In 1910 my great-grandmother, Gelsamine Ferrigno, arrived at Ellis Island — a teen bride with her husband and two children desperate to make a better life. The story that has been passed down, confirmed by relatives both here and in Italy, is that the family decided that Gelsamine and Albert were the most likely to succeed so they pooled their resources, put them on a boat to America, said their goodbyes and told them to get work, make money, and send it back to their needy family in Solerno, Italy.
I often think about the elements of what I know of my story: immigrants from Italy, teenagers bearing a family burden, pressure to learn language and culture, permanent goodbyes to everything they ever knew, loneliness, fear.
There are two main reasons I often reminisce on this story in my family history. First, I am eagerly working to support reform to our immigration laws for the immigrants of today.
Our immigration laws are broken and are in dire need of some attention. Families are being separated, a permanent underclass is being kept in the shadows, and our country continues to thrive on the adage “we want your work, we just don’t want you.” It is not just. It is not biblical, and there is no reason for politicians to willfully put politics before the needs of vulnerable people in our communities.
My family is no different than any other non-Native American family in the country today. We were all immigrants at some point.
All of our families came to this country desperate with hopes, dreams, needs, and aspirations to succeed; countless people put immense amounts of hard work and sacrifice to establish themselves, people like my great-grandmother.
To say that I am grateful seems trite when I see first-hand how vulnerable immigrants in my community are and how they sacrifice for the benefit of their children and extended families. I am inspired and challenged to live my life in such a way that I too would leave a legacy of commitment and sacrifice for generations behind me.
The second reason I think often of my family story is that when my now 18-year-old daughter was 15, she began to eagerly put a plan into place to go on foreign exchange her junior year of high school. While I was supportive, the closer it came to saying goodbye the more I thought I was not going to be able to breathe. I was hit with waves of grief that she was going to leave and not return for a year, that she knew no one on the other end, that she might not have a wireless router or be able to email or Facebook message.
To add to the grief, family and friends would ask me questions like, “how can you let her go?” and “isn’t this dangerous?” Needless to say, these were not helpful for a grieving mother, nor were they questions that had any original thought. They did however promote thoughts in me that are not common in this age of helicopter parenting.
I began to think not only of my great-grandmother who came to the United States but of my great-great-grandmother who had to say goodbye to her daughter. I thought of women like her who put their daughters and grandchildren on boats to cross oceans, on covered wagons to head out west, never to see them again. Yet through my one-year sacrifice, incomparable to theirs, enabled my heart to not only identify with their pain, but embrace their amazing courage to let their children go and forge a future.
When we think of the women who have done great things and made great sacrifices, we often think of the ones who were doing the direct work. But when my daughter left, I had the unique opportunity to experience a small level of the pain and courage like the women before me — and the women who today watch their children go to foreign lands.
Maybe there was no choice whether to go. But still there was a choice to allow life to move forward, to get up each morning and breathe in and out, to allow life and faith to heal the hurts from the pain of the sacrifice, and to pray and believe that the One who holds the breath of those we love would carry them safely to a place of hope and a future.
When they said goodbye, my great-great-grandmother did not know that her daughter would go on to endure 18 pregnancies and give birth to 10 children, but she did know that they would no longer live life alongside each other, sharing their joys and sorrows together.
Thank you Gelsamine for your incredible courage, for generations have benefitted from your sacrifice and hard work in coming to the United States. And thank you also to your mother for saying goodbye and making an impossible choice for the overall welfare of our family’s future. You both are my inspiration.
And, it is in that spirit of inspiration that we the leaders of today must both follow the shining examples of our past and presently lead our communities so that opportunities for redemption, hope, and a future are available to all.
Michelle Warren is the Advocacy and Policy Engagement Coordinator for the Christian Community Development Association in Chicago, IL. Michelle is a strong advocate for the poor, vulnerable and marginalized in society and has been working in Christian community development for 21 years utilizing her skills as an educator, non-profit manager and community mobilizer. Michelle is married to David Warren; they live in Denver with their three children, 18, 16 and 12.
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