Refugees — Two Suitcases, $500, and the Invaluable Value of Hope

I’m an immigrant. I came to the US in 1977, and became a citizen in 1983.

In the current political atmosphere, immigration is front and center, and while I hear both sides, I strongly sympathize with the immigrants and the refugees. I know how they feel. It’s not the money or the hardship of the process. It is their continuous and overwhelming feeling of uncertainty as they trade everything that is dear to them for the hope that their new country will receive them with open arms. Their decision to leave home and family is heartbreaking. Many have no choice.

My wife and I came here when the world was divided by an iron curtain, and we waited in Greece to be admitted as political refugees.

Below is an excerpt from my novel Planet New York. It describes the process we went through (luckily a process existed at that time), and, I hope, it provides a glance into the pain, hope, and fear of being a refugee.

* * *

In Athens, I ran into my friend Michael by chance at the office of the United States Catholic Commission, or USCC, the organization that took care of us. I had gone there to pick up the money — the equivalent in drachmas of six US dollars a day. That was how much two adults were receiving for food and miscellaneous expenses, plus the voucher for the hotel. As usual, the waiting room was overflowing with people, and a bunch of them were gathered outside on the sidewalk. I went quickly in to take a number, and then outside again. When I saw Michael, I couldn’t believe my eyes. He was standing a few feet in front of me, smoking, and looking into a shop window. I hadn’t seen him in a number of years, but I recognized him right away. He was a tall man with broad shoulders, a little stooped, an edgy but kind face, and a wide forehead with a lot of blond hair on top.

“Michael,” I said in a strangled voice. “Michael, is this you? What are you doing here?”

Startled, he turned and looked at me as if through a haze. Slowly, his blue eyes cleared and a smile appeared on his face. We hugged.

“Nicki, I didn’t expect to find you here, my God!”

“Neither did I. Tell me, when did you arrive?”

“Four days ago.”

“That explains why I haven’t seen you before.”

I told him we had been there for almost five months. I suggested we meet in the afternoon and go out.

“Wait one second,” he said.

He flicked his cigarette out and went inside. He returned accompanied by his wife, Hadassah, a petite woman with glasses. She seemed nervous, afraid. When she shook my hand, she looked the other way.

“So the Catholics are helping you,” I led on.

“We don’t know,” Michael said in a low voice. “We are not sure if our religions matter.”

“They don’t. The money comes from the States and the Catholics help everybody. Look at us. Lydia is Jewish, I am Greek Orthodox, and they’re helping us.”

Hadassah glanced at me. Michael placed a finger over his lips signaling me not to speak too loudly. He was right. One could never be too careful.

“We arrived here from Israel,” I said. “We managed to go there thanks to Lydia, and then left because I wasn’t Jewish. We left in search of so-called religious freedom, you see. In Greece, the Catholics took over and told us what to do.”

Michael lit a cigarette.

“We came through Israel also.”

“I’m not surprised. Most Romanians and Russians come that way. Very few get here by defecting. There are also a few Asians around, but we have little to do with them. We are all following the same program, you see.”

They looked at me curiously. Hadassah seemed to relax a bit. They didn’t have to be afraid of me. I had the information they needed, and was happy to share it with them. I felt like I was there to protect them.

“It’s simple,” I said. “The ‘third country program.’ You see, you wait in a neutral country, ‘the third.’ For us, it is Greece. They let us wait here until our visas for the country we want to go to are ready.”

“Canada,” said Hadassah, and smiled.

“Canada,” I repeated. “Or the United States, for Lydia and me. Or Australia, or New Zealand. And as long as we wait, the organization gives us some money and the Americans, or the Canadians, check us out. That means they get in touch with the Romanians and verify our past.”

“But I don’t want the Romanians to know of this,” Michael said. “I still have family over there.”

“You should have thought of it earlier,” I said, taken aback by his naiveté. “It doesn’t matter what you want at this point. We too have families over there. Usually nothing happens to them. We are not that important, you see.”

