Shortlisted for the 2014 Editorial Intelligence Independent Blogger of the Year award

Friday, 24 October 2014

Journey's end: migrants, then and now


A little over three months ago, together with a like-minded American journalist friend, I set out on a journey that we called In The Footsteps of Our Families.  The idea was to retrace the journeys made by our immigrant forebears, from eastern and central Europe to the UK and US.  This week, on the streets of New Jersey and New York, our journey came to an end.

The timing could not have been more poignant, coinciding as it did with a remarkable piece of journalism published by The Guardian, pulling together the stories of dozens of 21st century migrants. Their experiences made those of our forebears look like walks in the park.

My friend Stu Seidel traces his roots back to Belarus, Lithuania and Poland. My own family’s roots are in Germany, from which both my parents fled to escape from the Nazis. So the first stop on our journey was the small town of Pastavy in Belarus, which Stu’s grandfather left in 1914. A few days ago, we paid our respects at his graveside, in the King Solomon Memorial Park, in Clifton, New Jersey. 

Along the way, we visited Lithuania, where Stu’s grandmother was born and where mine died, shot by the Nazis in 1941, and Poland, where my mother was born, in a town that when she lived there was in Germany.

Last week, I was in Berlin with my father, who at the age of 95 wanted one more chance to visit the city of his birth. We walked the streets of his childhood, stood where his school used to be, and visited the graves of his grandparents and great grandparents.

A couple of days ago, I found the New York apartment blocks where my father’s older brother first lived when he arrived in the US in 1937. Remarkably, they seemed wholly unchanged.

I also visited Ellis Island, just off the southern tip of Manhattan, where between 1892 and 1924, 12 million immigrants were processed. So what happened in 1924? That’s when the US Congress passed tough new immigration laws, the purpose of which, according to the official government account, “was to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.”

It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? What, after all, is the main reason people give today for not wanting to allow in more immigrants? “They’re not like us.” I dare say my parents, and Stu’s grandparents, weren’t “like us” when they first arrived – yet it didn’t take them long to adapt.

Which bring us to today’s migrants, especially those from countries like Eritrea or Syria, ravaged by war and from which most migrants washed up on the shores of Italy have come. Inevitably, I suppose, I see them as today’s version of my own forebears, escaping from danger, looking for security, hoping for an opportunity to start a new life.

Incidentally, you may wonder why the UK seems to get more than its fair share of asylum seekers. The answer is that it doesn’t. According to The Guardian’s investigation, using figures for the 12 months up to June 2014, Germany received five times as many asylum applications as the UK, Sweden and France more than twice as many, and Italy a third more.

Yes, the applicants for asylum look bedraggled and unkempt when you see pictures of them huddled outside Calais. Yes, some of them get into fights and cause problems for the police. They don't look too great when they are pulled from the Mediterranean after a ramshackle boat provided by unscrupulous people-smugglers has capsized and sunk. Nor, I venture to suggest, would you in similar circumstances.

The fact is that they are like us. Their children will grow up to be French, Swedish, German or British – and it would be a major tragedy if current concerns over a tiny handful of British-born jihadi fighters were to blind us to the potential that immigrants represent.

A hundred years ago, migrants from eastern and central Europe were sometimes portrayed as dangerous revolutionaries and bomb-throwing anarchists. (Some of them were revolutionaries, and a few of them did throw bombs.) In 1905, a British newspaper editorial (no, not the Daily Mail) insisted that “the dirty, destitute, diseased, verminous and criminal foreigner who dumps himself on our soil … shall be forbidden to land.”

It’s a shame that the immigration debate seems not really to have moved on. The slogans of the anti-immigration lobby today exactly parallel those made a century ago. Yet there aren’t many families who can honestly claim that there are no migrants in their past, whether from Ireland, Italy, Poland or France.

No nation can survive for long by erecting high walls along its borders to keep the foreigners out – Japan tried it and ran into all sorts of trouble: an ageing population, a diminishing work force and a stagnant economy.

So I end my journey feeling even more admiring of migrants than when I began. I admire their courage, their strength and their determination, whether they come from Poland, Romania, Somalia or Syria. And I remember what I was told when my Dad and I visited the Isle of Man in August, to return to where he had been interned as an “enemy alien” in 1940.

During the First World War, apparently, thousands of Italians had been held on the island, as well as Germans. Why were there so many Italians living in Britain? They were the ice cream sellers.

Imagine a Britain with no Italians. A country with no ice cream, pizza or pasta. Or a country with no Indians, Pakistanis, Turks or Kurds. No curries, corner shops or kebabs. A poorer, duller, drabber country.