The Immigrant’s Heart: A Soldier, His Sacrifice and My Grandmother

On a flight from Afghanistan to Dubai I met three soldiers; two from the UK and one from the US.  They had all just completed a 7 year work contract and were finally heading home.  In talking to the soldier from the US, he emphasized that he felt it was time to go home; no more contracts for him.  He said that he was currently married and has a 9 year old daughter.  He mentioned that his time in Afghanistan has kept him away from his daughter.  He said he couldn’t take another contract because, before he knows it, another 9 years would go by and his daughter would be in college and he would have missed out on his little girl growing up.  “I can’t miss any more years of her life.”  Later in the conversation he mentioned that he took the contract because he wanted to provide a better life for his family and that was the only way he could do it.  So he had to make the sacrifice.

I pondered on his words.  It was a story I knew too well.

A Little “Me” History”

After my great grandfather died, my great grandmother and her 8 children slipped into extreme poverty to the point that her youngest child died of malnutrition. As the years passed, her children had children of their own and work, especially with good pay, was hard to find.  My grandmother and her sisters had a brother in the USA who was able to sponsor them to move there;  The USA was the “Land of Many Opportunities” during her time.  Seizing the opportunity, my grandmother and her sisters left their children behind with their mother, leaving my widowed great grandmother to raise 13 grandchildren in a 2 room shack probably no bigger than some of our living rooms today and they ventured out into the unknown.

As the money came in for my grandmother and her sisters they sent money back to the West Indies for their mother and children.  When they were able to save enough, one by one, they sponsored their children so that they were able to join them in the USA.  That’s how my mom moved to the USA, became a citizen and I ended up first generation born American.

There were many sacrifices made in the process.  My grandmother and her sisters left everything they have ever known to live in a country they hardly knew anything about.  They had to leave their beloved children, mother, relatives and friends behind .  The distance affected the mother-child bond that usually takes place with the raring of children.  Their children saw their grandmother as “mama” which was definitely a great bruise to the hearts of their mothers but only normal because of circumstance.  They missed milestones in their children’s lives and just could not be present in times when it may have been most important for a mother to be.  In addition, be sides the culture shock they experienced the sisters moved to the USA during the 60’s, during the years of the civil rights movement.  So they were also affected by racism which is something that they were not familiar with where they were from.  If that wasn’t bad enough, they had to deal with the hate and insults from African Americans who, though they looked just like them, did not accept them as equals.  My grandma and aunts were called “foreigners”, and told to go back to where they came from claiming that they were” taking all the jobs.” They had to bear all the changes, adaptations and hardships that came with being immigrants.

Why?  Just to have the chance at a better quality of life. 

The heart of almost all immigrants is to change their present condition.  They desire a better way; one chance, one opportunity, one foot in the door to be able to gain the knowledge and finances needed to assist their families and to improve their way of life.  They desire to give their children the opportunities they never had.  They sacrifice, suffer, endure, work hard, compromise, sweat, cry and bleed to try to attain the opportunities and privileges that others take for granted.   Many go years without seeing their loved ones and their home countries.  Many of their relatives and friends die without them ever seeing them again because they are stuck in other countries working out their “papers” and their working and living status.  Some envisioned a better place and a better circumstance but reality handed them a different picture.  Some struggle, working 2 to 3 jobs just to make ends meet and hardly see the labor of their hands.  Some, if not most, are forced to take the “unwanted” jobs and minimal pay even if they have had degrees, education and better job titles where they once lived.  Some have to endure the abuse from those who know their situation and take advantage of them because they do not know any better or are in desperate need.  Several have to endure discrimination in many forms.  Some compromise their morals, beliefs and themselves because their reasoning is that they have no other way.  And I can go on and on.

Oh the life of the immigrant! 

