GREEK GIRLS and THEIR YIAYIÁS

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For Suzanne who graced me with a delightful story about her Yiayiá

This story really has two titles: “Greek Girls and their Yiayiás” or “How to Love America by Two Greek Women who Emigrated to America.” Either title fits the nostalgic stories told by two granddaughters, me and my life-long friend Suzanne. I hope you find in our tales a touch of wisdom for your life, a reminder of the spirit of love, and a portrait of sacrifice and resilience.

It was a gift of grace to be a young Greek girl and have your Yiayiá (grandmother) close by, although at times being trapped in an endless, one-sided conversation could be annoying. In my teenage years there were “from her lips to God’s ears” conversations that were aimed directly at me — endless rules for good Greek girls, how to behave in church and wearing the proper church attire, old Greek sayings that sort of made sense to me, very long stories about the “old country” (which was a small Greek island), diatribes about how other families’ allowed their Greek daughters to be “loose,” and best of all, reciting to me stanza after stanza of stunningly poignant Greek poetry.

The problem was that I had to memorize those poems and dutifully stand before our house guests reciting them — for every visitor, even the ones who didn’t care at all about Greek poems. I think Yiayiá probably made me recite Greek poetry to some visitors who knew no Greek at all and had no idea what I was saying! The poems, though, remain a lovely part of my memories of her. To this very day — with a seventy year old memory — I can recite them word for word, especially my favorite one about the Greek revolutionaries who fought for nine years (1821-1830) against the Ottoman Empire for independence. Every time I recited it, my Yiayiá’s eyes filled with tears. Today, I cannot recite it without tears.

There was always a political side of my Yiayiá, although those around her ignored it. I cherish the fact that I saw parts her that others never saw, and one significant part of her was her keen interest in all things political. She always entered the voting booth with knowledge about candidates and issues that she had learned from devouring The Birmingham News every day. It’s safe to say that my Yiayiá was an “old country” style political junkie.

After she immigrated from Karpathos with a two year old (my mother) and a baby boy, she resolved to make America her home. Adjusting wasn’t easy for her, and many times at night, I would hear her weeping. Hearing her long, intricate stories of her homeland, it seemed obvious that she missed her home. Leaving one’s homeland can be a sacrifice. It was for my Yiayiá.

She was so young when she left her island and boarded a ship for a very long ocean voyage, only to end up in a land that must have seemed so different and unfamiliar to her. Ellis Island processing was grueling, especially for one who did not know a word of English. Just a glance at early portraits of Yiayiá would tell anyone of the grief and loss she experienced during her early days in America. Still, she moved forward in her new life because of her grit and her resilience, and maybe because she was among the early “dreamers” who made their home in the land of Lady Liberty bringing just a suitcase and a dream.

What uncommon resilience and perseverance Yiayiá had! She taught herself to read and speak English. Every morning without fail, she sat at the kitchen table near the radiator to read the newspaper while she drank her coffee. She knew the local and national news, the weather forecast and the latest scoop about every politician. She enjoyed election seasons and, with her own specialized vetting process, she chose the candidates she would vote for.

Voting day for her was a big deal. During election seasons, I always have Yiayiá memories that inspire me. So on election day, she would put on her finest dress, make-up, jewelry and always a hat — maybe even a hat with an exotic-looking black veil that I admired and coveted for myself. Then she would dress me in a frilly dress accessorized with my gold cross, white socks trimmed with lace and black patent leather shoes. With a quick brush of my black curls, we were off to the polls, walking down the hill from our house hand in hand.

She always took me into the polling booth with her. When she pulled the red privacy drape around us. I was just tall enough for the bottom of it to brush my face, but my head was inside that private place. When Yiayiá finished voting, she looked down at me and gave me a stern and irrevocable political mandate: “Kalliope, remember you are a Democrat! Never vote for a Republican!” I never have!

I could always see in my Yiayiá a deep love for her adopted country. She was a true and loyal American, to her bones. And she cared deeply about what this country stood for in the world. When I see the way immigrants are treated in these troubled days, I always think of my Yiayiá — what she would think about our America, what forcefully spoken diatribe she might offer to this day’s politicians, how she would grieve over the state of our nation. I had no doubt at all — my Yiayiá loved America!