“Can they turn us down?” Hadassah asked.

“Who? The Americans or the Canadians? Sure they can. Although that’s why it’s called a ‘program,’ because in theory if you are a political refugee, they let you in. It’s an agreement between countries, you see? But you have to be a refugee. And you better not be a former Communist, or a spy, or a homosexual, or suffer from syphilis, or the like. When the papers are ready, they send you for a medical exam, and then they invite you to the embassy for an interview. If the interview goes well, you get your visa and the work permit, which is very important, as you know. Plus, you also get your airline tickets.”

“But if they turn you down,” said Hadassah. “What then?”

She was very scared; it was obvious to me. She had been in Athens for only four days and already felt insecure. How should we feel, I thought, Lydia and I, after having waited there for all those months, without any results so far?

Frustrated, I drew a circle on the dusty sidewalk with the tip of my shoe.

“What do you do if they reject you?” I said. “I have no idea.”

A man came out of the building and called my number in English. We agreed to meet in the evening and I went in. When I came out again, they were gone.

We lived in a hotel nearby. Many were sent to a refugee camp in Lavrion, but we had been lucky so far. At least, in Athens, we could walk in the streets and watch the crowds, we could go to museums, to the Acropolis, or to the American Cultural Center and borrow books and see movies. Otherwise, waiting for months and sometimes years without anything to do and especially without knowing what to expect, could get to you. Lydia, for instance, who otherwise was brave and resilient, took to crying. And she wouldn’t just cry occasionally, but a little bit every day.

“Guess who I ran into today?” I yelled as soon as I entered the hotel room.

She had no way of guessing, but I wanted to try and cheer her up.

“I’ve no idea,” she said.

I stopped in front of the table where she sat. She was in her nightgown and slippers. In her hand she held a book she was obviously not reading.

“Of course you don’t,” I said. “But try to guess, anyway.”

Lydia turned a long face towards me. My heart ached. She was as beautiful as ever, but totally absent and lost. While I was out, she could have gotten dressed a thousand times.

“I ran into Michael,” I said acting as happily as I could. “Do you remember him, my friend from the swim team? He was at the office, with his wife, you know.”

“They were?” Lydia said. “I pity them.”

I didn’t let her spoil my enthusiasm.

“Do you know what the greatest surprise is? Tonight, we are taking them out to a restaurant.”

“Where will you get the money?” she asked.

“I don’t know. We’ll find some, especially since I’ve invited them already.”

“You did? Nicki, how could you?”

She placed the book on the table and leaned in my direction. Her breasts became visible through the nightgown.

“I thought we’d take some from uncle Sasha’s.”

“That’s our emergency money. Didn’t we decide that?”

She was right. Uncle Sasha, my maternal grandfather’s younger brother, lived in Paris. When we came to Athens, he sent us a gift of five hundred dollars. We did not tell anybody at the USCC, and hid our little treasure in my leather money belt. For emergencies only, we decided at the time.

“Scat,” I said as if she were a cat. “Our friends are an emergency, aren’t they?”

“We don’t have any friends over here,” she said.

Her lower lip started to tremble.

“Why not? Look, we have these two.”

Her eyes turned moist and velvety. Her cheeks fell in like the sunken faces of saints painted in the nearby Byzantine churches.

“I miss my mother,” she said.

“I miss mine too.”

“But I also miss my father, my baby sister, my aunt Mary, my friends, my neighbors Ina, Lucien, and Johnny, my street, my room, my dolls, my books, and my cat, Igor.”

I could enumerate my side of the family, but there was no purpose to it. Lydia’s longing was sufficient and I took her in my arms. If she couldn’t be stronger, I would stand strong next to her.

“It will be okay,” I said. “We’ll settle down, just wait until we get to America.”

“Will they give us the visas?”

“They will. Just be patient a little longer.”

“You know, when we get to America I want to have children. I don’t want to wait any longer. I want lots of children, a large family there, for you and for me.”

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