Immigration: Through the eyes of family

By Sandra Fajgier

In the wake of President Trump’s executive orders on immigration, aggressive raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are filling the news. I watch these stories closely and with concern, perhaps a deeper level of attention and connection than you might expect from a Brooklyn prekindergarten teacher, someone whose family roots run to Eastern Europe, someone far removed by culture and distance from ICE raids in Austin, Texas, and Seattle. Yet it’s precisely because of the journey my family has taken that I share the heartaches of so many caught up in these outrageous acts.

In 1963, my father, then a mere child of 7, first laid eyes on the Statue of Liberty when he arrived in New York. He had came upon our shores with his family, bringing with them all of their hopes and fears. It was the height of the Cold War. To come to America, my father and his family had to change their names and leave so many pieces of them behind, as so many have done before and after.

I remember my father telling me how amazed he was when he first saw Lady Liberty, that great symbol of America, welcoming him to his new country. His journey, like many immigrants, was no easy feat. He came to our country from behind the Iron Curtain. His parents already had suffered through the Holocaust together. Their love story began when my grandfather helped my grandmother and her dying mother escape Nazi persecution.

I offer this family story not because it is exceptional but because it is emblematic: It is the bright, hopeful and inviting America that is in the DNA of millions

My great-grandmother was dying from brain cancer with no medical care. She ran with her daughter, and they hid along the way, among the dead and in ditches and caves. Eventually they crossed paths with my grandfather and began a journey together that would ultimately lead the family to a new life in America.

When my father was a young boy, he would often come home to an empty house, a “latchkey kid.” Both of his parents worked, trying to make ends meet; they sacrificed daily to put food on the table and clothing on their children’s backs. But all the while, I remember him telling me how grateful they all were to be here in America knowing that no matter how difficult it was now, there was always a brighter future ahead, especially for the children. My family’s immigrant experience is like so many others. My father felt like an outsider; he was not accepted by most of the children in his new school. He had to learn English and the customs of this new land. Eventually, he did become part of this country — and the country that gave hope and shelter to him and his family was also strengthened and enriched by the talents, energy and devotion of this new immigrant family to its adopted home. It is the key to America’s success story.

Today, I am a public school teacher in Brooklyn. Growing up as a public school student, I often felt isolated and alone because of my Eastern European heritage. I wanted to change my religion, my hair color, my strong nose — I wanted to be someone else. Now that I am an educator, I have the opportunity to create a classroom environment which embraces diversity. I firmly believe that what is in the environment, as well as what is absent, communicates ideas about what is valued in society. My school community believes that children of color should see themselves in the curriculum. Rich multicultural and relevant learning experiences stemming from parent collaborations, field trips and the community create a diverse learning environment. The result, I firmly believe, is a stronger America for all.

I offer this family story not because it is exceptional but because it is emblematic: It is the bright, hopeful and inviting America that is in the DNA of millions, shaping their own family stories. And I appeal to everyone to make those family stories, so personal yet so shared, the lens through which they view troubling headlines from early 2017: President Trump’s executive orders on immigration and the aggressive ICE roundups, and some of the most heated incidents in states that share a border with Mexico.

This tragedy cannot be dismissed as a “Southwestern” thing or a problem that only affects those places that have adopted sanctuary status for immigrants in their communities. Dozens of undocumented men and women were arrested in New York City, and others are being arrested in cities across the United States.

I appeal to everyone to make those family stories, so personal yet so shared, the lens through which they view troubling headlines

Trump’s recent executive orders, specifically orders for the construction of the Mexican border wall and the aggressive deportation of undocumented immigrants, got me thinking about what America means, what it represents for me personally and for so much of the world.

Will we as a nation lose sight of our core values or uphold them? Will we remember the words of Emma Lazarus, emblazoned at the feet of that “Mother of Exiles” who first greeted my family and millions of other “homeless, tempest-tossed” families, offering hope, a new home and a chance to build a new life that also enriches the lives of those around us?

These lessons may sometimes feel forgotten, particularly as we venture into the unknown with our new president, but they have served as part of America’s identity for more than a century — the only hope for so many in an often bleak and dreary world. And they have always made me proud to be an American. We live in a troubled world. It seems to me that what we need is not walls but that steady “beacon-hand” that “glows world-wide welcome.” What we need is compassion not fear, respect not intolerance.

As an educator, a big part of my job is teaching very young children about the power and beauty of diversity. Making sure that vulnerable students in my classroom have the same access to opportunities as their more fortunate peers is my duty and obligation as a teacher. For me, the immigration crisis is both professional and personal: By striving to level the playing field, I’m helping Lady Liberty to hold up the torch of welcome first seen by my own family more than 50 years ago.
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Sandra Fajgier is a prekindergarten educator in the K280 program at Public School 10 in Brooklyn, N.Y. She teaches many students newly arrived to the country as well as students with diverse needs.