I was talking this week with my dearest childhood friend, Suzanne. It was common for us to talk about our Yiayiás as we often do when we visit. I told my “excursion to the polls” story and Suzanne told a delightful story about the time when she and her Yiayiá took an extended trip to Greece. One caveat: the story is much more delightful in Greek. Anyway, they stayed in Greece long enough that they began to miss America. When they landed at the airport in Birmingham, Alabama, they walked down the airplane’s stairs onto the concrete. As soon as their feet hit the ground, Yiayiá said in Greek, “My America! I love you so much that I will kiss the ground (in Greek — “soil”).” Suzanne adamantly replied, “No, Yiayiá! You will not kiss the ground!”

I just must add this translation for my Greek friends:

Η Αμερική μου! Σε αγαπώ τόσο πολύ. Θα το φιλήσω το χώμα. 

Όχι Γιαγιά, δεν θα φιλήσεις το χώμα.

Suzanne’s sweet Yiayiá dropped to her knees and kissed the ground! 

There’s something about that enchanting story that has “love” written all over it. Suzanne’s Yiayiá loved America. My Yiayiá loved America. Probably more than their granddaughters ever did! To honor their memory, Suzanne and I vote, every time there’s an election. In fact, we both have already voted in this important 2020 election.

Suzanne’s beautiful Yiayiá said, “My America! I love you so much that I will kiss the soil!”

May it be so for us, even in these politically troublesome days. 

Yiayia / Γιαγιά

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In my heart this week, I have held my grandmother, my “Yiayia” who came to America at age 25 with an older husband and two babies. One of them was my mother. December 16, 1916 it was when the ship Guiseppe Verdi reached Ellis Island. My Yiayia — line number 25 on the ship’s passenger manifest — had never envisioned coming to this land. She never considered she might leave the tiny Greek village on the island that was her home.

Her husband, wanted by Mussolini as a political detractor, had no choice but to flee in the dark of night in search of a place of safety and refuge for his little family. He had the courage to survive and to dream. But here’s the thing: my grandparents were welcomed into this country when they arrived to see the brightness of the Lady Liberty’s lighted torch. To be sure, their life in America was not all bright or easy. They worked hard to eek out a living and to become a part of a new community so very far from the home they loved. 

After I was born into the world, a toddler at Yiayia’s knee, I watched her struggling to learn English, to speak English well enough to be understood by her neighbors. One of my most vivid memories was sitting next to her at our kitchen table next to an enormous silver radiator that creaked and groaned, but warmed us famously. With The Birmingham News spread across the table in front of her, she drank her coffee, dipping her Zuieback toast and reading the newspaper, every morning.

She taught herself to read English, but The Birmingham News was not merely a reading primer for Yiayia. She learned from it. She understood the news events of her day. She knew that liberty was a gift worth protecting. So she studied the political climate and the political personalities asking for her vote. She would insist that you MUST vote, that you must know the candidates, that you must cherish the right to free and fair elections.

So Yiayia would dress in her finest clothing, simple but lovely dresses. She would put on her earrings and her brooch, her rings and her watch. Then she would dress me, and off we would go, across the street and down the block to the polling place. We would go together into the booth with the dark brown curtain. She would vote and I would stand in close to her with the view of only that brown curtain and her chunky shoes, heels of course.

Before we exited the booth — every time — she would look down at me and say, “We are Democrats! That’s how we vote, always!” And to this very day, I have followed her voting directive — always. The truth is that her definitive directive about voting had much more to do with the process than the political party she supported. It went deeper than any party loyalty, all the way back to reading The Birmingham News, seeing the beam of the Statue of Liberty, crossing the ominous ocean, remembering how it felt to have to flee from government oppression and grieving the loss of the island of her home.

Today, it’s not so simple for our neighbors who must flee their homes for so many reasons — safety, survival, fear, oppression. Our president says they are not welcome here. Many Americans say they are not welcome here. Just today, The New York Times reported that Mr. Trump’s growing migrant paranoia resulted in the forced resignation of homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who resigned on Sunday. She is part of Trump’s wider “housecleaning” designed to appoint persons who will make sure migrants can not get across our southwestern borders. Only department heads who will enthusiastically implement the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy will keep their jobs. May we never forget the images of thousands of migrant children who were separated from their families.

