Nomads of the '90s

WHEN a collection of possessions that once belonged to American immigrants went on display at Ellis Island last fall, an advertisement for the exhibit posed an agonizing question: ``If you were leaving home to start a new life, what would you take with you?'' Then, just to keep the list-making realistic, the ad cautioned, ``Imagine you could only take as much as you can carry.'' The question - and the cautionary note - may serve as an amusing parlor game for Americans. But for refugees in other parts of the world who are making front-page headlines these days, the exercise is all too real.

During the past two weeks, thousands of Albanians - most of them ethnic Greeks - have trekked across a mountainous border frontier to seek political asylum in Greece. At the same time, a record number of Soviet Jews, fearing a worsening political climate in their homeland, are hastily emigrating to Israel. As part of the largest influx of immigrants to that nation in 40 years, their ranks are expected to swell to 400,000 this year.

Newspaper photographs of both groups only hint at the emotions immigrants experience in their quest for safety, freedom, or a better life. In one picture, Soviets arriving in Israel squint apprehensively into the sun as they wheel baggage carts laden with their possessions. In another, a bearded old man, leaning on a cane, searches for his belongings among the hundreds of suitcases that surround him in the Tel Aviv airport.

A curious and sympathetic American can only wonder: What special treasures have these weary expatriates jammed into their satchels and sacks? Practical items such as clothes and utensils and tools? Sacred objects? Or sentimental keepsakes - family photographs, a child's drawings, a father's watch, a grandmother's silver spoons?

If these immigrants are anything like those who made their way to the United States earlier in the century, their chosen mementos are a mix of the functional and the fanciful, serving the needs of the head and the heart.

Sepia-toned photographs of objects in the Ellis Island exhibit, called ``Treasures from Home,'' show a wedding doll from Czechoslovakia, a child's wooden top from Portugal, a silver pocket watch from France, castanets from Italy, and a shoemaker's last from Sweden.

For many Americans, the act of paring down to a bare minimum of possessions seems nearly incomprehensible. We are the ones, after all, who often resemble upscale gypsies as we head off, multiple suitcases in tow, for a brief vacation. We are the ones whose attics and basements and garages overflow with a lifetime accumulation of belongings, and whose mailboxes fill daily with catalogs offering a consumer's paradise of goods.

When we make a move, not as a refugee but from one fixed home to another, the possessions we insist on taking with us weigh an average of 6,345 pounds and cost $1,866 to transport, according to the Household Goods Carriers' Bureau in Alexandria, Va.

That kind of domestic abundance would be unimaginable to most of the 15 million people around the world who have become refugees during the past decade. Some have been displaced by drought and natural disasters, others by war and human rights abuses.

But whatever the cause, the effects are the same - the loss of a fixed place, a familiar environment, and the personal possessions, however modest, that stake out an individual's claim to belonging to a particular spot or family or home.

From the Vietnamese boat people to the Turkish Kurds, there are swelling ranks of the dislocated and the dispossessed who can no longer claim the elementary entitlement of property. How long can the world tolerate 15 million new refugees each decade?

Identity does not rest in possessions. But to be stripped of possessions is an intolerable affront.

The Ellis Island question - ``What would you take if you were leaving home to start a new life?'' - is worth asking, and answering, even by those whose homes and homelands remain safe from the threat of war and political persecution. This imaginary inventory of the mind and heart can only approximate the actual experience. But to imagine, truly imagine, what it is like to be stripped is the smallest gift of sharing the rest of us can offer those living in exile.

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