This is part 2 in Mary-Margaret Sweeney’s series Chronicling an MSW Internship.
My father was first-generation American. His parents came from Ireland through Ellis Island, and settled in New Jersey. Because of this family history, I have held a long fascination of all things related: the Statue of Liberty, New York City, tenement life, the decision to consider the Irish “white” after years of discrimination. And, being Irish, the traditions of poetry and storytelling are in my marrow. Specifically, a poem called “The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus.
If your memory of grade-school education is faltering, the short sonnet is below:
“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-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Mother of Exiles. A might woman. Of course, this is the poem engraved at the Statue of Liberty.
I memorized these words as a child in the height on my fascination. My grandparents died before I was born. My connection to them was through the grainy black and white photos my father had, and the history of their immigration. And indeed, in the immigration of millions into our country.
It was because of this history, and the history of Jane Addams’ Hull House right here in my own city of Chicago, that a second level internship with a refugee resettlement agency was so compelling. And yes, there are differences between immigrants and refugees; but to serve people “yearning to breathe free;” the “tempost-tost;” those who have been told by other nations that they are “wretched refuse”–well, that felt like honoring my father and his family. It felt like honoring the social work roots of Jane Addams. It felt like fulfilling our ethical code to focus on the vulnerable and oppressed.
My first day was spent learning why people were coming, and from where, and who they were. I heard stories of current clients. I met staff who had first come to the agency as refugees seeking services. I spent the last few hours of my day in the after-school program, and I saw a young girl in hijab chase a Burmese boy, non-verbal from the trauma he has witnessed, and I watched as she made him smile. I realized that it had been too long since taking pre-algebra and I had to confront the fear of feeling stupid when I told a 12 year old boy, “I’m sorry, I don’t know how to do this either.” We laughed together as we tried to pronounce each other’s names. Luckily, I had something in common with them—my name is awfully long for a third grader who is unaccustomed to Anglo names.
I left my first day thinking that this week’s column would detail how I still felt drawn to the policy I had learned about that day, rather than direct service work. I thought I would detail more stories of the clients I had met, and the work I would be doing with them. And I was over the moon to tell you all about meeting a new client family at O’Hare International Airport this week.
But I received an email from my supervisor stating that our agency had just learned that there is more than likely a moratorium on incoming families due to the government shut-down.
And now, I can’t stop thinking about the stories I’ve read in preparation for this journey, and the clients I met. The images of refugee camps, where these people, my future clients, languish, so close, but so far. They thought that in a few days they would tuck their children into real beds, in a room rather than a tent. They thought they would start their path to American citizenship. They thought they would begin to look for work, unfettered by the conflicts of their country of origin.
They are the huddled masses. And they are going to have to huddle a while longer.
As the GOP holds the Democrats against the wall over a law long passed an enacted, my clients wait. They wait for a promise emblazoned on our Lady Liberty—which, of course they couldn’t visit anyway, as it too is shut down.
My grandparents, and the family members of all of us save the Native Americans, waited, too. And when they finally passed through that golden door, they gave us art and music. They gave us science. They gave us delicious foods. They built the United States we know today. And those who would come to heed Lady Liberty’s call, and to keep evolving our nation, are stuck in harm’s way. Yearning to break free. For how long? We can’t tell them. We can only tell them to wait.
Written by Mary-Maraget Sweeney
Checkout other entries in the internship series @ http://www.socialjusticesolutions.org/internship-series
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I loved this post! My mom is a first-generation American, and we would go to the Statue of Liberty every summer for a visit (we lived in New Jersey, so it was pretty close). I must have read that poem a one hundred times, and I still get chills when I hear the phrase, “Mother of Exiles.” It brings tears to my eyes.
I’ve always felt that those words were our highest national aspiration. You mentioned politics, briefly—wouldn’t it be wonderful if our politicians lived up to the promises we made in that poem?