My Grandmother, Refugee
When I was a child, I thought my grandmother had a New York accent. We would drive to Harlem a few times a year to visit her and she was my context for New York City. Even though I grew up in rural New Hampshire, I had an ear for accents. My mother moved to the States in the late seventies and her English accent was still in full force by the time I was born. I said “tomato” the British way until kindergarten. Compared to my tiny town in the mountains, New York was loud and bright and scary and exciting. New York was Grandma Graff, who is 64 years older than I am. Grandma Graff, whose manila folder labeled RECIPES still contains only take out menus. Grandma Graff, the former waitress who worked her way up in the city clerk’s office, supported her family and took up painting (or shmearing, as she calls it) in her retirement. Grandma Graff, who survived numerous bouts with cancer. Grandma Graff who has a funny accent. At some point in my childhood, I learned that my grandmother came to New York by herself when she was 16. I learned that her brother, Heinz, arrived a few years earlier and would wait at the docks every time a ship came in to see if his family was aboard. I learned their parents — my great grandparents — never made it. And I learned that “Ach du liebe” was not an expression she picked up in Harlem. Her accent, in fact, was German.
My grandmother never bakes cookies or says, “I love you.” Her way of saying goodbye is hanging up the phone. She is known to say, “Poor Mrs. Graff, nobody visits her” while you are visiting. I have never heard my grandmother play music, but she has told me about playing the violin as a girl in Heidelberg. She has long fingers and soft hands. When she is not wagging her pointer finger back and forth and saying, “Ach, my golden granddaughter, always traveling to dangerous places,” she sometimes holds my fingers in hers when we watch television. I can feel all her love, strength and compassion in her hand. The hands that held a ticket to board a boat to an unknown land. The hands that raised my father, that fed customer after customer at restaurants, that served the homeless soup, that wrote long to-do lists on yellow legal pads, that helped her children graduate from college, that handed me a card when I graduated from college that said, “I’m glad I lived to see this day.” The hands that vote every November.
Growing up, I would see my grandma on holidays and for her birthday; I rarely, if ever, visited her without the rest of my family descending at the same time. But when I was 25 and found myself utterly lost and heartbroken, I felt a pull to New York, to my grandmother. I wanted to hold her hand. She’s mostly deaf and so I knew she wouldn’t hold extended conversations about love. I knew that we could just sit in silence, even though we’d never done it before. Thus began the most important friendship of my life. Grandma and I don’t talk about feelings. We watch Jeopardy and read the New York Times. I make dinner. We talk about my teaching and travels and she asks me about terms she’s read but doesn’t understand: selfies, tweets, apps and downloads. She has outlived two shrinks and most of her friends. I try to visit once a month and sometimes she talks about her childhood, her escape from Germany, her life as a refugee. I listen.
My grandmother is 95 years old. Sometimes, while we’re eating breakfast and drinking coffee and chatting about my work with refugees in Portland, it’s easy for me to forget that she, too, is a refugee. After all, she’s lived in the United States for almost 80 years. She’s better at Scrabble than I am, the native-born speaker with a master’s degree in English. It’s easy to forget that she was barred from attending school, that so many of her friends and family were killed, that she escaped a war zone and traveled across an ocean without speaking a word of English. She is my grandmother, after all. The one who pretends she loves the Chinese restaurant below her apartment the best, even though I know she prefers the Ethiopian restaurant up the block, but the walk has gotten too far.
Over the past two years, we watched Trump launch his political career based on the racist lie that Obama was not American and watched his anti-immigrant rhetoric ratchet up and up to the point where this weekend, as we sat together on Holocaust Remembrance day, he signed an executive order to ban refugees from entering the United States of America. My grandmother, who spent so much of her life protecting her children from the horrors of WWII, who wouldn’t speak German in the house and considers herself the truest of New Yorkers, who watched, heartbroken, as her city was attacked on September 11th, turned to me and said, “I’ve lived a long time and this is the first time in America I am reminded of the most terrible time in my life. To hear this talk of banning refugees in America. I love this country, but I will never forget that my parents were denied visas and they died in Germany because of it.”
She has never mentioned her parents not getting visas before. It’s a subject we haven’t talked about. I learned long ago that to hear stories about her childhood I had to be patient and not ask questions. But last night she asked the questions, “How is this different than my childhood? Because they’re Muslim and not Jews? How can he do this? How can he have lived in New York next to the Statue of Liberty and do this? He thinks refugees are terrorists? How can he do this?” How, indeed. She asked me what I will say to my students on Monday, many of them refugees. She took my hand, “And what about your Syrian neighbors? Your friends?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I’ll tell them I love them. I’ll read Emma Lazarus’s poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty and I’ll talk about hope and fear and scapegoating. Which means I will talk about terrorism. And I’ll listen.”
Growing up as a white girl in New England, I didn’t hear the word “terrorist” in school until my junior year when my pal Arik and I were hanging out with our history teacher during our morning break, watching the news on TV and the twin towers started falling. But until then, the word terrorist was not part of our school curriculum. It was not used to describe the fear wrought by two white boys at Columbine High School (or any subsequent school shooting committed by more white boys). It was not used to describe the 4,075 documented cases of lynchings that took place in America between 1877–1950 in any of the many US history classes I took. It was not used to describe the Bible-carrying members of the KKK with their hoods and burning crosses.
“Terrorist” is a word my ninth grade students have grown up with; many of this year’s crop were born after 9/11. To them, a terrorist is a Muslim extremist. Mass shooting after mass shooting in the US and the only time such atrocities are acts of terror are when they aren’t committed by white boys. White boys who commit mass murder are mentally unstable. They could never represent all white boys because, well, why would they? Change the color of the boy’s skin, however, give him a Koran instead of a Bible and suddenly he represents an entire religion. Suddenly, we are banning anyone who looks like him from entering the United States, a country built by immigrants. Suddenly, the “melting pot” I learned about from elementary school through high school only gets specific ingredients. We are all taught to fear this unknown.
How do I explain this to my students? And how do I explain it to my grandmother? How can our country turn our backs to those fleeing the terror of war on charges that they might be terrorists? How can the GOP claim to be the party of Family Values, the party of LIFE, the party of Christianity and reject every fundamental tenet of our Constitution, not to mention Christianity? How do we fight back?
In his 2010 State of the Union, President Obama said, “In the end, it is our ideals, our values, that built America — values that allowed us to forge a nation made up of immigrants from every corner of the globe; values that drive our citizens still.”
I have to believe in the populace. I have to believe in We, the people. We must lift the lamp. We must be our brother and sister’s keepers. We must love. We must welcome. We must resist.