But can you question or judge them?  Wouldn’t you do the same for a better life? For your loved ones? To escape poverty or an oppressive government?  Or maybe it’s not a reality for you.  Maybe you can’t imagine ever being in such a situation.  Whether or not you can relate, it is still the reality of millions of people in this world.  Millions, who, just like that American soldier, desire to provide a better quality of life for their families and themselves.  Yet, the word “immigrant” holds such a negative connotation in today’s world.  So many of them are seen as a nuisance, freeloaders, rejects and criminals as they try to pursue happiness just like every other person.  They are not considered special.  They are over looked and gotten rid of.  Not many take the time to figure out why they take such big risks to try to make it into another country.   Most don’t know the sacrifices they made or the sufferings they have gone through.  Are all immigrants going about their pursuits the right way? No.  However, there are many who are and the titles and stereotypes that are imposed on them are neither befitting nor fair.  Yet, they are just all clumped under the category of “immigrant” and end up being faceless and numbered with all the rest with the usage of the the terms “you people” and “foreigners” to somewhat acknowledge their existence.

I have the utmost respect for immigrants.  My grandmother is an immigrant, my mother is an immigrant and many of my relatives and friends are immigrants.  I have witnessed so many conditions and circumstances that they have undergone.  I have seen so many hit rock bottom and have cried with many and helped bear their burdens as they have struggled to the point of almost giving up.  Fortunately, I have also had the opportunity to rejoice with them in their triumphs and achievements and reminisce on the pain and tears that once were and praise God for the happiness and success that now is. I have seen how their journey has built in them faith, patience, humility, endurance and perseverance.  The journey has solidified them, taught them how to make much with a little and how to properly manage their abundance; taught them how to have compassion for others and reach out a helping hand whenever anyone is in need.  I have seen life give them a resilience they would not otherwise have if it were not for what they endured and made it through and they stand as example, to me, of strength and fortitude.

Those “immigrants” in my life don’t know they have played a great part in my facing my fears and even becoming an expatriate.  Their sacrifice and accomplishments have been a motivating factor for the choices that I have made.  Their faith and resilience during their journeys have helped build the same type of faith and resilience in me.  Through it all I have learned that the sacrifices we make, not just for ourselves but for others, may not be seen by all but is definitely seen by God and He is there with us through the valley times and assists us in making it to the top of the mountain.  No sacrifice goes unseen and without its reward in the eyes of God.  The step my grandmother took over 50 years ago provided a much better life for her children (who were all college graduates and even holders of masters and doctorate degrees), her grandchildren and her great grandchildren.

So I pondered on the soldier’s story and my grandmother’s.  There were pivotal similarities in their stories.  They both had to make sacrifices and leave their children and loved ones behind for some time to make the money they needed to reach their goal.   They were just from different parts of the world with different backgrounds and different journeys.

Then I pondered some more.

If this soldier and my grandmother were placed side by side would their story be judged the same way?  Would their stories be seen as similar or would they be judged differently?  Would my grandmother be seen as a hero like this soldier would most likely be?  I definitely saw him as a hero to his family and admired him for his sacrifice.  His family probably saw him as a hero too; a soldier leaving his family behind to work in Afghanistan to make sure that his wife and child were well taken care of.  Well, my grandmother is a hero in my eyes.  She did the same thing taking care of 5 children on her own.  The superficial yet socially asserted difference is that she’s an immigrant and he’s a soldier working for his country;  An immigrant and a military expat… but both share the same heart.

The immigrant’s journey is not an easy one and every individual has their own experience.  Many suffer much and some suffer little but they are life impacting and life changing journey’s nonetheless.  Yet, if the non-immigrant chooses to dig a little deeper they may find that their desires and wants are not much different from those of the immigrant no matter what part of the world they are from.  After all, we are all human and no place of birth, race, status or religion can change that similarity.  We all are so much more alike than we are different and if we took more time to understand our brother’s heart and situation we would be quicker to sympathize and assist because of our similarities than we would to judge and reject because of our differences.

To My Dear Grandma:

Thank you for all your sacrifices, for in their due seasons, you have reaped in your children and through your children their reward.  I would not be where I am now if God didn’t build resilience in you.  You have always given so much of yourself to all of us and I’m proud of you.  You went from very meager beginnings to become a registered nurse and in so doing have used your earnings, strength and experience to assist your offspring through their schooling, education and lives to be able to do even better for themselves.  For this I give God thanks and I dedicated this blog to you.

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