The president, in a not so presidential tweet, took aim again Sunday night when he tweeted, “Our Country is FULL!” So yes, he says that our neighbors are not welcome here. Yet, millions of us, second generation citizens of the United States of America, will never forget where we came from. We will always remember that our roots spanned the ocean and survived in a new land.

In my friend’s blog last week, I found words that touched me in a profound way and caused me to grieve the land of welcome we once knew. Her words express a startling poignancy. 

“A country that unwelcomes the world,” she writes.

I want to share with you her entire blog post — Jericho Walk — because it is well worth your time to ponder it, but first I emphasize this portion:

Often there is a shofar
to remind us just how deep
are the cracks
in the foundation of a country
that unwelcomes the world . . .

Jericho Walk
by Maren

I return to the Jericho walk,
in Manchester,
having not been well enough
for a couple months,
and it feels like home —
this moving vigil, silent, but with signs
and grateful waving for drivers
who honk their support.

We travel around the large block
of the federal building
where people we love and
some people we have never met
come to discover
if this week they’ll be deported.

We walk around seven times
hoping the walls
will come tumbling down —

around this place
that sends into certain danger
kind, hard-working,
tax paying, family-loving people
who contribute so much
to our community

Often there is a shofar
to remind us just how deep
are the cracks
in the foundation of a country
that unwelcomes the world,

but today there is a flautist
playing “Siyahamba”
over and over again —
walking
in the light of God,

and I think of that less-military
Jericho story —
the one that defines neighbor as

anyone from anywhere
who stops to help vulnerable ones
fallen on the side of the road.

Thank you, Maren. 

Thank you, my dear Yiayia, for teaching me that God grants us the grace gifts of refuge, safe haven and freedom. And no human — not even a big, bad, bully president — can take those gifts from us and from the generations that come after us.

May God make it so. Amen.

 

 

Lenses

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Photo: The Power of Lenses, Wired

All of us see things through a lens. We get our lens from our life, and no one else sees things through that same lens. Just to make it clear: this is not a commentary on current politics and policies. This is simply a hodgepodge of musings that have emerged from what I am seeing through my lens.

Let me start, right off the bat, by pointing to something that doesn’t look so good through my lens, namely the unconscionable practice of separating children from their parents in the name of enhanced border security. We railed at that policy — for a while. But with the passing of time, our advocacy for these separated families has waned. These days, it is even hard to find a current news report that updates the status of the separated children.

I did find a report that quotes administration officials in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services saying that the number of beds available for migrant children increased from 6,500 last fall to 16,000 today (CNBC; 19 Dec 2018). Apparently, the crisis we have all but forgotten is still real.

Dr. Jack Shonkoff, who heads Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, has called our current immigration policy “a moral disaster.” Dr. Shonkoff provided this emphatic rebuke:

There has to be some way to communicate, in unequivocal terms, that we are inflicting punishments on innocent children that will have lifelong consequences. No matter how a person feels about immigration policy, very few people hate children — and yet we are passively allowing bad things to happen to them.

According to The New York Times, population levels at federal shelters for migrant children have quietly shot up more than fivefold since last summer, reaching a total of 12,800 as of September 2018. There were 2,400 such children in custody in May.

Are we choosing to ignore the huge increases of children in custody that have placed the federal shelter system near capacity? Are we listening to the the employees who work in the migrant shelter network telling us that the bottleneck is straining both the children and the system that cares for them? Do we care that the administration announced that it will triple the size of a temporary “tent city” in Tornillo, Tex., to house up to 3,800 children?

Reports are that immigrant advocates and members of Congress reacted to this status report with distress. As well they should! 

Leader or citizen — each of us should react to this report with great distress! My lens sees that with our current immigration practices, we are participating in a sin against humanity by placing children and teens at great risk of long-term trauma and irreparable harm.

With that realization, I find myself in a place that is antithetical to the teachings of Jesus. My silence, passivity and failure to act is complicity. Have I signed enough petitions, made enough phone calls and written enough emails? There is no right answer to that question. 

I heard a discussion this morning on National Public Radio that revealed a troubling trend. The information shared is that not as many males are crossing the border into the U.S. right now. Instead, record numbers of women and children fleeing domestic violence and violence in general are coming to seek asylum, protection from horrific circumstances and safe shelter.  

