My father’s father was a refugee. His parents bought him a ticket on a ship heading to America, and charged him with the heavy responsibility of finding some way — in a land he did not know and in a language he did not speak — of saving his family.
He was born and raised in a Greek enclave inside what is now Turkey. For centuries, Greeks and Turks had lived side-by-side there, in peace. But his parents could see a tide of angry nationalism rising.
They saw their Turkish neighbors fill their hearts with bitterness, with grievances – some real, some imagined – with hate. So much hate.
My grandfather worked hard and landed a steady job in Colombia. He brought over family members — sisters, brothers, cousins. By this time, the family-members who stayed behind had lost their homes and possessions. Women were interned in concentration camps, men in prisons.
His younger brother managed to escape by swimming, while manacled to another man, to an American Red Cross ship on a mission of mercy.
My grandfather was a builder. He was the rock on which my family’s survival was predicated.
My father was a refugee’s son. Born in the U.S., he was proud to serve his country. Barely 17, he volunteered to fight in World War II.
No good deed goes unpunished, as he would say, and a few years later, as a result, he was recalled to fight in Korea. He served in a frontline regiment with blacks and whites, Latinos and Asians, children of immigrants and children of the native-born.
For him, this mosaic was the strength and promise of America. It was a country where no one went to sleep fearing that their neighbors would turn them into the authorities for being different.
My father’s defining quality was loyalty. He worked for the same company nearly all his life. When that company went bust, he indebted himself up to the eyeballs to keep part of it afloat, in an effort to save jobs, lives.
He too was a builder. He fought in wars and forged a company that helped make the American dream possible for many – including my family and myself.
I am the grandchild of a refugee. I was not weighted down with the tremendous responsibilities my father and grandfather had to bear at an early age. I was not drafted. There was no draft when I came of age. I started no companies. I did not buy the life and freedom of family members with my first paychecks. I lived in easier, fatter times.
But I have not forgotten the lessons they passed down. I have no patience for intolerance and hatred of others – it does not matter what the reason. I have no respect for leaders who play on racism and resentment.
I know that the fear of immigrants and refugees is more than just nonsense. It is evil nonsense. It is the triumph of the haters and destroyers.
This week I watched my 14-year-old son graduate from middle school. He seemed suddenly so grown, so adult. My heart filled with pride (and my eyes with tears).
I hope to charge him only with the following task: To live a joyous, productive life, in whatever manner he chooses. But, I will also make sure he remembers that he is the great-grandson of a refugee, and that those who do not fight to make history are condemned to repeat it.