LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Gwenyfar reflects on generations of immigrants and impact of action

Feb 21 • FEATURE SIDEBAR, Live Local, NEWS & VIEWSNo Comments on LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Gwenyfar reflects on generations of immigrants and impact of action

“I made sure to buy ground coffee for Thursday morning,” Jock commented several times on Wednesday afternoon and evening. After 14 years of life together, we have learned any attempt at a discussion, however inconsequential, before consuming fortifying caffeine in the morning is a sure recipe for an argument. Jock still has breakfast every morning at Folks Café, located down the street from our home. But on this Thursday morning Folks was closed in solidarity with immigrants across the nation.

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IMMIGRATION IMPACT: America’s economy runs on immigrant-owned businesses, including Wilmington’s own Folks on 4th, a coffee shop that closed last week as part of “A Day Without Immigrants,” which was recognized across America. Photo by Gwenyfar Rohler

Jock—who moved here from Canada in 1984 with Dino De Laurentiis and the upstart of the movie studio—was planning ahead with coffee reserves. In the last few weeks, people we have known for many years express shock when reminded that Jock is Canadian. As in, he’s an immigrant.

Among a variety of things we have in common is our Dutch heritage. He was born in Holland, and, at the age of 18 months, received one of the first visas to settle in Canada, issued at the end of WWII. For him Holland is mostly memories that are not his—stories he has been told by his parents and older siblings.

Though I have visited Holland as an adult, I am much more removed from it. My great-grandparents came here as indentured servants from Holland. That means someone paid their way to the states in exchange for their labor to repay their passage and settlement expenses. My great-grandparents were barely literate in Dutch and understood no English when they arrived. My grandparents learned to speak English at school. My grandmother and grandfather met at a church social in the Dutch community. When World War II came, my grandfather enlisted, and my grandmother became Rosie the Riveter: She went to work in a factory that supported the war effort. The first time in her life she left the town she was born in was to take a train to where my grandfather awaited deployment to the Pacific theater. They were married at the military base and had two days of honeymoon. Then she went home and he was deployed. He became a firefighter after the war ended.

My father—the next generation—not only finished high school, but went to college and graduate school. Like many people who have struggled to get where they are, and hope for something better for their children (but are not really sure what that looks like), my grandparents were thrilled and amazed—even confused—when my father became a professor. That’s two generations from the first brave and desperate souls who arrived here unable to even say “hello” or read a document before they signed it. My grandparents understood the insular world of the Dutch community in the Midwest, but not much else, and certainly not the world their son was discovering.

My mother’s family immigrated here from the Pale of Russia in the late 19th century to escape pogroms. They came through Canada first; it was easier to get visas there. Eventually, they settled in Chicago and became part of the extended Jewish community. My great-grandfather had a mattress-making business and was a scholar. His children were born in America and grew up in the busy and exciting world of the Jazz Age in Chicago.

My grandmother won a scholarship to college—a woman in the 1930s! Her father wouldn’t let her enroll. (That, probably more than anything else, is what ensured my mother and her two sisters all went to college.) Again: Two generations who only spoke Yiddish were removed from a boat that traveled from the Baltic to Canada. That generation produced one public-relations officer for the Virginia State Parks authority, a stockbroker and a college professor. During the 1930s and 1940s, though the immediate family was in the states, extended family (aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents) slowly stopped writing letters from Europe. Eventually, the information about their fate became inescapably clear.

I—the third generation—grew up with two parents who saved for my college fund because they knew from their own experience that education was the key that had unlocked every door for them. We never spoke Dutch or Yiddish at home; though, the cultural traditions of both sides of the family were extremely important.

Then I fell in love with Jock, and through him our family life changed again. He just had developed the peanut sheller, and he founded the nonprofit, Full Belly, which was becoming an entity when we got together. That first Christmas together he gave me a copy of “The Ship’s Cat,” his autobiographical novel about the humanitarian mission he was part of during Biafra. The fictional part of the book follows a child who lives with them at their base, and the protagonist smuggles him back to the west to raise and care for as his own.