For example, Guatemala has one of the most prevalent rates of violence against women in the world. Instances of gender violence in Guatemala include domestic violence, sexual violence, human trafficking, incest, and femicide (the deliberate killing of women).

Unfortunately, this problem is not unique to Guatemala. The neighboring countries of El Salvador and Honduras, for example, also face epidemic levels of femicide as well as impunity for the perpetrators. (https://www.amnestyusa.org/why-does-guatemala-have-one-of-the-highest-rates-of-femicide-in-the-world/)

For many years, I have been a vocal advocate for women and child victims of violence. For at least fifteen years, that advocacy was my life’s work. I am angered by the abuse of women and children. But today, in our current circumstance, my advocacy feels like a tempest in a teacup. While my heart may be overflowing with anger, my acts of protest against our nation’s immigration policy are relatively insignificant.

Advocacy always begins with understanding? We understand that immigration and border security is one thing; illegal immigration is another. But the desperate need for asylum is on a significantly higher level in the quest for human rights and protection from oppression!

And so this presents a dilemma for any follower of Christ living in a relatively uncaring world. How does the Gospel motivate us? How do we follow Christ into the situations that are causing women and children such harm? How do we act in ways that offer asylum for those in the midst of violence? Wouldn’t God desire safe shelter for persons in danger? What can we do to effect real, in-the-moment, significant change? Knowing that many people look at the state of immigration and security through “America first” lenses, what lens am I using to look at this abysmal situation?

Lenses are important. They guide our thoughts and actions. They develop our sense of right and wrong, good and evil. As I contemplate lenses, I am reminded of Victor Hugo’s description of the very kind Bishop Myriel, the Bishop of Digne, in Les Misérables: 

He had a strange, idiosyncratic way of looking at things.
I suspect he got it from the Gospel.

I could only hope that a description of my idiosyncratic ways would point to the Gospel. In the meantime, I intend to challenge myself to find ways to be a change agent for the way our nation is dealing with asylum seekers — women and children — who take the dangerous risk of crossing our borders to what they desperately hope is a place of safety and refuge.

May it be said of America that her doors were forever wide open to receive persons in need of refuge.

God would will such a compassionate, caring welcome.

Jesus would have embodied that kind of compassion, a compassion that rescues, shelters and protects. As followers of Jesus, should we not live out his example?

 

Moving Towards the Sunrise: An Essay on Immigration

F6C9AEAC-5F90-4F42-B0D9-FF50DDA7D60F.jpegI could decide to stand on this side wondering what life might hold on the other side. I can see the brilliant sunrise, perhaps a symbol for a bright new life for my children. I can see the tiny lights of dwellings or businesses. I’m not sure what they are but perhaps each tiny light is a warm welcome, a place of refuge, a safe haven.

I hold on tightly to the hands of my children, and now I look back and remember the violence, the fear, the drugs, the hopelessness for the future of my children. I consider going back, barricading my family in our tiny hovel and hoping for the best. It’s the life we know. It’s what we’re used to. But do I want my children to grow us “used to” violence and crime? Do I want then to be used to fear and hopelessness?

I decide to take a chance toward the sunrise and the tiny lights that will surely open their doors to a mother and her children. The land of the sunrise is called “the land of the free.” The land of the sunrise offers the wonderful promise of welcome . . .

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free . . . 

Give these, the homeless tempest tossed to me. 

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Yes, I resolve. We will go forward. Yes!

I make, in this very moment, the most significant and life-altering decision of our lives. I choose  hope! We will go!

With great fear in the depths of my spirit, I move us toward the sunrise. I hold tightly to my children and begin the hope-filled crossing. Holding them all close on a grueling hike, I can see that we have almost made it to the other side.

Now we are actually standing in the light of the sunrise. We have crossed. Those who are to welcome us are approaching. Finally, I have made the journey to new hope for my beautiful children. Thanks be to God for safe passage! 

The welcoming people come near. But they are loud, boisterous, frightening. I never expected this. Oh my God, they have ripped my children from me. The youngest is crying, pleading for me, struggling to get away. The others are screaming “no” as they try in vain to work themselves loose from the powerful arms of those who restrain them. But the grip on them is too strong. I cry out and plead that they will not harm my children. I fall into the dirt, sobbing as they take my children away. 

Dear God, what have I done?

May God have mercy on us all.