Why I Help Refugees

My parents, both refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe, often called America the greatest country on Earth. “Only in America” could one start off with nothing and become something; here your children could reach beyond the limits of birth or bigotry.

But the U.S. hadn’t always seemed so cushy. Each of them recalled their first years in this country as fraught with emotional isolation and economic hardship. My father, whose life in Vienna as a starving orphan on the run had hardly been a bed of roses, used to say that his initial year in America was so difficult that had he not been under a death sentence in his native Austria, he would surely have gone back. My mother found English—her 7th language—the most painful language of all to pick up. Her memories of Czechoslovakia included 3 years in a Nazi concentration camp and the murder of 39 relatives, but it was memories of her first years in the U.S. that would bring her to tears: “All alone, no parents, no family or friends, everything strange, a difficult new language, and no one in the world who cared about what happened to me or whether I lived or died.”

Shortly after my father’s arrival in this country at the age of 17–malnourished with legs scarred from rickets—he was at a lunch counter when a strange man noticed him carefully counting out change before ordering a bowl of soup. The man gently asked him if he needed work, then told him about a job cleaning tables. My father got the job, spent his nights learning English, and was on his way. He never knew the man’s name, never saw him again to thank him and tell him that everything turned out all right for him, that he would one day own his own business and see his son open a medical practice. But the moment was burned in his memory: “There was no reason he should have made the effort to help me—I was a nobody.”

Even a safe haven can be filled with stress. My mother’s intense loneliness and struggles with language and my father’s wonder at a stranger’s support that enabled him to move forward, both remind me that entrance into this country is only the first step toward making torn lives whole again, and that help can come from nameless individuals who step up because they see a need. Through my work with refugees I honor the memories of my parents by lightening the struggles of yet another generation of disposed “nobodies,” who have so much to give and so far to go.

—Tina Weinberger

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