My Dad was an immigrant, but getting to America was a lot easier for him that it was for most of the people whose stories are told here. He was English, so he had no language barrier—if anything, his accent opened doors in America. He came here as a young man in the 1960s on a work visa for an engineering job in Rockford, Illinois, and when that ended, resetting his visa was as simple as driving across the border to Canada, a part of the British Commonwealth, before eventually moving to New York City, where he lived the rest of his life. When his green card arrived in the mail, he later reflected, “I hardly realized that it was a piece of gold.”
Over time, he deeply embraced being American—and even more so, a New Yorker. “Manhattan,” was his reply whenever someone heard his London accent and inquired where he was from.
He didn’t pull up the ladder behind him. Over the course of several years, starting when I was about nine years old, he served as sponsor for three Southeast Asian families--a family of four from Cambodia, then another slightly larger one, then a family of nine from Laos. Each time they arrived, he'd put them up in his one-bedroom railroad apartment in Chelsea, Manhattan, and go off to find a couch to sleep on until he could set them up with jobs and find them permanent living quarters.
It was a confusing time for me—my parents were divorced and these large families wiped out my visit nights with my Dad. I’d still see him on our usual days, but we spent the time in cheerful but painfully slow sign language conversations with his sponsored family or, in my case, seeking common ground in mostly silent play with the children, who were younger than I was and knew nothing about the proper roles of my Star Wars action figures. And of course, my bed was taken, so I had to go back to my Mom’s apartment at night. My memories from the time are the slightly muddled ones of a pre-teen, but here’s what I remember most clearly:
I have never met harder working people. All of them went on to be wildly successful. One of my father's favorite stories was how one of them—Ron was the American name he adopted—pointed to a Cadillac in the street during his first week in America and indicated that he’d buy one within a year. He ended up buying a Mercedes instead. “The mistake I made,” my Dad used to muse, “was to set them up with jobs as dishwashers or manual laborers. I should have just invested in them.” The last time I heard about Ron, he owned a house in Elmhurst, Queens, multiple grocery stores, and a fleet of delivery vans. My Dad saw this as absolute proof of the American dream.
The first set of pictures here are of the refugees he sponsored from Laos and Cambodia, as well as a picture, later on, of a refugee from El Salvador, who my Dad introduced to Ron and his wife (who by then were settled, successful and, my Dad would say, “More American than I am.”)
Over the years, my Dad’s simple act of sponsorship opened up my young world.
Once, my Dad hurried back to his apartment with me after hearing that one of the men hadn’t shown up at work at a nearby Chinese restaurant. When we got there, the man indicated that he was dizzy and his head hurt, then lifted up his shirt. My Dad and I both recoiled--his torso was covered with large, red purple circles. My Dad immediately sent me to back to my mother’s building and rushed the man to the emergency room, where he was diagnosed with malaria. Later, when another refugee exhibited the same circles, my Dad took him straight to the emergency room and confidently informed the nurse that the man had malaria. In fact, he didn’t have malaria at all—and my Dad and I learned that the circles were caused not by what ailed them, but by their efforts to cure it: fire cupping.
That culture exchange went two ways. One of the refugees had been a butcher by trade and he could make no sense of my Dad’s Mappin & Webb faux bone-handle knives. That’s understandable. Standard tableware for middle-class English families—the set was originally my English grandmother’s—the knives are made of Sheffield steel, but have no edge or point. Fully rounded at the top, they’re not cutting instruments. They’re really just tools for spreading marmalade--or room temperature butter. I was there the day the former butcher proudly revealed that he had found a whetstone among my Dad’s tools and sharpened every knife in the set to a razor sharp edge. His face fell when he detected the flash of quickly concealed horror on my Dad’s face. My Dad struggled to set him at ease, but I’m sure the idea of having a whole set of knives that couldn’t cut anything was as puzzling to him as fire cupping was to us.
Later, we would travel out to Queens to the apartments my Dad had found for them—huge 3-bedroom apartments large enough for all of them, but completely bare of furniture—and they would cook for hours. Then we would spread a bedsheet on the floor and lay out an enormous meal, filled with amazing food I had never tried before, including sticky rice, which seemed then, and still does, like magic. When I overconfidently tried to show off by eating a whole pepper, they taught me, amid much good natured laughter, to dab salt on my tongue to take away the burning.
The second picture I’ve included here is of a gold heart, but the important part of the picture is the tiny sapphire in the middle. The first time I saw it, it was lying loose in a tiny folded piece of Cambodian newspaper in the palm of one of the refugees my Dad sponsored. I was 10 or 11 years old at the time and the man, whose name I forget, couldn't speak English, so the story I know about this sapphire is one pantomimed to a child.
But it impressed me deeply and I remember it as clearly as if he had spoken it aloud: He had fled for his life. This sapphire, along with a couple of others, were his portable wealth. He swam a river (pantomimed) to escape soldiers with machine guns (pantomimed). How he was reunited with his family and arrived in America, I will never know. But there, thousands of miles later, crowded safely into my Dad's apartment in New York City with his family, he gave the sapphire to my Dad. His life no longer depended on it as a bribe if stopped or captured.
It was now just a thank-you, from one immigrant to another.