A Greek novel I read in my teens called "Serenity" left me in an emotional state antithetical to its title. I was disturbed for days and walked about brooding. The irony of the title is even more pronounced in the Greek, for the word ghaleneem sounds calm.
It was the subject matter that troubled me. It dealt with the dreadful loss of the Greek refugees who were forced to leave ancient homes in Turkey after "the great catastrophe" of 1922, so that one million and a half of them became homeless in the motherland. All the literature of that time is full of despair, a feeling alien to the underlying hopefulness of the rest of our literary legacy. So the word refugee remained within me as a premonition of sorrow.
It came to me at a crucial time in my life -- that sorrow of the word -- as it does these days when I watch the plight of refugees from Indochina, Haiti, Cuba, the lost people who flock to these American shores.
My situation was different from that of a refugee, but the brief sense of loss was not. I was very young when I left home to travel to America. I did not have to leave, but I could not afford to say no to a scholarship which, unasked for, had been offered to me.
At sixteen I was very adventurous. But when I boarded the huge ocean liner, the "SS Independence," my spirit of adventure left me, to be replaced by a choking loneliness. There were so many people around me. Flashy, confident, rich Americans -- not the casual-looking youth who trudge all over Europe these days, but the privileged travelers of the '50s.
I had been loved, protected, even admired at home. The moment I entered the alien world of that gigantic ship in the Bay of Naples, all that changed. I was alone, unnoticed, insignificant. I have never had difficulty in striking up acquaintances and easy conversations, but on that floating city I felt invisible. My regret at having left home was complete and bitter.
The apogee of this desolation was reached when we docked in New York. Fear added its cold intensity to the loneliness. I had no idea what I would do next. My school was in North Carolina, and my only friends on this side of the Atlantic were there also.
We were told to go to a large area on port where, under the initial of our last name, we would find our luggage. I walked to the letter K and looked for the two suitcases the Fulbright grant allowed us. I could not find them, so I stood in total bewilderment.
And then someone called me by name. The knowledge sang inside me. Someone knows my name.m I turned I'll always remember the faces of those two people -- exactly as I saw them at that moment. The woman's face comes to me still like an apparition of hope, a blond haze, a sweet voice, a smile. "Are you 'Katy' Katsarka?" The man, taller, more in focus, was darker and had a mustache, a recognizable link to the men I knew at home. They were holding my suitcases.
They had been notified by my friend who had taught me in Greece and was waiting for me in North Carolina; just because they had been classmates in college, they had responded to that request.
All my fear left me, never to return. My feelings for America were born then. IT was a positive foretaste of many good relationships to come. Two people had cared enough about a frightened girl to come to a noisy port, on the hottest day of the year, to call a stranger by name, to stretch a hand in friendship. Whatever disappointments would develop in later years would be tempered by this first encounter. Because I had been called by name, I was no longer invisible, a blur in the crowd. I became the person I knew myself to be -- a human being of significance to those who loved me and those who would become my friends.
As I look at the bewildered faces of the refugees on television, I wish for them this kind of recognition. Not a miracle to dissolve their problems, for I know they are many, but a hand to grasp.
The wonder is that it takes so little to give a person hope. Like that act of my friends, Lois and Bob, repeated in kindness. Someone to go up to these people, to call them by name, to make them feel found, no longer lost.