, I get only silence in return. People literally don’t want to discuss it. I can guess why this is–there are only a few options for how one can respond, none of them very pleasant. One would be to admit that you’re wrong about the refugees and maybe we should allow some of them in–not something a MAGA fan would be willing to do. Another would be to tell me that yes, Holland should have deported us back to Communism–again, not a point that a conservative would enjoy making.
And then there’s the worst possibility of them all–that if the Trump supporter were being honest with me, they would say “Well, we would be okay with you coming in as a refugee, because your skin is white. You’re European, so we can empathize with your fear and pain. But these migrants–they’re brown-skinned, they’re Latino, they’re Muslim. It’s just not the same thing.”
I suspect that this is what’s behind the silence, and that is a painful conclusion to reach.
To those who think that way, I would say this: You’re not only hurting the migrants, you’re hurting our country, too.
Immigrants make this country stronger and better. We work hard, we’re innovative, and America is enriched by including many different cultures, religions, traditions.
My family has been incredibly lucky. I can’t simply turn my back and close the door on other desperate families, other frightened kids. Let’s give them a chance at a new life, too.