The Gifts America Gave to Our Family

Originally published July 3, 2023 as an op-ed on Independence Day at The Messenger

This is a special July 4th for our family. Not only do we celebrate our nation’s birthday, but we are also celebrating the 100-year anniversary of our families’ immigration to the United States.

In 1923, most of our grandparents came to America. In March of that year, my dad’s father was a lower middle-class bricklayer in Scotland, fleeing a post-war recession where wages rapidly dropped and taxation increased, as he put it, “by leaps and bounds.” He had had enough, and left Scotland with thousands of others. In September, my wife’s grandmother was a 12-year-old Greek girl fleeing the great fire and genocide in Smyrna, Turkey. And in November, my mom’s parents, small-town bakers in Germany, fled the economic and political chaos of the Weimar Republic.

For different reasons, each of them risked everything and left all they had known for a new life in America. What did America give them?

First, it gave them a haven. That 12-year-old Greek girl saw most of her family slaughtered by the Turks as the Greeks in Smyrna were driven into the sea. She was one of the last to escape by boat as the city burned behind her. She came to America as a refugee with nothing but hope and courage, and yet somehow landed in Washington, D.C., and eventually worked for the State Department.

Second, it gave them a livelihood. Once settled in America, the German bakers started their own business — a family bakery. The Greek grandparents started Greek restaurants in New York and Boston. The Scottish bricklayer helped build some of New York City’s skyscrapers. Although one of them temporarily lost a job during the Depression, they all found occupations and meaningful work.

Third, America turned out to be a land of plenty. Before they emigrated, they received letters from friends already settled in the U.S. The letters reaching Germany spoke of a “land of plenty where milk and honey flowed.” Letters reaching Scotland spoke of “a land of opportunity” where “streets were paved with gold.” Hyperbole? Yes. But those are the actual words they used to describe the promise of a better life. 

The Greek grandparents recalled that in the old country there were no hospitals, and poor people did not have money to call doctors. “You get sick and you die,” they said. But in America, there were hospitals everywhere. One of my Scottish grandparents spoke of the thrill of going to the market in America and purchasing fruit, immediately and for a reasonable price. One hundred years later, our family has unmistakably experienced increasing levels of abundance.

Religious freedom was another gift America gave to our family. One of my wife’s grandmothers lamented how she had to learn “the Greek religion” (Orthodoxy) at night while in the fields as a child because Christianity was widely suppressed in much of the Ottoman Empire. Most of our grandparents told of how important it was to have a strong faith community to support them in a new country, and how important it was to be able to freely worship and live out their faith.

A fifth gift America gave to our family was a stable currency and government. My German grandparents left Germany in November of 1923. That year, catastrophic hyperinflation hit Germany, reaching the rate of 29,500% in October. By November, a young Adolf Hitler attempted a military coup to overthrow the Weimar Republic. But in America, even with low inflation rates, the currency held its value and the government was stable.

A sixth gift that America gave to our family was peace. Hardly any wars touched our homeland, excluding the attack on Pearl Harbor. Both of my grandfathers fought in World War I. One fought for Germany, the other for Great Britain. They both fought in Belgium. Both experienced the horrors of trench warfare, both were wounded (shrapnel, mustard gas), yet both survived. And both were distraught by Britain and Germany’s continual involvement in world conflict, and looked at 1923 America as an isolationist nation. My grandfather would not even support World War II until Winston Churchill himself came to the U.S. and made his appeal to Congress.

A seventh gift America gave to our family was educational opportunity. In Europe, education was limited and bound by class. My father-in-law, the poor son of Greek immigrants, grew up in a city high-rise in the 1930s — a three-room apartment shared by two families of eight people. In middle school, he took a Latin course and did extremely well. His friends encouraged him to come with them to high school — the Boston Latin School. With good grades, hard work, he somehow got in. That paved the way for college at Harvard. Most of the children and grandchildren went to other colleges. Some went on to get Master’s degrees. I was the first in my family to get a Ph.D. Our family has even had two college presidents. Education has always been a doorway to opportunity in America. As Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) says, “The closest thing to magic in America is a good education.” That was true for us.

Of course, through the years, all of us realized that America was not as perfect as some of those immigrant letters advertised. The United States did not take them away from world conflicts as they had hoped. But it has given a better life to our family — and is another reminder of why, even today, millions are still trying to get in.

Our 100-year journey has made me sympathetic with the immigrants who try to lawfully enter, and thankful to God for his providential goodness behind every gift. It has also given us a love for this country and a desire to give back.

These days, it is easy to get lost in conversations about all that is wrong with our country. And plenty needs fixing! But sometimes, it is good to step back and see the big picture. That’s what we are doing this Fourth of July for our family’s 100th anniversary in America.

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