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I was born in a country ravaged by World War II. My first and only warm dress at the time was knitted from wool my father brought back from a trip to England. The land was saline after the dykes had been broken to drive out the enemy. Food was scarce. “Broodje tevree”—satisfied sandwich—was the term used for not getting any topping on a slice of bread.
I don’t remember the hardships of the early years. My belly must have been full enough, my toes warm under the covers in the cold of winter. I only heard the stories about frozen pipes, about water for tea chopped out from under the ice in a kitchen tub, my mother pregnant with me, my father away in the army. I do remember complaining that all we had was strawberries grown on the land behind our house to go with the bread on the table.
Times got better in post-war Europe and my parents took advantage of opportunities, a better job, education for the children. My parents still saved the waxed paper bags the butcher packed the lunch meat in and recycled them for the sandwiches we took to school daily. My mother sewed our clothes and taught us to sew; she taught us to knit sweaters, socks and scarfs. You never know when you may need the skills she would say.
My world kept expanding. At age 19, I boarded my first airplane to America for a two-month stay in New England as an au pair, a live-in nanny, earning my keep while learning about the New World. It was a BIG world; everything was big, expansive, from shampoo bottles to freeways and forests. I fell in love with nature; I hated the bigoted way some people my age made fun of my accent, my misunderstandings. I was in awe of the largesse of buildings, New York, the diversity of people, black, brown, white, yellow, red; the diversity in clothing, in accents, in spirituality. I was afraid of the narrow two party system, too narrow for all the different political views, I thought. And yet there was one common language everyone understood, one common law everyone adhered to, one government everyone was subject to. No need for passports to travel a distance, no need to exchange currency when crossing a state line. It was a world where one-ness prevailed.
After two months I returned to a continent full of nations with borders, with different languages, different currencies, multi-partied parliamentary systems. I felt the restriction of the borders, the whiteness of my people, the limits of my religious upbringing. After university I travelled to escape, to learn, to embrace that bigger world. One world, we’re all people, why not? I found oneness in an ashram in the Himalayas. I found oneness with students in a coffee shop in Teheran. I found oneness at the top of Kala Patar watching the avalanches come down from Everest. I found oneness among Tibetan refugees as they shared barley tea.
I married an American and set out for a life in a nation that knew oneness. I lived in a commune; I learned about New Age thinking. I learned what American humor, American song, American literature, and American history was. I gained another degree in an American University.
I learned that the oneness wasn’t as one as they said it was.
It took a long time for me to become an American, to raise my hand and say I would renounce my citizenship of birth. I couldn’t let go of the skills, the views, the mindset of curiosity and dialogue my parents had raised me with. I hung on to my native nationality like it was a first love. The time came when I knew I had to let go, when this vast country was more mine than the land where I had taken my first steps. After 35 years of being a legal resident, I became an American citizen in the land of the free where every religion is welcome, where tolerance is the aspired common currency. That day I raised my hand with citizens from Asia, Russia, the Philippines, France, and Turkey. Together we repeated the oath of allegiance. Together we stood for the principles of a free country.
I can’t believe we now have a president who denies people access from other parts of the world. People who have gone through the vetting process, people who have skills and a worldview that will enhance the American culture of diversity, of acceptance. America was the shining example in this vast world for tolerance, for blending, for innovation. America the great experiment of what is possible among humans is turning in on itself. My view of humanity, my hope for humankind depends on the success of the American experiment. I’m an immigrant, don’t let me down.
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