The road from Damascus

A Syrian doctor is the latest in a long line of immigrants in my life.

John Lent/AP
Refugees from 'Iron Curtain' countries arrived in New York in April 1953.

Our friend, the son of our neighbor, has just returned from Damascus, Syria. The family came here some years ago, arriving after their son had finished medical school in Syria but not his final examinations. He returned to Damascus twice this year, which was the cause of some concern among family and friends. Would the examinations be held? Would politics interfere? Would he pass? And, of course, could he get back to Tennessee?

I’m happy to report he is back, and he passed his exams. While many steps remain before he can practice medicine in the United States, he has been hired as an assistant in a local nursing home. He is learning local terminology and procedures. His English is already excellent.

I first became aware of refugees, as a category, in 1957. A cousin who lived a few miles away was housing a refugee from the previous year’s abortive Hungarian Revolution in his guest room until other arrangements could be made. The Hungarian spoke no English but played chess, and I wanted to become a good chess player. So I played chess with him several evenings a week until he began evening English classes. He got some diversion, and I got some chess practice.

It was then, when I was 13, that my family told me that my own grandparents had been refugees, fleeing Russia’s persecution of the Jews shortly before World War I. Other relatives had fled Russia in later years, winding up in places as diverse as England, pre-1940 Palestine, and South Africa. Later, among my professional mentors in mathematics, there was a married couple who had fled east from Europe and spent World War II in the Jewish ghetto in Shanghai, China. At the time, it was one of the few places in the world that would admit Jews without a visa.

My wife’s ancestors, I realize now, also included some much earlier religious refugees. They came over on the Mayflower.

In 1976, I was living in Memphis, Tenn., when a sudden shift in Soviet policy allowed many Jews to leave the Soviet Union. Some, on reaching Vienna, asked to be allowed to come to the US. They could get US visas if there was financial support and a job waiting for them. 

Meetings in our local Jewish community discussed how many immigrants we could help. It was much less expensive to support a new immigrant family in Israel than in the US. But many of us felt that a refugee family should be helped to go wherever they would feel most safe, even if it was more costly.

The main Jewish charity in Memphis collected money for immigrants who wanted to go to Israel, and a separate list was made of those willing to help immigrants to the US. 

When a new family arrived in Memphis, I’d get a bill in the mail for my very small share of their initial housekeeping expenses. Among the jobs found for the new arrivals was one for a taxi driver from Kiev who arrived speaking no English but knowing some auto mechanics. He was hired by a local automobile dealership. He did janitorial work until he learned enough English to be a mechanic’s helper and then learn to repair American automobiles. My own grandfather, trained in Lithuania as a rabbi, had worked in a butcher shop in New Hampshire until he learned English.

The US is, famously, a nation of immigrants. Many of our families came as refugees from religious persecution or famine. Others came to seek a better life in a free and economically attractive country. In the early days the New World received Puritans, Baptists, Quakers, Roman Catholics, and Jews, among others. Africans arrived involuntarily, for the most part. Later came Germans, Italians, Irish, Poles, and others. 

My friends today include those from groups that have arrived more recently like Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Iranians, and Arabs. Many of these groups, like others before them, have established themselves sufficiently to support their own newcomers. We have well-respected Syrian doctors in town who have helped find jobs for several well-trained newcomers. Other immigrants are well established in business or as professionals. One local church shares its building with a congregation that prays in Korean. Children of the new arrivals and the children of those who have been Americans for generations attend Sunday school together.

The US has done an excellent job of absorbing refugees in many past generations, including that of my grandparents. I very much hope to see it continue to happen in this generation.

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