The Fourth of July holiday heralds the height of summer — the time to hit the beach and fire up the grill. But it also provides an opportunity to pause and reflect on what is means to be an American—who we really are. The United States is in large part a country of immigrants and the residents who live at Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Boston reflect the rich diversity of the immigrant experience.
I had the chance to sit down with several long-term care residents recently to hear their stories. One resident had come to the Boston area in 1922 from St. Croix, another around the same time from Haiti and a third resident from Iran. And although each came speaking different languages and with diverse cultural backgrounds, the impulse that drove their immigration echoed a similar theme —the opportunity to forge a better life and put down new roots.
The resident from Haiti’s journey was driven by the need to support his growing family. He saw America as a place that offered more economic opportunity than he could find in his native Haiti. The woman from St. Croix’s family fled what they felt was an oppressive environment. America offered a safe haven. The resident from Iran spoke of educational opportunity.
HRC Boston offers a bi-lingual program for Russian-speaking residents and is home to immigrants from the former Soviet Union. In the fall semester of 2014, a group of students from Brandeis University participated in a project called “Individual Lives, A Common Story” at HRC. The students spent time with residents recording oral histories.
As the title of the project suggests, common themes emerged. These residents, all members of what is often called the “greatest generation,” told stories of living through World War II and its devastating aftermath, and, as Jews, suffering the pain and anguish of anti-Semitism. Although some immigrated quite late in life to join children, America represented a land of dreams fulfilled.
I only know the American experience. It is easy to take the comfort so many of us enjoy for granted. Spending time with our residents who knew a different time and place, which compelled them to leave their homes in search of better lives, provides a fresh appreciation for all that I have as a citizen of the United States. Perhaps most precious is the richness of our diversity —and the common dreams and goals that bind us as a great and compassionate nation. I will be thinking about our immigrant elders and their contributions to our great country as I celebrate this Fourth of July.