Last Wednesday night we were at the screening for Oscar-nominated documentary shorts at Thalian Hall. Both films in that block were about Syria. The first followed the family of a Syrian solider who was taken by ISIS. His wife and children eventually made it to Germany—though the kids were stunned the buildings were not rubble in Germany. They continued to scream and head for cover every time a plane flew over head.

The second film looked at a group called “The White Helmets,” a civilian rescue squad in Aleppo, who were pulling people out of bombed buildings. At one point they rescue a week-old baby who was trapped under rubble for 16 hours. Every grown man on camera cried, and they called him their miracle baby. A year and a half later, the mother brought the baby to visit his saviors. As they took turns cooing over him, I leaned over to Jock and whispered, “He’s their ship’s cat.”

Jock nodded.

But, really, I was thinking about when Jock met his real life ship’s cat a few years ago in Washington, D.C. The security guard in the lobby of the building where Peace Corps had their offices had a tough morning when Jock showed up with a peanut sheller for a meeting upstairs. While waiting for Peace Corps to call down to say they were ready for Jock, the two men got into a discussion about trying to figure out the contraption. In a very Jock-like way, when he lost interest in answering questions about the sheller, he startled the guard with: “So, are you Igbo?”

“Excuse me?” the guard responded.

“Are you Igbo? You look Igbo.”

“How did you know?” he asked, completely shocked that an over-6-foot tall white guy would ask him this in D.C.
“I was in Biafra; you look Igbo,” Jock answered matter-of-factly.

“You were in Biafra?” the guard asked him. Canadian white guys were not typical players in African civil wars.
“Yeah, I was with Can. Air Relief.”

“What did you do in Biafra? Were you a mercenary?”

“No, I was on the Can. Air Relief plane that flew food and medical supplies into the combat zone at night and evacuated children to São Tomé.”

The call came down from upstairs for Jock. He headed for the elevator. When Jock came back down after his meeting, the guard was waiting for him … and shaking.

“I thought he was going to take a swing at me,” Jock recounted to me later. “He was actually vibrating because he was so upset.”

He stopped Jock in the lobby and asked again, “Were you really in Biafra?”
Jock nodded. “I was.”

“You really flew on the plane with the children?”

Jock nodded again and looked at his hands, like he always does when he talks about this. “Yes,” he answered. “I had children die in my arms … and I had nightmares for years.”

The guard stared at him, confusion written across his face. “I left under a hail of gunfire and I haven’t been back. But I still see that plane full of children every night, trying to get that old Super Constellation off the ground before dawn and across the water to São Tomé.”

In an effort to get the world press to acknowledge what was happening in Biafra, several aid organizations were evacuating children who were dying of starvation to a small island known as São Tomé, a Portuguese-owned prison colony off the coast of Nigeria. They were given food and medical care with promises to be reunited with their parents—if their parents survived the war. For members of the world press, the pictures and stories of these children with bloated stomachs and skin hanging limply from their bones were more heartrending than any statistics about the battles.

“I was one of those children,” the guard finally whispered. Tears streamed from his eyes and he held out his hand. “I have to thank you. My family would have starved and I would have died. You saved our lives.”

Jock is a guy of the Clint Eastwood school of macho: He doesn’t cry. But on a perfectly normal Friday morning, he found himself crying uncontrollably and hugging a security guard in the lobby of an office building in Washington, D.C. The child grew up and his family lived; he came to the U.S., got a good job and was sending money home. He asked Jock for some information about the shellers, and they embraced again.

On Thursday morning last week at home in our kitchen, Jock and I, together, each lifted a cup of coffee and toasted the guard in D.C., my great grandparents, Jock, and the many, many immigrants who make our daily lives not only possible but worthwhile.

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