By Sandy McPherson Carrubba Geary
My father was a mere lad when he and my grandmother emigrated to Canada from their native Northern Ireland. My grandmother did not want to see her son become embroiled in “The Troubles,” the conflict raging between Protestants and Catholics. Eventually they crossed the border and settled in Buffalo. Because he was an American citizen, my father fought in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
Neither my father nor my grandmother came through New York City and did not view the Statue of Liberty as have so many others seeking a better life. When I had children, I took them to visit Lady Liberty where we read Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus,” written in 1883.
The poem mounted on a bronze plaque proclaims, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
Those words make me think of people I have known who escaped and left all they knew to come to this land of opportunity. In 1978, my first husband and I joined two other couples to sponsor a Vietnamese family that had been living in a refugee camp near Hong Kong waiting to immigrate to America. They arrived with few possessions – a rice cooker and some clothing. But, the joy on their faces when they settled into their apartment on Buffalo’s West Side was touching to behold.
We women took the wife, Kieu, into her “new” kitchen, opened cupboards, pointed to all they held and said, “Kieu’s.” She nodded. Our children led the three older girls into a bedroom we had filled with toys. Soon children’s happy chatter and laughter filled the air.
This family had truly been “tempest-tost” as the Lazarus poem describes what some immigrants endure. Our Vietnamese family had hidden under the floor boards of their bathroom when the Vietnamese police came looking for them. I could not imagine keeping four young children quiet, one a baby, under those circumstances. When they first came, the parents had to learn English which they mastered quickly because they wanted to work. The father found employment as a grain scooper but hated having to accept welfare when winter weather stopped ships from coming to our harbor.
Today that family owns a beautiful home in Texas where they had to move because Kieu became sick every winter. A Buffalo doctor told her she had to get out of this climate. All their children are professionals. One is now a doctor; her sister became a nurse. Another works in optometry. The only son, who was born here in Buffalo, works to improve his community by restoring houses. In my eyes, this family is an asset to America. They work hard and pay taxes.
I have neighbors from Haiti. They keep their property spotless and always offer to help neighbors who cannot shovel their driveways in the winter. I feel privileged to know and speak with them.
Years ago, my husband belonged to an organization that promoted international relations and understanding. We enjoyed entertaining people from other countries in our home. We learned about their cultures and discovered our similarities.
It pains me to hear some political leaders demand America close her doors to those struggling to escape from war-torn homelands, many who could enrich us with their ideas, creativity and energy. Such policy cheats us of those who would add to our nation’s economic growth. Numerous immigrants become entrepreneurs. Nationally these business owners have added billions to the economy according to the Fiscal Policy Institute.
I want to see Lady Liberty’s welcome mat remain. America needs newcomers.
Sandy McPherson Carrubba Geary of Kenmore is a first-generation American who remains friends with her special Vietnamese family.