My grandpa Sam and great uncle Bolek were luckier than their nine bothers and sisters. They made it out of Poland alive. Uncle Bolek owned a small art gallery in the Nazi ghetto in occupied Poland and had the good sense to roll up three of his most valuable oil canvases in the event he needed to barter on the road to Sweden. Today, two of those oils hang in my house, a reminder of my family's narrow escape from Hitler's reach. My husband Ain's parents were also refugees. They escaped from Estonia on a fishing boat crossing the Baltic Sea to Sweden in the cover of darkness, just ahead of Stalin's henchmen. His uncle traveled the same route by rowboat carrying his only currency: 13 bottles of homemade moonshine. My would-be in-laws went on to work in labor camps, set up by Sweden to help refugees transition. Meanwhile, two of my husband's uncles were sent to Siberia, never to be heard from again. Ain was also a refugee. By 1951, with Finlandization in full swing and Stalin about to come knocking at Sweden's door, Ain's parents decided to put more distance between their new family and the ruthless Soviet dictator. They sailed across another sea, this time the Atlantic, and put down roots in Canada. My husband was teased when they arrived because, although he could speak Estonian and Swedish at the age of five, he could not yet speak English. He was called a 'DP' (displaced person) by neighborhood bullies, a term he couldn't understand at the time but knew, because it was said with such derogatory vehemence, that it was the worst of ethnic slurs. I met Ain's Olympic track coach George for the first time last summer in Canada. George is also a refugee. He wrote a book about his experience titled I Was a Horse in Bryansk. George was one of approximately 100,000 Hungarian refugees Canada took in during the 1956 revolution. The U.S. took in 35,000. My friend Frank was so desperate to escape the fate of his relatives in Hungary that he, his wife and several friends commandeered a commercial jetliner and flew it to a NATO air base in West Germany. He also wrote a book, Free for All to Freedom, a riveting and inspiring read. My yoga buddy Hu is a refugee. When he was three years old, his family of nine escaped on a small wooden boat with 73 others from a war-torn Vietnam. A Japanese boat saved his family from drowning in their sinking boat. The U.N.'s Humanitarian Organization sponsored his family to an immigrant community in San Diego. The refugees I have known didn't feel entitled to anything. They hated living off of food stamps, welfare, housing assistance, government cheese, and in an internment-like and/or poverty stricken communities. But they appreciated the assistance, made the best of opportunities that came their way, and they all worked hard to become fully independent contributing members of their new communities as quickly as they could.
They also didn't enjoy being discriminated against or having to fear for their livelihood because of their eyes, skin color, name, language, and social class. They just hoped that it would all get better. And for each of them, it did. They worked hard to make lives for themselves whether it meant dumpster diving, picking cans, logging, selling newspapers on street corners, delivering pizzas, landscaping people's homes, or whatever it took to provide shelter and put food on the family table. All of us human beings, we are all proud. We all want an opportunity to live freely without fear, without repression. When there is hope, we can endure just about anything, even the traumas of war and the struggles of systematic persecution, discrimination, and humiliation. For refugees this hope involves risking life and limb to try to reach a country where they can be free to live their lives and create futures for themselves and their families through the sweat of their brows. In similar circumstances most of us, if we had the courage, would do the same. In fact this country was founded on just that--people fleeing persecution and seeking liberty. My hope is that our society realizes that we are all on this planet together and can, if we choose, continue to lend a helping hand to those in need. Refugees I have known have appreciated such assistance and have repaid the debt by enriching and giving back to their adopted countries and communities.