The Promise of This Place Endures
Yvonne Abraham, Immigration Reporter, Boston Globe

For two centuries, they have gathered up belongings and courage. They have clung one last time to those they loved, the ones who knew them best. They have scraped together fares, and climbed aboard buses and airplanes and the tops of trains. They have taken giant, terrifying, now-or-never leaps, believing that what they had yet to see must surely surpass all they were leaving behind.

My forbears were among them. In 1949, my grandfather took his wife and his three children and climbed aboard one of the many buses that were leaving his shrinking Lebanese mountain village. Word had spread that prosperity was possible in Australia. He gave up everything he knew on the chance that the stories trickling slowly back from the other side of the planet were true. His brother ran beside the bus as it pulled out of town: "Don't forget me!" They never saw each other again.

A generation later, I, too, leapt into the breach: I said goodbye to my family on a sunny Sydney morning, leaving my country for the first time, hoping for a bigger life in America. Now I spend my days writing about others who left so much, as my grandfather did. People with far more to escape, and lose, than he.

Dinka boys like Isaac Majak, who fled ravaged villages in Southern Sudan, growing into men on long, deadly treks to Ethiopia and Kenya, with only each other for protection. Men now living in Atlanta, or in Somerville, Massachusetts who, with their 80-hour-a-week jobs and their shared apartments, now live lives of which their relatives, slowly returning to their devastated villages, can only dream.

"I feel very guilty because they are really living under a zero life," Majak said of the family he left behind.

Cambodians like Chhan Touch, who trekked through jungles and crossed rivers crowded with floating bodies, desperate to escape certain death in the killing fields, seeing horrors along the way that would never leave them.

"They looked at the human race as a field of grass," Touch said of the Khmer Rouge. "The only way for a pure Utopian society is to kill all the grass."

Armenians like John Kasparian, who fled his village in Ottoman Turkey in 1915, just before Turkish fighters marched his friends and neighbors into an armory and set it ablaze.

"On the road, there was nothing to be eaten. I ate grass for days. It was a hell life to live," he said. "I don't look back. I forget about it, just looking forward. Thank goodness, I live in such a heavenly country."

Some gave up everything. Some had little to give up in the first place. In their struggles to escape or improve their circumstances, few of the immigrants with whom I spend my days gave any thought to the kinds of issues that drive the fractious national debate over immigration, which has so seized the nation in recent years.

Yet here they are, in the middle of the nation's struggle to reconcile the aspirations of the millions who seek entry with the equally worthy needs of those who arrived before them. The immigration debate in this country is so highly charged because it is an argument over what our national values are, and over who can lay claim to them. Such arguments are not quickly resolved. But they are vital.

With these awards, the Vilcek Foundation honors two immensely successful immigrants, people who took the chances this country gave and blazed spectacular, nationally prominent careers in science and the arts.

But the millions of others who have moved heavens and earths to find ways here, who have labored in obscurity to make lives for themselves and their families despite immense odds, are equally striking testaments to this one unassailable fact: The promise of this place endures.

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