September 22, 2019
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I came to the US as a refugee, but I wasn’t treated as an ‘illegal’

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

Except for Native Americans who lived on this land for thousands of years and black Americans who were brought here on slave ships to enrich white landowners with their unpaid labor, we are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Yet, there are those who have been able to benefit from citizenship who now want to deny entry to others seeking safety and a better life.

I was a refugee and an immigrant. My family left Latvia during World War II when I was 1-year-old and spent a year living in forests and carrying their few belongings down roads strafed by war planes. For the next five years, we lived in displaced persons camps in Germany waiting for a sponsor.

In 1950, we boarded a U.N.-converted navy transport ship and two weeks later landed in New Orleans to begin our lives in America. Women from a church in Texas picked us up in a Cadillac and brought us to a house with no running water, scorpions under the bed my brother, sister and I shared, armadillos in the backyard, and dead rattlesnakes along the mile of road we walked to catch the school bus.

For a year, my father worked as a ranch hand alongside others, including black men. When he offered to share his water canteen with the black men, he was ostracized by the white ranch hands. This was our first encounter with people of color and with racism. There is a photo with our family standing next to two black men and the truck in which they kindly took us to visit our mother’s sister and her family who lived a hundred miles away on another ranch.

Today as I watch children being separated from their refugee and immigrant families, and when I see how they and their parents are treated as criminals, I’m shocked. These families are fleeing violence and poverty and seeking a new life as my family did. But they are treated as “illegals,” not as casualties of forces beyond their control as we were.

My father was able to find work in the American Can Co. in Illinois, which had a steelworker’s union. My mother worked in an electrical coil company, so they were able to buy a house and a car within a few years, albeit with high interest loans from a finance company. All three children were able to attend college because at that time tuition at state colleges was affordable with income from working summer jobs and work study. We were white Europeans, so while our family had difficulties, we did not face the hostile racism faced by today’s refugees and immigrants who are people of color. And we had opportunities to benefit from a post-war economy.

Today, the neighborhood in Illinois where I grew up looks like a war zone with the ghostly remnants of the American Can Co. Today, the descendants of those who were transported in slave ships to labor for free live in that neighborhood. Today, the sources of income are jobs that don’t provide a living wage or the sale of drugs. Today, the few who do attend college face thousands of dollars in debt and an uncertain labor market if they graduate.

As I grew up in the land of opportunity, in the 1950s and 1960s, I was shocked to witness the brutality against the descendants of slaves who were simply affirming their right to vote and to attend schools along with white children. I was dismayed to see Edward R. Murrow’s “Harvest of Shame,” which documented the exploitation of migrant workers who grew our food. I was inspired by the courage of those who stood against this injustice.

Today, I am inspired by the struggles of Native Americans to protect the water and land that is a tiny fraction of what they had when the first immigrants arrived on these shores. I am inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement that is continuing to fight against the legacy of slavery. I am inspired by the “Dreamer” children of immigrants who are asking for protection for themselves and their families. I am grateful to those in our community and our country who together continue to challenge injustice and work for compassion and caring rather than hate and fear.

Ilze Petersons has lived in Orono for 40 years.

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