Have you ever looked into someone's eyes you did not know and were maybe not really sure you liked or felt safe with and seen yourself? I have! Several years ago, when Europe was experiencing the growth pains of the Syrian Refugee Crisis, I got a call from a missionary friend of mine asking me to bring a team to Hungary to offer support to the local Hungarian church. They were trying to care for those driven from their homes after years of oppression, unrest and war. Like many other countries around the world, the Hungarians were overwhelmed by and a bit fearful of the the new influx of those seeking asylum. So let’s just say there was no welcome party or red carpet for these new members of the community.
Our short-term team’s job was simple… Love well. We decided to do this through teaching English, doing art and cooking together… One day the students were practicing their English by sharing about their personal lives, their journey and their hopes for the future. I was listening to a young man from Afghanistan (by all appearances my complete opposite) talk about his life and the risks he took to pursue a better future for himself and his family. In that moment I saw myself in his eyes. He was just like me; educated, hopeful, loving, family-rooted and faithful. I realized that if I were in his position I would be doing the same thing — chasing after freedom, peace and hope.
I recently had a visit from my step-mom. She is one of those people who seems to have an unending supply of truly interesting stories. She is of Armenian decent and was telling me how her family fled to the US in the 1920s as a result of the Armenian genocide.
Many people have never heard of the Armenians, let alone the genocide, so here's a little history lesson:
The Armenian people can be traced back to the Bronze Age around 2500 BC. The country’s boundaries have changed over the years, but it is located in southwest Asia at the eastern end of the mediterranean. Armenia was one of the countries impacted by first century missionary journeys (including the apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew) and was the first country to declare Christianity as their national religion.
During the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early 1900s, the Young Turk movement seized power and sided with Germany during World War I. Armenians were declared an enemy of the state and were viewed with fear. On April 24, 1915, more than 200 hundred Armenians were rounded up and killed, marking the beginning of the first genocide of the 20th century. Historians estimate that 1.5 million Armenians were rounded up in cattle cars, murdered, raped and beaten.
My great-grandfather, Yervant Der Ohanesian (known as “Papa” to his family), became the “head of household” at a young age after his father and oldest brother were beheaded by Turkish soldiers at the onset of the genocide. Papa along with his mother, younger brothers and a sister spent years without a home. They endured a relocation march, forced labor and refugee camps in Aleppo and Constantinople, where Papa married my great-grandmother, who we called “Nano.” Sponsored by relatives in California, they eventually received visas and immigrated to the US.
They first settled alongside other Armenians, Japanese immigrants and other families seeking refuge during the early 20th century, in the lush farmlands of the California Central Valley. My grandmother was born in Clovis, but as when she was an infant her the family moved to Sacramento, California where they worked at Libby, McNeil, and Libby Cannery. Papa, his siblings and Nano attended night school and became naturalized citizens. They and saved their money to purchase a business of their own. In the early 1940’s an opportunity arose for Papa to buy (or possibly rent-to-buy) the Court Grocery on 7th Street between H and I streets across the street from the federal courthouse. This family business thrived as did the growing Armenian family.
This is the story of the American Dream right? The persecuted flee an undeserved death sentence in hopes of providing their family with a better life. They work hard, pay their taxes and obey the laws and eventually establish themselves as beloved American citizens.
Well here is the rest of the story…..
That store (you know, the one that brought stability to my Armenian family) was purchased from Irene Fujimoto who was forced to sell as a result of the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans in 10 fenced and guarded concentration camps scattered in remote places across the U.S.
This is where what I believe is the REAL American Dream comes in….
Here are the words of my step-mom Joanne:
“I asked Mom about her father's purchase of the grocery store from the Japanese family. She does not know much more than what I told you - that her father purchased the store and faithfully made payments into a bank account in their absence to complete the purchase as agreed upon. The money enabled the Japanese family to buy a house upon release from the internment camp. Evidently, not all who purchased or leased property from those interred held up their end of the deal. When a member of the Japanese family died several years ago, Mom's younger brother saw the obituary and delivered a sympathy card to the funeral home. A member of the Japanese family contacted my uncle, and he and his wife had lunch with the family. My aunt tells me that the family expressed that they so appreciated what Papa did for them and that they would always be so grateful to the Ohanesian family; it was a very nice and tearful lunch. Interestingly, my uncle discovered that he had gone to Sacramento High School with some of the family members.”
Isn’t the real American Dream to be the people who offer freedom for all?
New Colossus (inscribed on the plaque on the Statue of Liberty)
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
My great-grandfather could have chosen to live like so many others, put his family first and “steal” from their imprisoned brothers, but I believe he saw himself in the eyes of the Japanese family and walked with justice, mercy and humility. As a result both families thrived.
Still today, 100 years later, in the “America First” era we have people fleeing from certain death and waiting for years on long lists in UN refugee camps, at the Mexican border crossings or hiding in plain sight as they seek their chance to experience, the American dream — The Real American dream that says, “brother I see you, I’ve been you and I will walk with you.”
Who do you see when you look into the eyes of an immigrant?
A predator? A Brother? A thief? A Hero? An economic drain? A terrorist? Or maybe Yourself?
What do you think Jesus sees? How would He respond to the stranger in need?
Don’t know? Check out Matthew 25, or better yet, get to know a refugee, hear their story and look into their eyes.