NEW AMERICANS: AN ORAL HISTORY by Al Santoli, New York: Viking. 392 pp. $19.95
IN a single week a local newspaper spotlights three stories on the trials and tribulations of recent immigrants to the area. A national television network focuses a news segment on the Immigrant Wall of Honor at Ellis Island, a tribute to the fortitude of those refugees who landed in New York harbor.
Both instances serve as a reminder to those who were born in the United States that not everyone has been as fortunate, and that for many recent arrivals the welcome mat has appeared threadbare.
Al Santoli's oral history of recent immigrants and refugees to the US is a collection of tales that flow from interviews he conducted with recent arrivals. Each confirms that coming to America, the land of plenty and opportunity, doesn't necessarily end the struggle to survive and achieve.
Clearly, there is a unique fiber in the character of those individuals who choose to emigrate from the familiar - whether they were oppressed or not. The subjects in Santoli's book have entered the US with little money, no guarantees for employment, and limited English. They have come with a tireless determination to pursue the American dream.
The eight families and 10 individuals whose first-person accounts are presented here represent the current demographic shift in immigration - fewer Europeans, more South and Latin Americans, Cubans, and Asians. The book's jacket highlights the West Coast as the primary port of entry. The immigrants' gratitude for the opportunity the US offers both humbles and amazes.
Each story is unique but there is a common theme of escape from political oppression or economic stagnation, or both. Throughout a chapter's scenario of hardship, struggle, and survival in the new world, there is a sense that the newcomers consider they are reaching their goals.
Jozef Patyna of Poland and his wife and two children tell of their introduction to America.
``Our ... sponsor ... was a stranger ... who volunteered to sponsor us through a refugee-assistance agency.... She drove us to a building ... a second-floor apartment ... [no heat, no gas] No electricity.... She ... said, `Wait for me, I'll be back.' ... Our sponsor returned [three days later]. That was an emotional time, because it was Christmas Eve.... She gave us $50 for shopping. I was very angry,...'' Patyna said.
Santoli argues that while some in the US may complain about this new influx of immigrants, the evidence is overwhelming that they are contributing substantially to a diminished labor force as the nation experiences a decline in the birthrate. They are helping to balance their new country's need for workers.
A few have had the support of friends as they launched their new lives. As a high school exchange student, Daud Nassery of Afghanistan had lived with a family in Eastham, Mass. Some years later, when political conditions in his homeland became unbearable, he contacted his American ``family'' with his plans to emigrate with his wife and children.
``The Browns and other friends created a fund in my name at one of the banks.... The money that my American parents sent to me [to escape] was from the fund,'' he explains.
In his search for subjects, Santoli spoke with friends of friends and family. These new Americans run the gamut of emotions from euphoria on having the services and choices here to concerns over their lack of marketable skills, or how well their children are assimilating.
``We hope the children can finish high school and have a career of their choice,'' say illegal immigrants Jos'e and Rosa Mar'ia Urbina of Ju'arez, Mexico. ``[We] would like to become American citizens.''